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Louis Kahn's Dominican Motherhouse and the culture of space

Louis Kahn: Drawing to Find Out. The Dominican Motherhouse and the Patient Search for Architecture and On the Thoughtful Making of Space. The Dominican Motherhouse and a Modern Culture of Space by Michael Merrill

Louis Kahn’s singular plan for the Dominican Motherhouse must be among the most commonly reproduced, intriguing and difficult to comprehend of all his projects. Like that other unrealised masterpiece, the Salk Institute Meeting House, its debts to his abiding interests in Beaux Arts composition, Greek site planning and Hadrian’s Villa appear clear, yet its underlying logic has eluded extended analysis - until now.

Although the Motherhouse had to be cancelled due to the Dominican Sisters’ diminishing numbers and budget, the project underwent a characteristically (for Kahn) protracted development over three years. Some 900 sheets of sketches, drawings and prints survive in the Kahn archive at the University of Pennsylania, and Michael Merrill’s two books are based on a painstaking analysis of this material. The results are a revelation, and of much wider interest than such a potentially arcane enterprise might suggest.

Drawing to Find Out offers an exhaustive account of the project’s development and the drawings are beautifully reproduced in a large, landscape format. Merrill’s commentary is consistently incisive: he traces the project’s evolution from unconvincing recapitulations of ideas from earlier projects - transplanting the imposing forms developed in India seems odd for both programme and climate - through to the idea of compacting various large shared ‘rooms’ (chapel, refectory, etc) within the orthogonal frame of the Sisters’ cells, and then allowing them to jostle for position and interconnection.

Intriguingly, given Kahn’s devotion to drafting, a decisive moment came with the use of that quintessentially modernist technique of collage and Merrill describes the final plan - not, incidentally, the commonly reproduced version - as a form of bricolage: for all its roots in the past, the Motherhouse is an unmistakably modern conception.

Merrill’s short introduction raises provocative questions about Kahn’s ‘culture of making’ at a time when hand-drafting has largely given way to digital media and the slow cultivation of the plan as ‘generator’ is being displaced by the instant gratification of 3D visualisations. The archive contains only one model and no measured perspectives, and the variations between the endlessly re-drawn plans can appear remarkably subtle - therein, of course, lies their fascination as the revelation of a master architect at work. This repeated and, from today’s perspective, painfully laborious retracing allowed, Merrill argues, ‘a meditative sinking into the plan’, a ‘purposeful holding of material in flux’ through which the design slowly emerged. ‘When drawing,’ said Kahn, ‘I’m always waiting for something to happen.’

Far from being an intriguing oddity, Merrill sees the Motherhouse as the quintessential demonstration of Kahn’s contention that ‘architecture begins with the making of a room’, and develops into ‘a society of rooms’ through finding an appropriate ‘architecture of connection’. It is this ‘modern culture of space’ that he sees as Kahn’s central contribution to architecture and it is discussed at length in the second half of the second book.

Much smaller in format, it does not so readily invite the same Kahnian lingering over the gradual refinement of the plan, but it is nonetheless comprehensively illustrated with archival material and is more than adequate in presenting the detailed results of Merrill’s archival research. He sees Kahn’s spatial ideas as deeply embedded in postwar architectural culture, invoking Robert Venturi in describing the Motherhouse as a ‘difficult whole of specific locales’ and making convincing links to Aldo van Eyck’s ideas on the need for reciprocity between interior and exterior and advocacy of place over space.

Kahn’s love of the room and rejection of modernist spatial continuity are grounded in his love of masonry construction that allows us to see the inside and outside as independent and - especially as elaborated in the poché of the Beaux Arts plan - enables the emergence of a third border-space that mediates between inside and out. In elaborating this idea he draws extensively on Dom Hans van der Laan’s theory of architectonic space and concludes that the Motherhouse can be seen either as a series of Platonic forms competing for position in a neutral field of space or as a gathering of ‘insides’ seeking mutual resolution in a particular place. These readings are complementary but the latter, Merrill suggests, is the more radical and more pregnant with possibilities - and, one suspects, more elusive to the dominant design procedures of our time. Richard Weston

+ A meditative sinking into the art of Kahn
- The second book doesn’t keep up the (gentle) pace

Louis Kahn: Drawing to Find Out. The Dominican Motherhouse and the Patient Search for Architecture and On the Thoughtful Making of Space. The Dominican Motherhouse and a Modern Culture of Space

Author: Michael Merrill

Publisher: Lars Müller Publishers, 2010

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