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Louis Kahn: The Space of Ideas

William JR Curtis examines the resonant legacy of Louis Kahn, whose final building, the Roosevelt memorial, has recently been completed in New York

‘… only in the vacuum lay the truly essential. The reality of a room, for instance, was to be found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and walls themselves.’

Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea, 1906

As Kahn’s last project is finally completed in New York and a major monographic exhibition opens in the Netherlands, the architect’s work has proven to be a unique and transcendent art with an increased relevance to the current age. Drawing on archetypes from many different sources, Kahn synthesised an authentic modern language that resonates intimately with place, programme and culture.

Louis Kahn died over a quarter of a century ago but his work is only just beginning to have the overall treatment it deserves. As his contribution recedes into history, its long-term implications for world architecture have become ever more evident. After the formalistic gymnastics of recent years, his architecture stands as a sentinel of principle. Kahn’s architecture possesses many dimensions and cuts across geographical and cultural frontiers. It refuses to fit transient critical agendas. So much of the literature on Kahn ends up telling more about the obsessions of the authors than about the architect’s work. The attempt by writers of Postmodernist persuasion to claim Kahn as a father figure seems entirely ludicrous in retrospect given the authenticity and gravitas of his work.

Four Freedoms Park

Dedicated to President Franklin D Roosevelt, Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park has finally been realised. The site lies on the tip of an island in New York’s East River, with the Manhattan skyline and UN Building as a backdrop

Equally the attempts by various ‘Minimalists’ to install Kahn in their pedigree risk distorting him and reducing his apparent ‘simplicity’ to a recipe of geometry and materiality. More recently there has been the slogan of the ‘tectonic’ as a supposed answer to a world filled with arbitrary images, but here again Kahn slips through the rhetoric. Kahn’s architecture is full of inversions: masses which suddenly seem weightless, materials which dissolve into immateriality; structures which reverse load and support; rays of light which reveal the realm of shadows; solids which turn out to be voids.

‘Architecture’, declared Kahn, ‘is the thoughtful making of spaces.’ His work contains many examples of indoor and outdoor rooms conducive to meditation. One thinks for example of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (1965) which uses an open space to address the horizon line of the Pacific, and which employs a channel of water and light to suggest a metaphysical dimension in the research into the hidden laws of nature. Or again, one thinks of the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (1972) with its cycloid vaults split open at their crest to admit a crack of daylight to the interiors where it is diffused over polished concrete surfaces. In these late works, Kahn seems preoccupied with making the immaterial visible through the most elemental means. Structure, space and light are fused.

He seems intent upon uniting several geometrical and structural ideas in tense unities which touch the mind and senses of the observer in a direct way. Historical echoes are abundant, but it is possible to overplay these, and to forget that Kahn transcends his sources, establishing an order of his own. While it does condense and distil images, this order is above all abstract. Kahn uses a Modernist abstraction to contain a complex content, even sometimes to suggest a metaphysical void. His work escapes stylistic categories, sometimes touching archetypal levels in experience.

The National Assembly, Dhaka

The National Assembly in Dhaka, Bangladesh, employs symbolic geometries to evoke the origins of architecture and institutions. Diverse sources of inspiration from Classical antiquity to Buddhist stupas are fused and transformed to express powerful notions of modernity and nationhood in an emerging post-colonial state

Kahn can be considered one of the few architects of the 20th century to have come to terms with the problem of defining an authentic, modern monumentality. His designs for sacred spaces of diverse religions (church, synagogue, mosque) combined the idea of assembly with a sense of the transcendent. Light was one of the keys in this suggestion of an invisible order. Through symbolic geometries Kahn evoked the origins of architecture and institutions. With buildings such as the National Assembly in Dhaka, Bangladesh (1976), the former East Pakistan, he interpreted the contradictions of representation in a post-colonial state and succeeded in fusing together Eastern and Western traditions.

There are echoes of centralised types of different periods and cultures including the Pantheon in Rome, the medieval fortress of Castel del Monte, Mogul tombs, Bengali mosques of the Sultanate period, even Buddhist mandalas and stupas, but these diverse inspirations are fused and transformed in an active configuration of voids traversed by axes and laid out in a clear hierarchy. One recognises too Kahn’s interest in the geometries of nature, including crystals and snowflakes. Above all the spatial conception is modern, a reversal of dense masonry masses: a celebration of voids filled with light.

Pantheon Plan

Plan of the Pantheon in Rome, a circular temple dedicated to all the gods, originally commissioned by Marcus Agrippa and rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian circa AD 126

Sketch by Le Corbusier of Roman ruins and primary solids, abstracting the essential geometry from Classical forms

Sketch by Le Corbusier of Roman ruins and primary solids, abstracting the essential geometry from Classical forms

Castle Plan

Plan of the Castel del Monte, a compactly geometric 13th-century citadel in Apulia, Italy

Plan of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome dating from the 3rd century

Plan of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome dating from the 3rd century

Plan of the National Assembly. The centralised organisation embodies ideas of the symbolic centre and assembly. The castle-like mosque element (bottom, centre) is placed deliberately off axis to align with Mecca

Plan of the National Assembly. The centralised organisation embodies ideas of the symbolic centre and assembly. The castle-like mosque element (bottom, centre) is placed deliberately off axis to align with Mecca

The Beaux-Arts discipline of the architect’s education served him all his life when it came to organising ceremonial. But before the stage of articulation there was the stage of discovery and with each design Kahn sought out a central idea, a crystalline form of thought, which brought the whole thing alive. He often reverted to centralised spaces surrounded by fringes of secondary ones to give shape to institutions, whether libraries, parliament buildings or dormitories. The plan of an ensemble, including interior and exterior spaces, was the visual equivalent to a ‘society of rooms’.

In the case of Dhaka, Kahn investigated variations of centralised schemes to embody the notions of a symbolic centre and assembly. He eventually established primary and secondary axes expressing the interrelations between the different functions of a parliament and national monument. A mosque was included, its castle-like form turned off the main geometry to align with Mecca. One is reminded of Kahn’s fascination with the towers and flanking walls of citadels.With its huge facets of concrete dissolving in light, its marble mouldings like bindings, and its giant gashes of shadow, the Assembly maintains a stern presence and aspires towards a timeless dimension. In effect it idealises the state which it represents in grandiose, almost excessive terms, by providing a microcosm of power, a symbol with virtually cosmic overtones.

Kahn’s work in Dhaka incorporates several periods of history (local and general), and grapples with questions of identity by attempting to give shape to a post-colonial order combining secular and religious aspects in its polity. The building is a democratic emblem in a country which does not yet have a fully functioning democracy, a statement of ‘modernity’ which nonetheless contains numerous ancient resonances. Kahn here proved that he could transcend the limits of Western architectural discourse, giving shape to the social and political aspirations of nations newly liberated from imperialism. He penetrated the substructures of the past and transformed them through his usual abstraction into resonant emblems of modernity.

Section through the National Assembly showing the grandiose scale of the spaces

Section through the National Assembly showing the grandiose scale of the spaces

The Assembly in Dhaka is a majestic work, Kahn’s answer perhaps to Le Corbusier’s Parliament in Chandigarh, but it is nonetheless flawed by its inadequate response to the demands of a searing, wet tropical climate. To later architects on the Indian sub-continent seeking touchstones in tradition and preoccupied with questions of post-colonial identity, his solutions in Dhaka and Ahmedabad (the Indian Institute of Management, 1974) revealed new ways of synthesising the new and the old, the local and the universal. But like Le Corbusier’s buildings in India, they also required a critique. They contributed to the formation of a modern architectural culture including the likes of Charles Correa, Balkrishna Doshi, Raj Rewal and Anant Raje, all of whom ‘excavated’ Indian and other traditions via modern filters.

Kahn’s architecture works with the slow wave motions of time. Even a recent building such as the Chandgaon Mosque in Chittagong, Bangladesh (2006) by Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury reveals the long distant influence of Kahn in its spatial organisation while also transforming basic mosque types from the Bengali Sultanate period (14th and 15th centuries). Like Le Corbusier, Kahn was both a mirror and a lens: helping later architects to find themselves while also opening up new perspectives on generic problems and basic types.

Kahn aspired to an architecture ‘timeless but of its time’, but responded to the essence of different cultural and architectural pasts. This is why it is so important to liberate him from the territorial claims sometimes made upon him by those who would see him as a principally ‘North American’ architect, by those who would claim him for a particular religion, or by those who would try to restrict him to a Western Classical discourse.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal, 1643, in Agra, India, seen from across the River Jumna. The white marble tomb rises up from red sandstone structures


Plan of the Taj Mahal (left) and plan of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, circa 1570, a landmark in Mughal architecture and a precursor to the Taj Mahal (right)


Kahn was a convinced ‘universalist’ and his work contains resonances for architects pursuing other agendas in places and times far from the points of origin. In the years immediately after Kahn’s death in 1974, there were any number of architects wandering around mumbling about ‘what a brick wants to be’ and imitating the bold circles and textured materials of Kahn’s buildings. As usual one has to distinguish between the letter and the spirit, the outer features of style and the guiding principles.

Those to learn most from so-called masters do not imitate their works directly. In Europe, echoes of Kahn’s ideas about types can be sensed in the nostalgic theorising of Aldo Rossi and La Tendenza in the 1960s and in the work of architects of the Ticino in Switzerland (Botta, Galfetti et al) in the 1970s. Tadao Ando probably could not have been Ando without the example of Kahn, but here it was a matter of geometrical order, space and light, as well as resonances with tradition. Ando’s typical concrete surfaces were surely inspired by the planes dissolved in light at Salk, but these in turn drew a great deal from Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard, right down to the handling of grooves and joints. Such is the vitality of a modern tradition in which chains of solutions follow one after another in fresh inventions.

The Kahn continuum

Kahn, then, has never been entirely absent: he continues as a subterranean channel which surfaces here and there, often in unexpected places. The hovering cupola and majestic space filled with light of the Palacio de Congresos in Salamanca (1993) by Juan Navarro Baldeweg could probably not have been the same without Kahn, although there is nothing obviously Kahnian about it. The Auditorio in Barcelona designed over 20 years ago by Rafael Moneo is a sophisticated transformation of the concrete frame, metallic window panels and wooden interior casing of Kahn’s Mellon Center at Yale. The Saratoga Avenue Community Center in Brooklyn designed by George Ranalli and completed only a couple of years ago is haunted by Kahn in its luminous central, communal space with its soffit floating above and its light entering at clerestory level and at the corners. There are echoes too of Wright and of Scarpa, but Ranalli has absorbed these influences over the years and established a language and a craft of his own.

Surely that is the point about any reassessment of Kahn by younger architects. The scholars may beaver away to reveal this or that aspect of his career and personal life, but it is the works themselves which should be the main subject of study for the architect. These continue to hold up well (even if there are practical problems of upkeep) and life continues within them. A recent visit to the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy (1972) revealed how well the building has settled into the historic campus, to the point where one almost has the feeling that this stark brick ruin, with its ambiguous readings of wall and frame, its monumental central space with its suspended stacks, and its intimate carrels of oak next to the windows, must have stood there for centuries before the surrounding neo-colonial structures were even built. Then there is the warmth and intimacy of certain of Kahn’s houses with their built-in wooden furniture, circuitous routes, textured brick or masonry planes, and their controlled views of the landscape.

Plan Library

Floor plan of the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy (1972)


Kahn’s Library at Phillips Exeter Academy has aged gracefully into the campus eliciting the feeling that it has stood their for centuries rather than mere decades.

In the period of Kahn’s maturity, his archaism stood out strongly against the shiny glass and steel of his corporate contemporaries in the USA. He responded to the forces and aspirations of the so-called ‘American century’ including its powerful institutions and its then unparalleled industrial skills and materials. An outsider in many ways, he knew how to make appropriate rooms and settings for American establishment institutions such as colleges of the Ivy League, with their oak panelling, gold-framed portraits and Oxbridge pretensions. Kahn grappled with the problems of his time, and in the process of extending modern architecture beyond the thin formulae then prevalent, avoided the descent into kitsch traditionalism followed by the likes of Philip Johnson or Edward Durell Stone.

His impeccable control of materials, such as silvery naked concrete, travertine, brushed stainless steel and wood, put him in a league of his own. But finishes were the outer expression of structural ideas. They gave body to the anatomy of intentions. They reinforced an ethos, a feeling of the way things ought to be. Kahn celebrated the directness of materials but it makes little sense to include him in the dubious fictions of the ‘New Brutalism’. He explored ‘spaces between’ but was remote from the table talk of the ever nebulous Team Ten. He was one of those figures to transcend movements and isms altogether.

The best of Kahn’s works still seem fresh as if they were able to cut through time. Arguably he did not have the full recognition he deserved in his own lifetime and, as is usual with major artists, his reputation suffered eclipse immediately after his death. But despite changing fashions he never quite disappeared from architectural discourse either, especially in the ‘non-Western world’. To judge by the current interest in his work (the first major exhibition and catalogue for roughly 20 years*), Kahn is once again coming into focus.

Then there is the posthumous completion of his design for the Four Freedoms Park − the memorial to Franklin D Roosevelt − which is about to open on the southern end of Roosevelt (formerly Welfare) Island in the East River parallel to Manhattan. This was planned shortly before Kahn’s death in 1974 to memorialise the President of the New Deal and to celebrate one of his key speeches, the ‘Four Freedoms’ discourse of 6 January 1941: Freedom of Speech and Expression; Freedom to Worship; Freedom from Want; and Freedom from Fear. Kahn was sympathetic with the social outlook of Roosevelt, and came up with a design which he described with the phrase ‘a room and a garden’.

Four Freedoms Park

Lines of linden trees create a green space in the city, defining the edge of the park and converging in a dramatic perspective towards the outdoor room and the bust of Roosevelt

Four Freedoms Park

A ‘floating’ bust of Roosevelt marks the entrance to an outdoor room at the end of the park

Kahn’s drawings portrayed a rectangular outdoor room protruding from the south tip of the island into the East River. This was approached by means of sloped banks planted with lines of linden trees and converging in a dramatic perspective towards a suspended bust of Roosevelt. Behind this plinth was the outdoor room itself, framing a view of the vast space of the East River and the Manhattan skyline, including the oblong slab of the United Nations Building to one side. Here is not the place to go into the process by which the project was revived then built.

But the achievement of Kahn’s work is testimony to the persistence of several organisations and individuals, and to their faith in both the political and international ideals represented (which have been in short supply in recent politics). It also of course embodies an act of faith in the perennial quality of the architecture of Louis Kahn. Welfare Island, as it used to be called, was once the home of lunatic asylums and a smallpox hospital, but this project has opened up a public park and provided an outdoor space with a certain sacred character.

Four Freedoms Park

At Four Freedoms Park, granite monoliths define views of the city

The masonry portions of the project are constructed from monolithic blocks of Mount Airy granite from North Carolina. These off-white masses of stone have been cut with great precision and assembled with sharp joints. They stand out against the rough grey boulders washed by water which form the base of the scheme. The tilted and angled ground forms focus attention on the bronze bust of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt while activating the foreground to the distant skyscrapers and grids of Manhattan. One moves around the statue to find the Four Freedoms text inscribed on the rear of the plinth. The view from the ‘outdoor’ room is breathtaking and recalls the framed view at Salk which also pulls the distant vista into the life of the space.

There is a sense of infinity. The ‘room’ is defined by giant blocks of granite each 36 tons in weight, set with a gap of an inch between them. The lateral faces between the blocks are polished so that they reflect light like polished mirrors. The effect is astonishing, especially in the early morning when rays pierce the narrow slots between the stone blocks, dematerialising them and casting lines of sunlight across the floor of the outdoor room. Here surely is Kahn’s ultimate statement on ‘beginnings’: the archetypal room rising out of the waters; the first parting of the walls; the revelation of the primary elements of structure; a creation myth dealing with the origins of architecture and the founding principles of democratic freedom.

Four Freedoms Park

Razor sharp lines of light penetrate into the joints between the blocks

Purists will complain that the Four Freedoms Park is not a hundred per cent as intended (there have been the slightest adjustments in heights of levels and in the spacing of trees), that the effect is a bit too heavy, but the impact is nonetheless strong. This is an architecture which, rather like the steel blades of Richard Serra, works upon the sense of gravity as well as the sense of sight. One experiences the masses physically and the tilted ground planes and diagonal ramps engender both compressions and expansions of space. There are no direct historical quotations, yet the place has an ancient feeling about it, as if a Pharaonic temple had been shifted to an island opposite Manhattan.

Kahn’s memorial to Roosevelt distils many of his ideas about monumentality but in a manner which plays upon ambiguities of perception. The floor of the outdoor room is read as a platform in direct relation with the distant views of the river which are pulled into the field of vision as in a proscenium. Immediately beyond the edge of the platform is a ha-ha which obviates the need for a railing and which encourages the feeling that this space belongs to a wider universe. Perhaps this is Kahn’s way of celebrating the universality of Roosevelt’s message for humanity.

Salk Institute

Concrete wall planes shape an architecture of light and shadow


Inevitably one compares the outdoor room of the Four Freedoms Park in New York to the one at the Salk Institute in La Jolla which of course relies upon naked concrete, travertine and water for its materialisation. But it is precisely the immaterial which counts with Kahn and it is possible to think of the ‘philosopher’s court’ at Salk with its low benches and its breezes from the Pacific as a volume of air brought alive by light and by the atmospheric conditions of this part of the coast where whales pass by on their long journeys and birds gather before diving into the sea. The central line of water running east-west draws the distant horizon into the space, reflects the setting sun and suggests a subterranean realm.

Kahn’s monumental gateway to the Pacific perhaps recalls the Propylaea on the Acropolis in Athens, but in an abstract form, and it captures the energies of the surroundings in its frame. How can I ever forget giving a lecture in the building with Jonas Salk in the front row, then re-emerging on the plaza to find the evening light caught in the water channel like a shining line of mercury after the sun had dropped below the horizon; or the experience of a storm over the Pacific with sheet and fork lightning framed by the angled planes of the buildings, as if in a scene from a Greek tragedy. Kahn’s epitaph could have been written by Octavio Paz: ‘It is not with stone and wood, but with light and air, that I have marked my passing.’

Further Reading

For India’s impact on Kahn and Kahn’s on India see particularly Curtis, ‘Modern Architecture and the Excavation of the Past: Louis I Kahn and the Indian Subcontinent’, op cit, p235ff. See also Anant Raje Architect, Selected Works 1971-2009, editors Amita and Shubhra Raje, foreword William JR Curtis, introduction Gautam Bhatia (Anant Raje Foundation, Ahmedabad and Tulika Books New Delhi, September 2012).

For a brief history of the realisation of the Four Freedoms Park and the role of former collaborators of Kahn such as David Wisdom and Aldo Giurgola, the importance of the Chairman of the Four Freedoms Foundation William vanden Heuvel, the contribution of the Chicago Applewood Foundation, and the achievement of the Executive Director on site, Gina Pollara, see Beth Broome, ‘Franklin D Roosevelt, Four Freedoms Park, Louis I Kahn’, Architectural Record, October 2012.

Readers' comments (1)

  • William Curtis is one of the few who writes about architecture with such penetrating knowledge - a tour de force of synthesis .

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