Exploring Yale’s role in the time-bending nature of modern

Throughout much of the 20th century, a unique interdisciplinary conversation unfolded at Yale concerning the role of time and history in modern art and architecture.

It was an ongoing discussion among artistic and intellectual heavyweights. Key participants included architects Louis Kahn, Everett Victor Meeks, James Gamble Rogers, Paul Rudolph, and Eero Saarinen; artists Anni and Josef Albers; philosopher Paul Weiss; and art historians Henri Focillon, George Kubler, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, and Vincent Scully. All resisted the notion that modern art and architecture must be of its time and forward looking.

Untimely Moderns: How 20th Century Architecture Reimagined the Past” (Yale University Press), the latest book by Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, professor and assistant dean at Yale School of Architecture, explores this wide-ranging conversation, examining the figures involved and their roles in shaping modern art and architecture.

Pelkonen recently spoke to Yale News about the book and the “time-bending” quality of the architecture that makes the university’s campus unique. The interview has been edited and condensed.

What is the meaning of “untimely” in the book’s title?

Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen: The book’s key point, as the title suggests, concerns modern architecture’s unsettled and at times tortuous relationship to time and history. There is an idea that being modern in art and architecture requires living in the present and looking towards the future, but I discovered through my research that many of the modern architects of the 20th century were quite preoccupied with the past, to the point that their inquiries challenged the linear view of historical time.

My argument rests on this notion of temporal disorientation, which involves the somewhat paradoxical idea that imagining the future requires reimagining the past. The individuals at the center of the story all shared a penchant for conflating the past, present, and future in their work.

What makes Yale an apt setting for this inquiry?

Pelkonen: The setting is somewhat autobiographical. I came to Yale 30 years ago and was flabbergasted by the Gothic architecture of the residential colleges and the library designed by James Gamble Rogers. And after seeing the date on the Sterling Law Building, I was completely taken aback that these buildings were built in the 1920s and early 1930s.

I came to Yale from my native Finland via Austria, and in both of those countries 20th-century architecture was marked by looking forward, almost to the point where the past was never discussed. So I was surprised to find out that some 20th-century Americans were so transfixed by tradition. If you look at even buildings that were built in the mid-century, like Louis Kahn’s addition to the Yale University Art Gallery and Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building, now Rudolph Hall, they have a time-bending quality that makes them difficult to date. For example, the fortress-like concrete exterior of Rudolph Hall hides a polychromatic interior filled with plaster cast copies of ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, and Greek artworks.

It has taken me a long time to accept that architecture can bend time and act as a temporal medium in a way that makes us think about time and history in a different way. In a way, when you walk the Yale campus, you’re exposed to architecture’s time-bending power; one that allows one to remove oneself from current historical time and inhabit a kind of Ersatz-reality with alternate temporal coordinates. Entering the Sterling Memorial Library still feels like traveling to the past. But then, some buildings work the other way, too, as they allow us to imagine new realities, even new futures. Imagine how it must have felt to enter the phantasmagoric curvy interior of the Ingalls Rink upon its completion in 1958! Architecture’s time-bending power is quite magical.

Ingalls Rink at night
Ingalls Rink, designed by Eero Saarinen. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

How did Louis Kahn bend time with his architecture?

Pelkonen: After he began teaching at Yale in 1947, Kahn rejected the modernist dogma that architectural spaces should be created with specific functions in mind, which was a way to anchor architecture in contemporaneous notions of use. He believed that architectural space should transcend time and enable future uses. Similarly, he celebrated how platonic forms — triangles, circles, and cubes — embody a sense of eternal time. In his mind people come and go, functions change, but the architectural spaces and forms remain.

Kahn and many of his contemporaries started thinking about architecture this way after visiting Rome and seeing buildings like the Pantheon that have been used through millennia for different purposes. Thinking through the long duration of architecture was very important to him. He was also greatly influenced by the philosopher Paul Weiss’s teachings about the experience of time and adopted the idea about the presence of the past from his writings.

Inside the Yale Center for British Art
Inside the Yale Center for British Art, designed by Louis Kahn. (Photo by Robert DeSanto)

The book features Kahn and other renowned architects, such as Eero Saarinen, but also artists, art historians, and philosophers. How did figures like Anni and Josef Albers contribute to the conversation?

Pelkonen: I start the story in the early 1920s when Everett Victor Meeks — who was the dean of the School of Art at the time — made art and architecture part of a humanities-based liberal arts education. In doing so, he showed that the arts concern larger questions that implicate the humanities and made the study of architectural history mandatory for architecture students. He also built the framework that combined art and architecture into an interdisciplinary conversation. That was very important because it allowed artists, architects, writers, and historians to have conversations about big questions, such as architecture’s relationship to time and history.

During his tenure Yale expanded its art gallery, which became a lively center for the debate surrounding modern art and architecture in the 1930s and 40s. Subsequently, starting in the late 1940s, Yale began hiring modernists like Kahn and Josef Albers, who is another crucial character in this story, along with his wife, Anni.

The Albers had met at the Bauhaus, which was interesting in how it combined crafts with the fine arts. We think of the Bauhaus as this trailblazing avant-garde institution – modern and forward looking — but Josef and Anni were not interested in newness at all! On the contrary, they were very interested in establishing transhistorical and universally valid foundations for art. Joseph Albers, of course, famously taught the foundations course at the Yale School of Art. The idea of “foundations” was significant in that it assumed that art and architecture are based on time-tested, medium specific principles. Also, their work and words came to have a profound impact on Kahn.

And what role did art historians play in developing these discussions of the temporal in modern art and architecture?

Pelkonen: Henri Focillon, a prominent French scholar of medieval art, came to Yale from the Sorbonne in 1933 to teach a two-year course at the School of Fine Arts [which over the next few decades morphed into independent schools of art, architecture, and drama] on “the history and criticism of art.” He remained on the faculty until his death in 1943 and was instrumental in founding the Department of the History of Art [which is now part of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences]. Focillon helped establish art historical formalism — the idea that art be unmoored from historical time, that there’s something eternal and timeless at its center, and that form transcends time and has its own temporal framework — as a tenet of the teaching of art history at Yale.

Two of his disciples, George Kubler and Vincent Scully, would have long and celebrated scholarly careers at Yale. These three figures — Focillon, Kubler, and Scully — form the intellectual backbone of my book’s story through their advocacy of art historical formalism.

Vincent Scully was an important figure on campus for many decades, cherished for his captivating lectures. What did he contribute to art historical formalism?

Pelkonen: In my mind, Scully’s contribution was to infuse art historical formalism with psychoanalytic theory. He believed that all great architecture was a symbolic act, that is a product of an eternal existential strife. The architects he loved, like Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright, grappled with big themes of human existence, like the eternal quest for shelter, through the archetypal forms they created.

Scully radically unmoored architecture from its historical context and never cited dates in his lectures or books. This allowed him to reach the conclusion that the people who built the Mayan temples and the 20th-century architect Robert Venturi grappled with the same existential questions because they both used the geometric form of the triangle in their work. Scully believed that deciphering architecture in this manner could provide cure for the ills that humanity was facing. His references to caves, for example, were indicative of the existential threat that plagued the post-atomic era.

All in all, Scully believed that we should study the past for the same reason that psychoanalysts mine people’s pasts: it’s where the causes and cures of our troubles lie. We should want to revisit the past so that we can cure our current condition. He saw himself as a historian, who like a psychoanalyst, helps architects to decipher their own work. He also saw that architects who were unable to come to terms with the past were experiencing some sort of repression that they could overcome through the insights of a historian. Subsequently, he helped two generations of architects and architecture students reimagine the past through his half-a-century-long teaching career.

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