Structure versus Interior Design

Kahn-yalecenter very lg

Can the coordination of architecture and design enhance a building's quality? I'm not sure many of us stop to think about the aesthetic relationship between structure and interior design. So long as a building is attractive throughout, this minute interplay is typically ignored by onlookers. Today, we see a lot of design that juxtaposes an old vs. new interplay: modern decorations and furniture outfit old-fashioned buildings, while trendy architecture sometimes houses antique furniture pieces. Is there any value in actually matching the time period of a building's interior decor and its date of construction?

Last night, I attended a press event for the Yale Center for British Art, where this issue came to my attention. The Center hosts the world's largest collection of British artwork outside of the United Kingdom, housing nearly 2,000 pieces of British paintings and sculpture in an iconic building, designed by Louis I. Kahn and completed in 1974.

Kahn’s design features a very contemporary exterior—a simple geometrical shape made of matte steel and reflective glass. The design as a whole uses a neutral palette, and the glass walls allow natural daylight to illumine the exhibits. Unadorned and even stark, it is a testimony to its time and particularly to the modernist sensibilities of the architect.

But most of the art displayed in the Yale Center has no relation to the 1970s-era building design. Works range from the 1400s to today, and older works in particular contrast sharply with their architectural frame. For instance, the center plans to host an exhibit from February 24 to June 5, 2011, on the great Regency artwork of Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). While famous and beautiful, Lawrence's artwork seems to belong in an old-fashioned mansion or genteel estate rather than a modern glass prism.

The Yale Center addresses this with its upcoming show, “The Independent Eye: Contemporary British Art from the Collection of Samuel and Gabrielle Lurie.” The exhibit will feature the post-war work of British artists from the 1960s and 1970s: John Hoyland (Britain's greatest living abstract painter), Patrick Caulfield, John Walker, Howard Hodgkin, and Ian Stephenson. These artists created the displayed pieces in the same time period as the Kahn building construction. "It's great at any time, but the building shines and sings when the art in it matches its time period," says Angus Trumble, senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center.

Does interior aesthetic really enhance the experience of external architecture, and vice versa? What do you think of the relationship between internal and outside design?

–Lillian Civantos

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