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Louis Kahn, don’t stop talking! Architecture needs you more than ever

Two new books of and about Kahn talking provoke, re-frame and defy convention

Perhaps no architect in history has had his talks with students and colleagues as lovingly and comprehensively preserved as Louis Kahn. Since his death in 1974 there has been a cascade of books culled from taped transcriptions of Kahn teaching formally in classrooms and informally at other sites. What you make of this depends of course on how significant you think Kahn as philosopher and professor of architecture was. A value of Kahn at Penn: Transformative Teacher of Architecture (Routledge, 2015) is that editor and architect James Williamson included the scathing remarks of former Kahn students who felt Kahn’s language was unnecessarily abstract and obscure, even to their ears shallow and misleading. These accusations have been issued elsewhere in print before – but in the context of this kind of symposium on Kahn as architectural pedagogue the reports by naysayers assure this book won’t be taken as hagiography. Yet nowhere in Williamson’s worthy book (which contains assessments of the value of Kahn’s teaching by six former Kahn University of Pennsylvania students in addition to Williamson’s), is there a clear explanation of why exactly Kahn’s language was challenging even to his admirers. In his ‘Kahn Bible’ – carefully culled Kahn quotes taken out of their original context (and set in jewel-like glory, one epiphany per page) entitled Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I Kahn – John Lobell is spot-on in answering that vexing question:

Kahn’s words are difficult for many. They were difficult for him. Through architecture Kahn experienced a world in which Order lies beyond the circumstantial, material is light that has spent itself, the human being is the seat of the immeasurable, intuition stores the journey of our making, and a building has an existence-will before it has a physical presence. The languages of science, psychology, and ordinary experience cannot describe this world, so     Kahn felt compelled to invent his own language. It came with great difficulty, and was eventually fit together as though he were working with great blocks of stone, awkwardly selecting each block, polishing it to gem-like hardness, and manipulating it until it fit properly. If he could not find a needed block, he fashioned one, as with ‘intouchness’ or ‘darkless’, words that do not exist but that he needed.

Lobell’s insight into the nature of Kahn’s language makes entry into these books revealing Kahn as architectural teacher as invitingly easy as possible. And yet readers are well advised that if they don’t belong to that class of individuals the poet Rainer Maria Rilke identified as ‘lovers of the difficult’, they should proceed to these volumes with caution.

‘Kahn was thoughtless in lifting key ideas from his students - Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are still bitter today’

There’s a curious split in Williamson’s book between straightforward accounts and judgements re Kahn’s teaching and Williamson’s attempt to explain Kahn’s pedagogy through the application of a philosophy and psychological theory of creativity Kahn himself never trafficked in. Williamson’s theoretical excursion into existential psychology was unconvincing to me – though others might find it helpful. As a member of Kahn’s Master class at the University of Pennsylvania in 1974, Williamson was in a unique position to discern Kahn in action talking in a classroom many might envy. Yet there is in Williamson – and in a few of Kahn’s former students contributing to Kahn at Penn – a strange air of one-upmanship. Critiquing Kahn’s language – implying occasionally that Kahn’s classroom language was part of Kahn’s conning – gives these former students the excitement of dissing a Master’s authority, as if catching Socrates with his toga trailing in mud. The former Kahn student critique might go this way. Though Kahn was a genius in designing architecture, his talk was inappropriately vaguely mystical and poetic. He neglected when he spoke in this manner the nuts-and-bolts business of engineering and finance undergirding architectural practice, escaping instead into an idiosyncratic vocabulary of ‘light’ and ‘form’. Not only that, Kahn was thoughtless in lifting key ideas from his students without crediting them, his talk being so one-sided and self-promoting that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are still bitter today** about Kahn’s coopting of their ideas from nearly a half-century ago.

Dealing with the question of Kahn’s self-centredness for the moment, he’s definitely ‘in the tradition’ of Modernist architects in broadcasting his opinions – even if lifted piecemeal from his students or colleagues – with the definiteness of the Delphic Oracle. The thornier issue involves Kahn’s public architectural discourse as mystical proclamation, visionary recital. How one weighs in on this issue depends on one’s balancing of architecture as material science and greater-than-material art. Is architecture primarily the business of problem-solving for clients, or centrally an act of imagining then actualising spaces to enhance human experiences?

Vitruvius, overwhelmingly the practical engineer, insisted still on the centrality of the architect as an individual well educated in philosophy and history and music. This was not a matter for him it seemed of dividing architecture into strict contraries of idealistic and practical issues as it has devolved in our time. This was the recognition that visible surfaces of architecture disclose the invisible intellectual and spiritual energies encoded throughout visible structures. This sense of practising architecture thick in the material world while also firmly planted in the realm of invisible philosophic ideas has always been the stuff of quixotic quest. Kahn’s legacy when he often talked about architecture was to push to a fever pitch (through Socratic, Talmudic and Zen styles of paradoxical provocation) the metaphysical and immeasurable  qualities of architecture. By talking in this style in classrooms or elsewhere, Kahn was certain to gain the wrath of debunkers who claimed that this insistence of Kahn’s on the poetic and metaphysical was on a suspiciously delicate ‘toggle switch’. Here is testimony to that effect from Williamson’s chapter ‘Kahn and his Students’:

Jules Prown, Kahn’s client representative for the Yale Center for British Art, was able to ‘detect the disjunction between the “very factual, very direct” man he dealt with on the job and the man who spoke “more abstractly, more poetically” when he was nervous and trying to impress’. Following his year in the Master’s Class, David S Traub, Master’s Class of 1965, worked in Kahn’s office. He confirms Prown’s observation that with his clients and employees, Kahn was always very ‘down to earth and practical, and never spouted poetry’.

No need to doubt the veracity of Prown’s and Traub’s claims that Kahn talked practically and directly with clients and employees. But it is surely disputable that Kahn’s capacity to also talk about architecture poetically and philosophically as he did with students was evidence of a supposed ‘disjunction’ within Kahn’s personality. In fact, perhaps the value of books containing Kahn’s talks is that such transcriptions offer a primer on how architectural talk can veer most productively when it careens generously between the most abstract and the most concrete, the most physical and most metaphysical, the most analytic and the most intuitive.

‘Kahn defines the beginning of architecture as what happens when one no longer is engaged with thinking functionally’

Among the best ever of Kahn ‘talk books’* is the recently published Louis I Kahn in Conversation: Interviews with John W Cook and Heinrich Klotz, 1969-1970 (Yale University Press, 2015), a book to my thinking of greater use to readers interested in Kahn’s thinking about architecture than Williamson’s, Williamson’s a better choice perhaps for architectural educators. Instead of anecdotes regarding Kahn’s pedagogy from former students and academic colleagues, here are long, open-ended, meandering conversations with Kahn fuelled by two perceptive questioners. Klotz was a visiting professor of architectural history at Yale. Cook taught architecture at Yale Divinity School, making Cook a particularly valuable interviewer. That means that Cook asked Kahn to expound upon Kahn’s poetic and transcendental sense of beauty anticipating a useful response in the kind of language Kahn’s critics found hatefully obtuse. And Cook’s query gets an illuminating though challenging response from Kahn in language that demands repeated close reading from that slant Cook empathetically brought to Kahn. As to what reading Kahn carefully and repeatedly entails when considering these conversations, here is one prime example of Kahn’s answer to Klotz’s question about the nature of architectural functionality:

I just believe that the word ‘function’ applies to mechanical, the workings of something, but you cannot say that it should also satisfy psychological function because the psychology is not a function. The function aspect is that which gives you the instrumentation upon which psychological reaction can be. You might say it is the same difference between the mind and the brain. So the functional aspect is the brain aspect, and the mind aspect is not something that you can actually sensate by order, or by any kind of requirement, make. So that’s why I say that the beginning of architecture is when the function is thoroughly comprehended, and no more is a problem of relationships.

How can this be read helpfully? First, Kahn’s idiosyncratic definition of ‘functionality’ needs to be seriously considered. Then the consequences of his definition: seeing a building as a programme-fulfilling machine to satisfy users as opposed to the nuanced psychological experience of a building by inhabitants. Then Kahn introduces the philosophical conundrum of mind and brain as offering contrasting definitions and experiences of architecture. And most critically, Kahn defines the beginning of architecture – ‘beginning’ is a key term in Kahn’s vocabulary signalling the importance of initial inspirational guidance in architectural creativity – as what happens when one no longer is engaged with thinking functionally.

If this type of close reading of Kahn’s thinking about architecture resonates with your architectural practice today in any manner, this book is essential. If you’re not a fan of this Wittgensteinian ramble or so-called ‘sprouted poetry’, look elsewhere. This book is for you if you welcome Kahn’s talk as strong medicine for a profession in need of deeply probing philosophical and poetical roots in order to be more profitable (materially as well as in other senses). Louis I. Kahn in Conversation offers an inspiring portrait of the Modernist architect as kochleffel, the Yiddish word for ‘one who stirs the pot’. A supreme provocateur who turned his world (and ours) upside down because nothing in the world was simply what it seemed in any light.


*   An essential shelf of Kahn’s ‘talk books’ might include the following:

Louis I Kahn: Conversations with Students (Architecture at Rice 26)

Louis Kahn: Essential Texts, edited by Robert Twombly

Louis I Kahn: Writings, Lectures, Interviews

** See Vladimir Belogolovsky’s interview with Venturi and Scott Brown in his Conversations with Architects: In the Age of Celebrity (Dom Publishers, 2015)

About the author:

Norman Weinstein is the author of A Night in Tunisia, a book about imaginary landscapes in jazz, a book about Gertrude Stein’s writings, and many books of poetry. His writing about architecture has appeared in Architectural Record, Blueprint, and ArchNewsNow.

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