‘I sense light as the giver of all
presences, and material as spent light.
What is made by light casts a shadow,
and the shadow belongs to light’
pencil and watercolours. Armed with pastels this
time, he travelled to Italy, Greece and Egypt, where
he sketched the ‘swollen columns of Karnak, which
became for Kahn vessels of light,’ according to Scully.
While he was at Giza he learnt that he had secured
his first major commission, an extension to Yale Art
Gallery, which marked his first collaboration with
Richard Kelly (Lighting Vol 48, Issue 1).
A ‘well-mannered’ adjunct to two neo-Gothic
structures, Yale’s first modernist building was
constructed of masonry, reinforced concrete, glass and
steel. The interior is open-plan with movable partitions
and a concrete wall, left unfinished, on which artworks
are hung. The gallery’s plan is rigorously proportioned.
The double-square main body of the building is
separated from the single square behind a court,
which connects it to the 1928 Old Yale Art Gallery by
Egerton Swartwout. These are served by a rectangular
core of washrooms, elevators and a distinctive circular
stairway with triangular landings.
Among the structural and engineering innovations
were the construction’s floor frames and ceilings
described by Scully as a ‘great ceiling slab of braced
beams, creating a kind of crystalline order in the
tetrahedrons that carry the lighting system.’ The cast
concrete waffle was designed to help create flexible
spaces free from strict wall definition as the building
had to house architectural studios as well as part of the
university’s art collection. But its interstitial spaces also
contained exposed mechanical and electrical systems
including air-conditioning and the first lighting track
system in a gallery, which was designed by Edison Price
(Lighting Vol 47 Issue 1) and put in place before the
concrete was poured above it.
Scully posited that the ceiling’s design was inspired by
Kahn’s own depiction of light on the Pyramids at Giza
but in an essay for the Estonian architectural theory
publication Ehituskunst, Tyng revealed that she had
independently designed the structure for a school in
1949/50. ‘In fact, Kahn used the model I built to try
threading the Yale Art Gallery ductwork through the
space frame,’ she wrote.
Tyng’s influence is also evident on Kahn’s 1954 Trenton
Bath House, a seminal work that crystallised Kahn’s
use of platonic forms, servant spaces and light. It
Opposite: Kahn looks up at the waffle slab ceiling of the Yale Art
Gallery, his first collaboration with Richard Kelly. The New York Times
wrote: ‘the first of his great masterpieces, the building foreshadows
the atavistic landmarks of his late career’