Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

Louis Kahn (1901-1974)

From Philadelphia to Dhaka, this eminent yet mysterious architect talked to the stones and drew much of his inspiration from his fascination with the natural sciences


Source: Sean Azzopardi

Beneath the miasma of more or less interchangeable words (Christian Norberg- Schulz suggests ‘Heideggerian without knowing it’: structure/light/silence/etc) it is possible to distinguish a synthesis of three ideas that render Louis Kahn’s work coherent (if not exactly the sentinel of principle):
1. An interest in the crystalline (organic if you like);
2. A predilection for ancient ruins (the more ancient the better); and
3. A structural rationalism that demands you place Choisy’s worm’s-eye drawing of Ste Geneviève next to Kahn’s of his Institute of Management and wait for fireworks.

Of these, it is the second that is most idiosyncratic; Hatshepsut is not an obvious antecedent for 1950s Philadelphia even if FLW got away with Mayan Revival in CA. But when Kahn sketches the Athenian Acropolis in 1951 it’s all ramparts and not temples, so ‘ruins wrapped around buildings’ makes sense of the eroded corners of the Richards Medical Research Laboratories (1961-65), Exeter Library (1967) and others: if ruins didn’t tend to keep their corners. Meanwhile the substitution of walls for platforms was intrinsic to the shift from Modernism to Postmodernism. This has kept Kahn in vogue.

Similarly an embryonic sketch for the Morris House (1958) seems positively archaeological and Kahn and Vincent Scully were sold on each other after first meeting at Yale in 1947. Scully would have been working on The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods (1962). ‘Ruins in reverse’ was Kahn’s tease.

‘There is lots of material but no materialism; instead we are pummelled with poetry’

But there are paradoxes; how can we reconcile such immaculate conception via Beaux-Arts esquisse (the technique the young Kahn learnt from Paul Cret at the University of Pennsylvania) with the ‘drawing to find out’ of 16 versions of the Dominican Sisters’ Motherhouse over two years (lovingly compiled by Michael Merrill) when what was ‘found’ (while undoubtedly architecturally ‘rich’) was so out of step with the requirements of the Mothers they just gave up?

How do you have a meaningful conversation with somebody who says that ‘a window wants to become a room’ but hardly has a home? Then again, even his houses are a bit churchy (that window, Fisher House, 1960) and the Bryn Mawr dormitory, intentionally not a home, is more like a castle than might be comfortable.

More confused would be Kahn’s bank manager (back when they represented some form of probity): ‘What the hell is this? How can a guy who lectures me on brickwork not put two and two together?’ There is lots of material but no materialism; instead we are pummelled with poetry. Philadelphia’s chief planner was still pounding his fists with fury 30 years later. Even Stanislaus von Moos found Kahn irritating, and Rem Koolhaas crawled out of a lecture on his knees.

‘We learnt from Kahn, and we didn’t learn from Kahn’, says Denise Scott Brown; in fact Venturi, who tried working for him, and loved him, was distressed enough with Kahn by the late 1960s for him to be the oedipal drive behind Learning from Las Vegas. Engineer August Komendant’s 18 Years with Architect Louis I Kahn sounded more like a sentence. Anne Tyng was bitter too; publishing his rather unremarkable love letters (we’d love to see hers). So much has been made of his philandering the roster even runs to Ingrid Bergman!


Louis I Kahn
Key works
Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India (1962)
Exeter Academy Library,
New Hampshire, USA (1965)
Kimbell Art Museum,
Fort Worth, Texas,
USA (1972)
National Assembly, Dhaka, Bangladesh (1982)
‘A great building must begin with the unmeasurable,
must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end
must be unmeasurable’

Nevertheless there are clearly some great buildings: Exeter Library, where the perimeter carrels make for a kind of laissez-faire study area for Postmodern St Jeromes, the Salk Institute, Kimbell Art Museum, although Leonardo Benevelo hints he’s uneven and pretty much leaves him out. Trenton Bath House is plain weird, a fragment of an even odder mat building that thankfully never happened; Dhaka was judged rather verbose at the time; with only 41 per cent usable area and a whopping air-con bill for a building that shouldn’t need it. Even the good ones may be great for their curiosities; piazzas that aren’t piazzas (Salk), laboratories that aren’t good labs (Richards) and lecture rooms that don’t fit (Kimbell) all speak with panache, and absolutely nobody could put a staircase in a box like Lou could.

To Scully this was the real deal, ‘the lovable old rascal’, while, to Philip Johnson, Kahn was initially a threat: ‘A total phony, a worse phony than I am’ but a thankfully reduced one by 1983; ‘very minor’ and finally (in My Architect) ‘an artist; more than me’. Typical Johnson, but he’s right each time.

Kahn’s empathy with the inanimate was a trick but the old ones are often the best; it conferred mastery at a time when Modernism seemed to have run out of steam. He’d done cheapo modern housing for most of his career and knew it was time to take the risk and talk to the stones. Looking like an olive tree, his rooms, not just people, had rapport (organised of course with regard to light, material and vague function) and were somehow alive (to him). It’s hard to reconcile this with his respect for Gropius, but it does connect him to the transcendentalism of Whitman and Sullivan.

Kahn’s mystery enhanced his kudos, and it came at a price. The perfect client was wealthy ‘intuitive scientist’ Jonas Salk, who ‘listened more carefully to me than I did myself’. The two were an intellectual mirror of each other except for Kahn’s lack of acumen for the dough.

I remember being a little perplexed standing in Salk: sure, a nice view; but also a Puvis de Chavannes arcadia for a few modern Americans in their crystals perched above their bunker-like labs. Surely it’s in Ahmedabad and Dhaka where the buildings speak more clearly than he did, where labour and materials were so freely available as to whisk the projects back thousands of years. That’s real; that’s authentic, as real as the inevitability of Kahn going bankrupt; because they could build, but they couldn’t pay.

In the opposite way, Richards was historically pivotal. Kahn worked those services while claiming to hate them. Reyner Banham, the scientists themselves and the messianic Modernist old guard were happy to fume over the resultant functional inadequacies as much as they hated the ‘phoney’ formalism (as if they hadn’t began to suffer themselves). One was the (by then) highly cantankerous Richard Neutra, whose finest hour had been the Lovell Health House of 1928. Comparison with Salk reveals the seismic shift within a generation. But the righteous expression of pipes certainly prefigures Foster and Rogers. ‘Will service spaces become the new decoration?’ quipped Colin St John Wilson, and I suppose they did.

There was a time when you couldn’t cross the road in Scotland without hearing the bark of ‘Kahn’. This may have something to do with Scottish as well as Estonian castles and he seemed the silent partner of Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan. But while it is hard to see Kahn as messianic (too charming), heaven help the believer in today’s world; because while it’s sensational for the architect to say the greatest things in life are accidents that’s still a very odd thing for him or her to say.

And while there is something truly heroic in taking on the whole mechanism of the military industrial complex to say architecture is more (even its pipes), Kahn presents an interesting problem; for some of us it is a weakness, a lingering sense that he rather overplayed the unplayable.


Illustration by Sean Azzopardi

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.