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Phillip Exeter library in New Hampshire, USA, by Louis Kahn

Phillip exeter library 3

Built with ‘the invitation of books’, Louis Kahn’s brick masterpiece is an essay in ‘authentic monumentality’

Originally published in AR June 1974

A museum? A school library? To Louis Kahn our institutions were ‘on trial. When we think of the simple beginnings which inspired our present institutions, it is evident that some drastic changes must be made which will inspire the re-creation of (their) meaning …’. What distinguishes this statement from similar assertions that any architect might make is Kahn’s emphasis on the need to search out the ’simple beginnings’ of institutions, and the ‘re-creation of meaning’ with reference to these beginnings. Hence for him the essen­tial programme was not centred, at any rate initially, in meeting the functional needs of particular circumstances. It required instead the reconstitution of the pro­gramme in the light of what the institution primarily is with respect to the cumulative human experience of using it. With this archetypal Form in mind (to use Kahn’s enigmatic terminology for what inherently prefigures and informs that which most architects would in fact call ‘form’), then Design of particulars (Kahn again) is legitimately possible.

Phillip exeter library 1

Phillip exeter library 1

Yet if few deny Kahn’s eminence as a designer, the profundity of his architec­tural philosophy, or his immense influence in both respects, there is scepticism about the retrospective ring of Kahn’s state­ments and what is regarded as the ten­dency toward an archaic monumentality that his point of view encouraged. This has been a reservation about Kahn’s work ever since Reyner Banham pointed to the over-emphasis of the utility towers in the Richards Medical Research Building (AR March 1962). Some forcing of monumental effect is also a valid criticism – the most valid criticism – of his Salk Center, al­though made reluctantly of a work so resonantly and movingly ‘architectural’ and ‘monumental’ in the sense in which great building has possessed these qualities in the past. But is the sun-filled glare of the empty expanse of the stone court between the ranges of laboratories with its symbolic ribbon of water down the centre the ideal solution as an outdoor plaza for informal meetings in this semi-tropical environment? Is the weightiness of the particularly beautiful concrete surfaces overdone? If the choice of the idyllic spot for medical research remote from diseased society was not of Kahn’s making, could he nevertheless have mitigated instead of enhancing, the Puvis de Chavannes arcad­ianism that insulates this scientific aristocracy from its patients?

‘This is the place of the books. So you feel the building has the invitation of books’

Especially now that ‘monumentality’, a favourite theme of the later ’50s and early ’60s, has come in for its share of knocks. Kahn’s work gained international atten­tion at a time when the rugged gravity of Le Corbusier’s later sculptural architecture was all but unchallenged as the pinnacle of modem achievement, and when Brutalist gestures (much deplored by Kahn) were the mode of the moment not only in Britain but around the world. In his own case, whatever the catalytic impetus of Le Corbusier’s example, Kahn came to his monumental aspirations from the depths of his training in Beaux-Arts academic design at the University of Pennsylvania under Paul Cret, a brilliant designer and teacher. No architect, in fact, did more than Kahn to resurrect the best of Beaux-Arts training and make it relevant to the present architectural eituation. So the central issue now, in any serious critique of his buildings, centres in con­flicting but interrelated questions. On the positive side, in what way and to what degree did Kahn re-create the primal institutional meaning he sought in his buildings? Negatively, to what extent (if at all) did the quest for primal meaning founder in somewhat contrived archaism and inflated monumentality?

It must be admitted at the outset that neither the Kimbell Museum nor the Exeter library is in any sense ‘monu­mental’ in the grand manner of the elaborate layouts of the Salk Center, the Capitol at Dacca and the Institute of Management at Ahmedabad (at least as these are projected). Nor do they boast the complex skylines of the Richards building and the vivid imagery of clus­tered towers that followed in its wake.

Phillip exeter library 6

Phillip exeter library 6

In the same sloping park site which contains the Kimbell Museum, Philip Johnson’s Amon Carter Museum com­mands the top, expansively opened by means of portico and plate glass, whereas Kahn’s building exists at the bottom, low and closed, quietly impressive but in no sense providing the quick glance with a spectacular image. The library presents an even more diffident exterior. It appears as a brick box among other brick boxes, centrally located on its campus but without conspicuous axis, and without even conspicuous entrance. In both in­stances Kahn deliberately played down external impact. At Fort Worth, Richard Brown, director of the museum, sought a house-like feeling for Kimbell similar to that of the Frick Museum where he had begun his museum career: dignity without intimidation. At Exeter, the programme called for a brick building to conform with the brick ‘Colonial’ ambience of the campus, and Kahn was happy to comply. ‘Brick was the most friendly material in this environment. I didn’t want the library to be shockingly different in any way. I never lost my love of the old build­ings. I thought that it must be a big building; but that it could not be alto­gether big.’ Hence neither building arrests attention on the exterior in the sense of those compellingly sculptural clusters of building units generally associated with Kahn’s work.

Perhaps, too, neither building arrests attention on first encounter because both seem familiar as general images. In this respect, it is especially pertinent to recall the milieu in which Kahn attained his initial success because both may, at first sight, invoke architectural images then in vogue. Thus the Kimbell Museum seems to look to the low vaults of the influential Jaoul and Sarabhai houses, while the Exeter library recalls the kind of rough brick building laced with a giant structure in exposed reinforced concrete that was equally a ’60s trademark. If such com­parisons come so readily to mind, was Kahn therefore guilty of having appropriated given images to force the monumentality of his buildings a bit by fitting them to familiar motifs associated with recent attempts to achieve this end? In this instance, first impressions are deceptive. There is nothing meretricious in Kahn’s choice of forms for his buildings. They look as they do for specific reasons inherent to these particular designs.

‘I asked the brick what it liked. It said I like an arch’

On first impression, too, these buildings appear as formal opposites. The museum is a series of modular units ranged side by side, horizontal and spreading; the library a nest of graduated boxes, vertical and contained. Yet however disparate the formal results, both share identical starting points in those architectural fundamentals which Kahn had by then made axiomatic. Both begin with the concept of the unit of space as an increment of function. In both, this unit of space is also an increment of light. For the museum the generative element is a long gallery with a light slot at the top; for the library a study cubicle beside a window. In short, the starting points for both buildings were faithful to Kahn’s familiar fundamentals: ‘The room is the beginning of architecture. A plan is a society of rooms. The light that enters the room should be the light of that room itself.’

Phillip exeter library 7

Phillip exeter library 7

Whereas the generative eiement for the Kimbell Museum is self-evident in the porches at its entrance, the Exeter library makes something of a puzzle of its design rationale, even as it makes a puzzle of its entrance. Without help, the visitor may circle the building before locating the entrance, tucked away under the ground ­level arcade that completely surrounds the building within four nearly identical elevations. Perverse as the hidden entrance may seem, it emphatically reinforces Kahn’s statement that his design begins on the periphery with the circle of individual carrels, each with its separate window. As Kahn explained it, ‘I made the outer depth of the building like a brick doughnut. I made the inner depth of the building like a concrete doughnut, where the books are stored away from the light. The central area is a result of these two contiguous doughnuts.’ So the logic of his statement suggests that the consideration of the zoned design starts at the outside and works inward.

If the exterior was to be brick, then (unlike the brick veneer of the Richards Medical Research Building with its ex­posed reinforced concrete shelving, but like the thoroughly brick construction for the work in Bangladesh and India) it would be authentic, ‘the way that brick likes it’. As at Dacca and Ahmedabad, ‘I asked the brick what it liked. It said I like an arch.’ At Dacca he let the big brick arches develop as semi-circles and full circles. At Ahmedabad he gave wide-span, shallow segmental brick arches a help with reinforced concrete members that serve at once as tie rods and lintels. But the monu­mental openings in these Asian buildings occur in the ‘ruinous’ perimeters, where they afford gaping apertures for sun­shading porches out in front of the real windowed buildings behind. At Exeter the jack-arched windows are directly exposed on the outside wall and of a more usual scale. 

Louis kahn phillips exeter library

Louis kahn phillips exeter library

What at a quick glance might be mistaken as the fairly regular fenestration of the ‘Colonial’ buildings all round, becomes, on scrutiny the record of Kahn’s asking the brick what it wants to be. There is no fake coyness in his statement whatsoever. The bearing piers become progressively wider as they reach the ground; the windows, each two stories in height, correspondingly wider as they reach the cornice. Even the jack arches reduce slightly in height as the width of the window opening contracts and they have less work to do. As for variations in the openings of the panelled oak infills within the window voids, these take their cue from differing interior uses within the 17ft width of the peripheral reading zone. Those with the tiny paired windows establish the motif for the elevation by signalising the paired study carrels, each pair encased in a house-like enclosure, each with its window to the outside.

‘Ornament begins with the joint’

‘The carre belongs to the outside world. Occasional distraction is as important in reading as concentration.’ Larger sheets of glass toward the bottom of some of the composite windows signalise general reading and working areas behind. Still larger sheets at the top provide more general illumination for the stacks, and for additional carrels ringing the perimeters of mezzanine stack balconies, having good light and view but no specific celebration on the exterior. Crowning the elevation the habitual ‘ruin’ comes in the form of a top storey dramatising ‘how the building was made.’ Within this open arcade there are shed-roofed mini-buildings housing seminars and the rare book collection, as well as a pergolated outdoor reading deck which is a bit cluttered with piers and (for reasons of safety) largely closed to the view. The screen at the top echoes the encircling arcade on the ground, where pier-width and opening-width are identical. ‘Do you think people will see all this?’ Kahn concluded, smiling. Not without the rationale, which indicates how subtle Kahn’s logic can become; one emerges finally with the ultimate satisfaction that what had seemed to possess integrity at the start of the analysis does in fact possess this integrity at the end. How far this is from much of New Brutalist posturing, if not from the claims of Brutalist ethics! One does not have to agree with Kahn (or rather, with his clients) that an old-fashioned environment necessitated the continuation of old-fashioned building technology without acknowledging how much the authenticity of this wall has to teach. Moreover, one has to admit that the library does comport with its predecessors. It is not a case of the ‘great man’ showing off, but making the social gesture.

Phillip exeter library 9

Phillip exeter library 9

And one can always step from the old-fashioned perimeter to the modern structure within, from the brick doughnut for reading to the reinforced concrete doughnut for stacks, a building within a building so to speak, the second traditional material with double the number of piers. At the base of the bookcase where the legs rise two full stories above the entrance floor, spanning girders provide diagonal bracing. Cantilevers at the third, fifth, and roof levels bring one side of the bookcase building to the reading building. Cantilevers in the other direction approach but do not join the reinforced concrete screens with circular openings that line the interior space except at the corners. There supporting piers, diagonally oriented toward the corners of the building, rise the full height to support the central structure. Stairways and elevators in the four corners also work to bind the three elements together. The outside corners of the building are (so to speak) snipped off in plan with the elevations left as just that, screens that do not meet. ‘It’s always a problem to know how to treat a corner. Do you suddenly introduce diagonal members, or make some kind of exceptional rectangular structure at this point? So I thought why not eliminate the problem?’

By the logic of working from the peri­meter inward, the zone of entry becomes ‘what was left over once the building was done’. Again, like the porches out in front of Kimbell this is the ‘offering made by the architecture’ – this time in the grandiose Beaux-Arts spirit of the salle des pas perdus. ‘This is the place of the books. So you feel the building has the invitation of books.’ Kahn wanted a top-lighted, empty space to provide a central generalised light in contrast with the specific lights of the peripheral windows, with the books visible all round. In effect, he returned to the spectacular central-courted libraries originating in the 17th century, and fashionable through the 19th. Big circular cut­outs to reveal the books readily suggested themselves. Too readily? The thought that he might be plagiarising his own work at Dacca initially inhibited the idea, until he thought of the different kind of circle that the library should have. Not the circular circles which provide a subtle ancl integral ornamental element. ‘Ornament begins with the joint,’ Kahn felt. A hierarchy of joints – the seams of concrete shuttering, the meeting of one material with another, the articulation of structural or functional elements – are ‘ornamental events’ to him. Below, the semi-circle of the entrance stair, set off as a geometrical shape by its travertine lining against the concrete finishes all around, rises from ground level to main level to prepare for the larger circularity fronting the stacks. Entrance stair and stack screen, the semi-circle in plan plays with the circles in elevation; this circularity alternates with the angularity of the stack-supporting girders on the main floor and the support at the roof, the shape in elevation again set against the shape in plan. And, as the eye lifts in the space through these architectonic super­graphics, the elevational emphasis at the level of the screens is twisted to the corner emphasis at the roof. Thus the static and centralised essence of this space is subtly unsettled by the oppositions within it, even as the cross-grained space of Kimbell also energises its sober geometry. At Exeter, too, the circulation desk at one side of the approach stair upsets an expected axial treatment.

Phillip exeter library 8

Phillip exeter library 8

However impressive the big central space may appear, on second thought, it somewhat annoys precisely because of its extravagant emptiness. There are those at the school who feel this way about it. Kahn thought of it, much as those slivers of servant space within the museum, as a place ‘available for uses not ordained for it’. At the opening ceremonies for the building it became a community space, the audience not only filling it, but looking down on the ceremony from the stack balconies as well. So successful was the occasion that concerts regularly occur in the space while study continues around the edges. And once the music department had demonstrated the acoustic and communitarian properties of the space, readings and drama have also taken place. Meanwhile, the emptiness daily encourages students across the salle des pas perdus, through the ‘invitation to the books’ into the stacks, and out to the carrels.

‘The room is the beginning of architecture. A plan is a society of rooms. The light that enters the room should be the light of that room itself’

Kimbell and Exeter point up critical issues inherent in Kahn’s approach. Was he too committed to the use of traditional materials? Perhaps, although he was no reactionary in this respect. His feeling for the building as a ‘harbouring thing’ remained intense and prejudiced him against the brittle thinness of excessive use of metal and glass. He abhorred the cloaking of steel in fireproofing. Yet he constantly emphasised the broad spans possible with reinforced concrete (forcefully so in both Kimbell and Exeter), much as he also used cable suspension in both his projects for Venice and for an office building in Kansas City. In his use of materials, therefore, he had thus far clearly con­sidered the essence of modern expression to reside more in wide span than in excessive transparency. 

Phillip exeter library 10

Phillip exeter library 10

Did his highly articulated approach to Form and Design (to use his terms) result, on the one hand, in the cramping of certain functions, on the other, in their inflation? It has already been noted that the lecture hall, library and basemented working area of Kimbell have been forced into a scheme made for the galleries – a flaw in the clarity of an order on which the primal meaning of the building depends, a conceptual rather than a functional flaw in that these very special functions should, by the logic of Kahn’s articulated scheme of hierarchy of served and servant spaces, have received exceptional treatment. At Exeter, criticism is likely to censure the opposite fault of the rhetorical flourish of the central space, although it is precisely this core that magnifies the sense of com­munity, and hence the monumentality of the building.

Finally, Kahn’s approach to design is vulnerable to criticism even where it is strongest: that is, in the degree to which his method of work was ideally calculated to maximise meaning at various levels of reference. There was the level of functional, use (the gallery/adjunct service zone in Kimbell, for example), of structural syntax (the vault with light trough and widely spaood supporting columns) and, finally, of the ceremonial extrapowtion of this syntax (the ‘offerings’ and ‘ruins’ so specifically associated with Kahn’s work). In Kimbell the levels of meaning basically reinforce one another. Less so in Exeter, and especially with respect to the brick window wall.

Phillip exeter library 11

Phillip exeter library 11

Only by circuitous analysis – fascinating too, but devious – is the connection be­tween wall and ‘library’ regained for the spectators and users so that Kahn’s decisions are justified for them. Why, for example, should the outer wall lack a visible entrance by way of invitation to the books? Or a view from the exterior to the interior of some portion of the central core by way of further invitation, not only to the books, but to the library as a focus for this community? In short, the exterior wall remains substantially that – exterior to (parenthetical to) the idea of ‘library’. The reinforcement that meaning at one level of reference can bring to other levels seems to have been distorted by the over­ elaboration of one level of reference at some expense of the others.

But it is precisely this density of meaning which Kahn did bring to his buildings that ultimately accounts for the way in which they move us – for their authentic ‘monumentality’.

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