Yale Center for British Art, exterior view, photograph by Richard Caspole

The Louis I. Kahn Building

The Yale Center for British Art was designed by the internationally acclaimed American architect Louis I. Kahn (1901–1974) to house Paul Mellon’s (Yale College, Class of 1929; 1907–1999) extraordinary gift to Yale University. Located across the street from his first major commission, the Yale University Art Gallery (opened in 1953), the Center was Kahn’s final building and was completed after his death, opening to the public on April 15, 1977. It was the first museum in the United States to incorporate retail shops in its design.

The Center’s exterior of matte steel and reflective glass confers a monumental presence in downtown New Haven. The geometrical four-floor interior is designed around two interior courtyards and is comprised of a restrained palette of natural materials including travertine marble, white oak, concrete, and Belgian linen. Kahn succeeded in creating intimate galleries where one can view objects in diffused natural light. He wanted to allow in as much daylight as possible, with artificial illumination used only on dark days or in the evening. The building’s design, materials, and skylit rooms combine to provide an environment for the works of art that is simple and dignified.

AIA Twenty-Five Year Award

In 2005, the Yale Center for British Art was awarded the Twenty-Five Year Award by the American Institute of Architects. This prestigious honor recognizes architectural landmarks of enduring significance completed within the previous twenty-five to thirty-five years that have withstood the test of time. Only one such award is given each year. The Center was the fifth building by Kahn to receive AIA’s Twenty-Five Year Award, joining the Yale University Art Gallery (1979; built 1951), the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (1992; built 1959), Phillips Exeter Academy Library (1997; built 1965), and the Kimbell Art Museum (1998; built 1966).

Building Conservation Project

After more than a decade of research on the history of the design and construction of Kahn’s final building, the Center completed a three-phase conservation plan in 2016. The first phase of work included the rehabilitation of the Center’s exterior Lower Court (2008–11) and extensive repairs to the adjacent Lecture Hall lobby (2011–13). This was followed by two additional phases addressing the building’s interior spaces: the second phase focused on refurbishing the areas used by the departments of Prints & Drawings and Rare Books & Manuscripts (2013); the third phase included enhancing the Center’s public spaces (namely the galleries and Lecture Hall), extensive building-wide mechanical and electrical upgrades, and improvements to fire protection, security systems, and accessibility (2015–16).

Visit building conservation project to learn more.