Louis Kahn – The Power of Architecture at the Design Museum, and My Architect

I mainly remember Louis Kahn, from my time studying Architecture, as an architect of massive buildings. And because he built relatively little, I had never had the chance to visit any of his buildings before.

The Power of Architecture; a weakness of exhibitions

So I was interested to visit the exhibition of his work at the Design Museum in London at the end of July – wary, because exhibitions about architecture rarely manage to convey the sense of the buildings themselves, but interested to learn more.

In his excellent review of this show, which I read after visiting it, Owen Hatherley says that this exhibition has “one explicit aim – to lift him to 20th-century architecture’s Mount Olympus” – but my memory from architecture school tutors was of Kahn always being spoken of in the same terms as other 20th Century architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. I remember learning a little about his buildings at educational institutions but had never read a great deal about him or his work.

I certainly assumed he was more prolific, or at least had completed more buildings, than in fact he had.

My Architect

I was also aware of ‘My Architect’, a well-regarded documentary film by Kahn’s son Nathaniel, released in 2003, so decided to watch this after visiting the exhibition.

I feel I learned a lot more about Kahn and his life and work from the documentary, and not just because, if you can’t experience the buildings or hear from the architects firsthand, film can at least bring subjects to life more than photos and models can. I really recommend a viewing of this film – I’m not surprised that many reviewers rave about it – it’s certainly an excellent, engaging documentary, and I apologise for any spoilers you might read in this blog post.

Formative experiences – both early and later in life

The film mentioned that Kahn studied ancient architecture as a high school subject – thanks to one particular teacher – he felt that this was probably unique in the US high school system, and was a formative experience that set him on the path to becoming an architect.

While it was good at the exhibition to see such a range of Kahn’s sketches and paintings from his time in the countries of the Ancient World (when in 1951 he was invited to be architect in residence at the American Academy in Rome), it was the film that put these in context as the turning point in Kahn’s career, at the age of 50 – where he finally found his style: “monumentality and timelessness”. And the film benefits from more insight into his personal and working relationships, and from the unique perspective of the architect’s son, the youngest of his three children from three different relationships

City Tower Project, Philadelphia – unbuilt (1952-57)

This design would have been the city’s municipal administration HQ and prefigured, among other things, later High-Tech designs such as Foster’s Hearst Tower in New York. And I had never realised that, with co-designer Anne Tyng, Kahn had been experimenting with these lighter-weight spaceframe building types – they seem so removed from Kahn’s signature solid, monumental designs.

They’re closer to the Buckminster Fuller designs inspired by natural organic structures, and Kahn did in fact use a spaceframe structure for the roof of his Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, completed in 1953.

Louis was married to Esther Kahn, and they had a daughter, Sue Ann. Louis Kahn later started a relationship with Anne Tyng and they had a daughter, Alexandra Tyng. Kahn didn’t leave his wife and, while his families lived close to each other in Philadelphia, he kept them apart.

Richards Medical Labs at the University of Pennsylvania (1957-65)

This was Kahn’s first major work to gain recognition and critical acclaim. It was interesting that in the exhibition, Herman Hertzberger says he thinks that Kahn’s expression of joints and structure in these buildings might have been influenced by Gerrit Rietveldt, after Kahn had visited Holland in the 1920s. Hertzberger saw the buildings’ prefabricated elements treated almost like the wooden elements in Rietveldt’s chair.

Hertzberger also noted that the towers had an open-ended design – so the building could be extended in units and the outer edge becomes almost an “arbitrary line”. This reminded me of the design of the architecture school where I studied, at the University of Westminster (formerly PCL) – here the Architecture studios were within a long, linear block clad at each end simply with corrugated metal, as if temporarily covering the join where an extension would soon be added.

In the film, users of the Richards labs felt they were not big enough or user-friendly, and it’s interesting to hear how a building so well-regarded can actually fail to satisfy its users.

Phillips Exeter Academy Library & Dining Hall, Exeter, New Hampshire (1965-72)

This was the design of Kahn’s I remembered most clearly, mainly because of famous images of the massive circular openings spanning the interior walls, showing the ends of floors of bookcases. Its simple geometry and massive forms were mainly what came to mind when I had thought of Kahn before.

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (1966-72)

I remembered this one too – mainly for its simplicity and the way it uses diffused natural light throughout the galleries.

In the context of Kahn’s life and the narrative of the film, it has wider significance as a project that he worked on with Harriet Pattison – Nathaniel Kahn’s mother. The film showed Nathaniel’s frustration with his mother, when he gently confronted her with the notion that she always defended Louis Kahn’s behaviour, even when he wouldn’t leave his wife for her. She speculates that just before Kahn died he had decided to finally leave his wife to be with her and Nathaniel. Before that, Nathaniel had enjoyed occasional surprise visits from his father, who often came late at night and never stayed till morning.

Sadly, when the building was complete, Harriet (who had designed the landscaping integral to the success of the overall masterplan) was not allowed to attend the opening – an example of both the sexism of the time and of Kahn’s efforts to keep his different families apart.

Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California (1959-65)

Completed when he was 65, this was said to be the first project that Kahn felt really happy with. The film devotes quite a lot of time to this cluster of laboratory buildings on the west coast of America, and gives more of a sense of the experience of the complex, as well as of the concept and story of its construction, than I found in the exhibition.

In Jonas Salk (developer or the polio vaccine), Kahn had found his ideal client, enlightened and indulgent. And in contrast to the experience of the users of the earlier Richards labs, the users of the Salk Institute were very happy – they were given lots of space and each had a Pacific-facing study.

Kahn gave his colleague Jack MacAllister responsibility for the project, when MacAllister was just 25. Nathaniel Kahn interviews MacAllister at the Salk Institute, who tells him that Kahn had faith in young people. He also believed in anticipating and dealing with potential problems or adversity in his work – expressing it, rather than suppressing it – so that “then you could own it”. He gave the example of concrete showing the scars and pitting that reflect how it was produced, and suggested that perhaps Kahn saw parallels with his own approach to life – accepting his facial scars from childhood burns that might have limited his life otherwise.

For me, this interview held one of the more poignant moments in the film, when you see Nathaniel Kahn’s surprise, and it seems a sadness, at hearing that his father had spent family Christmases with MacAllister’s family, falling asleep in front of the TV with the children, leaving the viewer to infer that Kahn rarely spent such holiday time with his own children.

Orchestra Boat

Once when Kahn did spend time with Nathaniel, he drew a small homemade book of ‘Crazy Boats’, surreal designs that Nathaniel was surprised to learn found real form in at least one design – an orchestra boat. The boat (even now) travels between cities, contains rehearsal rooms and opens out into a full concert stage for performances.

I don’t think I saw anything in the exhibition about this boat – despite the unusual nature of the commission and the fact that the captain seemed like a very genuine friend of the architect.

And for the final couple of major completed buildings, again it was interviews within the film, as well as the clearer representation of space and usage on screen, that gave the best sense of the buildings and what they mean to their users.

Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (completed 1962)

Interviewed in My Architect about this building, the architect and colleague of Le Corbusier, B V Doshi said of Kahn that he “talked about matter in spritual terms. Nothingness mattered to him. Silence mattered to him. The enigma of life mattered to him”.

Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban – Bangladesh National Assembly Building, Dhaka (1961-83)

Completed after Kahn’s death, this complex looks like a precursor to some forms of Postmodernism. Or a point at which concrete Modernism makes a transition into Postmodernism. It seems to have some of the same simplicity and sobriety as some Modernism, less playful or tacky than much Postmodernism, but with some of Postmodernism’s mass, historical references/remixes and use of very basic geometric forms and voids.

Again, this is much clearer from the film than the exhibition. The film also has interviews with local people and a local architect which convey a sense of the genuine meaning and pride the buildings inspire in them (as well as an awkward moment when a local man confuses Louis Kahn with Louis Farrakhan).

Fisher House, Hatboro, Pennsylvania (1960-67)

The final building I’ll mention appears towards the end of the film and the exhibition. In the exhibition it’s represented by a rather blank wooden model, as well as a 1:1 scale detail model of its window seat – the seat where Kahn’s three children gather in the film to discuss their father.

The house itself is a lovely example of what feels like a more American brand of Modernism – less International Style, and more rural, with lots of timber, in an idyllic wooded setting, looking onto a stream.

When Kahn’s children appear together the viewer learns that they didn’t meet until their father’s funeral, and even then his first wife tried to keep them apart, and the whole experience of that day was unsurprisingly sad and awkward. They seem to get on well at the time of filming but with some underlying tensions and overall a sense of absence and loss but with love and admiration too.

Final thoughts

A few final thoughts about the exhibition: a name like The Power of Architecture is just too bombastic, even for massive architecture such as this; not helped by the pretty dire Kahn aphorisms quoted on the gallery walls, such as “Structure, I believe, is the giver of light” and “The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building” – the first being at best meaningless and the second overblown. They certainly don’t do justice to the spirituality and poetry so that so many colleagues saw in him and his work, or represent the appeal he had to the people around him.

Both Hatherley’s review and this one from Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times mention these sayings in similarly negative terms.

But it’s good to see a wide representation of Kahn’s work, especially his artwork, even if you don’t get such a sense of the man and the context of his life.

The exhibition runs until 12 October. And I would recommend watching ‘My Architect’, even if you don’t make it to the exhibition.






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