INSPIRATION: Louis Kahn’s Tetrahedral Ceiling and the Stunning Art and Architecture at Yale University


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Somewhere around the beginning of design school, I learned that one sort of architecture that I had always thought of as bleak and non-descript had a name: Brutalism.  I found it such an apt moniker for the rough, boxy, colorless (and in my estimation, joyless) design I associated with housing projects and ugly office towers.   I looked upon those buildings, with their unadorned masses of concrete and steel and glass, as utilitarian at best. Well, what did I know?   I delved deeper, and learned about one of my favorite ever works of architecture, the main building of Yale University’s Art Gallery by architect Louis Khan.  Clearly, brutal can be beautiful!

Brutalism gained considerable momentum in the United Kingdom during the mid twentieth century, as economically depressed (and World War II-ravaged) communities sought inexpensive construction and design methods for low-cost housing, shopping centres, and government buildings. Nonetheless, many architects chose the Brutalist style even when they had large budgets, as they appreciated the ‘honesty’, the sculptural qualities, and perhaps, the uncompromising, anti-bourgeois, nature of the style. (Wikipedia)


Main Entrance Façade (photo source) – This has been described as Khan’s Brutalist gesture – a fairly plain concrete block wall.  What sets it apart from the look of a prison to me is the simple ornamentation of those horizontal bands of brick (which denote the positioning of the building’s five floors), and the quiet visual rhythm of the windows above the entrance.  It may appear mundane in the context of buildings we see everywhere today, but imagine how radical and edgy this looked in 1953, surrounded by so much of Yale’s Gothic Revival and Neo-classical architecture.

North & West Façades (photo source) – Cue the celestial music!  These curtain walls make for the perfect art gallery, in my opinion.  They bring plenty of natural light to the space, and the visual lightness of glass and aluminum* balances out all the heavy concrete.

(*The original structure was steel, rather than aluminum.  In a 2006 renovation by Polshek Partnership Architects, some unfortunate modifications to Khan’s 1953 design were eliminated at the same time as the whole gallery was brought up to optimum modern building standards – hence aluminum instead of steel.)

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Here we have this building’s show-stopper.  These webs of hollow concrete tetrahedrons floating above the lobby and galleries bring pattern and a play of shadow and light to the spaces.  At the same time, the large scale and abundance of light on each floor allows the eye to rest on the artworks.  It’s a beautiful balance.

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Oak floors are a departure from the Brutalist aesthetic.  They bring more warmth –and more pleasing acoustics –to the space than a concrete floor.


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I made a trip to Yale a few years ago to visit a friend, and Khan’s tetrahedron ceiling didn’t disappoint in person.  The real surprise was the collection at the Yale Gallery.  Seriously, if you’re into art, you have to take a little trip to New Haven sometime.  The collection at this gallery is world-class, and covers you lovers of everything from Modern to African to Asian art.  I was so consumed by the display in the Contemporary wing that I only got to glide through some of the rest of the museum on my way out. But what I saw was varied and very impressive.

Additionally, Yale has another entire gallery dedicated to British art (the largest anywhere outside of the U.K), a natural history museum, and a renowned collection of musical instruments.  AND IT’S ALL FREE!!

As if I hadn’t had enough beauty and inspiration for one weekend, on my wander around the Yale campus, I kept running into more.  There is an array of  installations by some big names in modern art scattered around the place.  Here are a few of my favorites, and a link to a site about all the public art at Yale.

  1. Alexander Calder’s  Gallows and Lollipops, 1960
  2. Roy Lichtenstein’s  Modern Head, 1974/1989
  3. Louis Comfort Tiffany’s  Education (Chittenden Memorial Window), 1889-90
  4. Claes Oldenburg’s Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks, 1969-74  (great story behind this one, see the site)

I also have to mention the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (George Bunshaft, Architect, 1963), memorable for its incredible marble “windows”, and the way it stands out in a quadrangle of neo-Classic and neo- Gothic buildings.


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AS A DESIGNER OF INTERIORS, building such as Kahn’s Art Gallery and the Beinecke Library at Yale remind me of


-          my affinity for geometry in design, especially the multi-dimensional treatment of it seen in Kahn’s ceiling and the Beinecke’s marble and granite wall of “windows”


-          my appreciation of a mix of design styles and how refreshing it can be to make it all work together, in a room as much as on a whole college campus








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