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He’s the Top

He loved most the Baths of Caracalla, referring to it often as his ideal. It is mentioned several times in the anthology Louis I. Kahn: Writings, Lectures, Interviews, edited by Alessandra Latour. “My design at Dacca is inspired, actually, by the Baths of Caracalla, but much extended,” Kahn said in a 1964 lecture. “If you look at the Baths of Caracalla,” he wrote in 1960, “…we know that we can bathe just as well under an 8-foot ceiling as we can under a 150-foot ceiling, but I believe there’s something about a 150-foot ceiling that makes a man a different kind of man.” He might have added that designing a 150-foot ceiling (he came close to that in the Assembly Chamber of the Dacca capitol) also makes an architect a different kind of architect, one who sees monumentality as desirably enhancing public activity.

One reason why the influence of classical antiquity entered Kahn’s schemes with such undiluted force is that he was not at all inclined to intellectual inquiry after the flashpoint of inspiration. His visceral reactions were what counted to him, and such later reflections as Kahn had were generally directed toward figuring out how to get the thing built. Although he was an extraordinarily loquacious man, Kahn had great difficulty expressing himself clearly. That is borne out at daunting length in Latour’s compendium. In a lecture Kahn gave in Paris during the last weeks of his life, he tried to explain the development of Greek architecture:

Let us take the example of the Parthenon. You can see in the sunshine the walls are broken; the columns ruined the walls, which protected man from danger. When man realized that all was calm outside he pierced a hole in the wall and said “I have made an opening.” The wall wept and said “What are you doing to me?” And man said “I felt that all was well and that I had to make this opening.” Man realized the need for an opening, he decorated it and made the top half into an arch; the wall liked that and agreed that it was beautiful. One never considers if it is noble or not to have an opening because in the order of the wall the window was included.

Such typically inchoate pronouncements, with their shifting points of reference, factual inaccuracies (the arch was a development of Roman, not Greek, architecture), tortured syntax, and the writer’s self-conscious dialogues with building materials (the most famous was “I asked the brick what it liked, and the brick said, ‘I like an arch’ “), tend to fall apart on the printed page. But such was the force of Kahn’s personality that he was able to infuse his rambling and imprecise statements with a conviction that communicated itself to his followers more clearly than the actual words themselves. Hundreds of Kahn’s students found him the greatest teacher they had ever encountered.

Certainly, Kahn was more interested in imparting knowledge than in acquiring it in conventional ways. “He always claimed never to have read,” writes David G. De Long in Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture, the catalog of the exhibition that is traveling until 1994, “and there is no reason not to believe him.” Indeed, one of the most telling anecdotes recounted in that book deals with Kahn’s encounter with the plan of Hadrian’s Villa (another Roman favorite of his) eleven years after his return from the American Academy. During the arduous process of designing the Salk Institute for Biological Studies of 1959–1965 in La Jolla, De Long tells us, Thomas Vreeland, a young architect in Kahn’s office, often heard Kahn musing

upon Hadrian’s Villa in his attempt to conjure the essence of a “place of the unmeasurable.” After several of his efforts to come up with a satisfactory scheme yielded only withering grimaces from Kahn, Vreeland took a plan of Hadrian’s Villa out of a book in the office library and traced a portion of it onto the troublesome site. Kahn did not immediately recognize the graft and responded to Vreeland’s drawing with great enthusiasm.

Kahn’s tendency was not to use historical sources as quotations but to look upon them as evocations of the timeless grandeur he found absent in most modern architecture. He did not seek the pedigree of established precedent or try to display an erudition he did not command. Thus it was a supreme irony (and posthumous indignity) that in the years immediately following Kahn’s death in 1974 he was often described as the founding father of postmodern architecture.

Kahn in fact was the teacher and employer of many of the leading participants in the early phase of the postmodern movement, including Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Charles Moore, and Romaldo Giurgola. And several of the motifs that have become identified with Kahn have had a strong effect on his postmodern epigones. These include the “building within a ruin” (a complete structure set within a second set of perimeter screen walls with unglazed windows, as at Dacca and the Indian Institute of Management of 1962–1974 in Ahmedabad), masonry walls with huge circular or triangular “cutouts,” as at Dacca and the Phillips Academy Library of 1965–1972 in Exeter, New Hampshire, and a Beaux-Arts-influenced emphasis on axial symmetry. But to try to make Kahn into a proto-postmodernist both belittles his most daring accomplishment—wresting American institutional architecture away from the bland conformity of the late International Style—and falsely connects him to the inception of what can now be seen as a failed stylistic and polemical adventure.


Such misinterpretations and misappropriations underscore the need to define Kahn more fully and accurately than has been the case in the nineteen years since his death. His insistence that architecture is above all an art form recast the nature of high-style building design for the last quarter of this century. Kahn proved that if the architect could no longer be credible as the social engineer dreamed of by the early modernists, he could still be a central force in contemporary culture.

The need to explain Kahn to a new generation was the impulse behind the retrospective exhibition organized by David B. Brownlee and David G. De Long of the University of Pennsylvania (where Kahn taught between 1955 and 1974 and where his archive has been deposited) and organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where the show will next appear in the spring, having begun in Philadelphia and traveled to Paris and New York.

It had long been apparent that perhaps more than any other recent architecture Kahn’s work needed to be reevaluated. The existing literature—from Scully’s frankly promotional writings to the eulogies published after Kahn’s death—lacked a reliable basic study. Furthermore, the sound and fury of the postmodernist Eighties left little room for the inner qualities of an architect like Kahn to be appreciated with the degree of seriousness and calm they deserve. Thus the show is indeed a very welcome event, not least because of its tricontinental exposure and its lengthy run.

Kahn’s oeuvre touches upon many of the questions that have troubled American architects in recent years, and if the major reassessment Kahn merits has been too long in coming, its delay also gives us greater historical perspective on the exact nature of his contribution and its importance to the future of his profession. However, both the show and its catalog present considerable difficulties for the non-specialist hoping to penetrate the mystique that has made Kahn a cult figure among other architects but little known to the lay public. Accounting for the myth might be difficult, but surely a clear, introductory exposition of Kahn’s work ought to be possible. Unfortunately, although the exhibition’s organizers are to be commended for assembling so many important artifacts (especially Kahn’s incomparable drawings and his less thrilling but highly informative models) the disposition of those works—at least as they were installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and New York’s Museum of Modern Art—verged on the disastrous.

Order and continuity were hampered by the exhibition’s biggest conceptual mistake: the use of an ungainly and intrusive display scheme contrived by the esteemed Japanese architect Arata Isozaki (who designed the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles). Basing his idea on the perimeter floor plan of Kahn’s unexecuted Mikveh Israel Synagogue of 1961–1972 for Philadelphia, Isozaki devised a modular wooden wall system that was meant to recall the American’s architecture in three dimensions.

Although it is not impossible for a strong-minded high-style architect to summon up the attributes of the work of another in a museum installation, one has seen very few examples of that difficult feat over the years. Regrettably, Isozaki’s design is notably unsuccessful. The Japanese architect set up fortress-like gray-stained wooden walls and cylinders (echoing Kahn’s obsession with defensive Romanesque and Medieval forms at the time of the synagogue commission), but these impede any logical flow of visitors through the exhibition. The curving elements serve poorly as display surfaces for flat art, and the unit accurately recollects Kahn’s work only unintentionally. The constricted leftover spaces surrounding the structure feel much like the awkward interstices that Kahn could never quite resolve even in his best buildings.

Although visual treasures abound in the exhibition, the progression from one project to the next is difficult to follow. Furthermore, inadequate labeling adds to greater confusion among the major thematic sections, such as Kahn’s philosophy, his reaction against orthodox modernism, and his designs for civic and religious groups, educational institutions, museums, libraries, and memorials. (With the exception of an unexecuted skyscraper scheme of 1966–1973 for Kansas City, Missouri, Kahn received virtually no commercial commissions.) Someone already fairly familiar with Kahn’s work might be able to patch together a clear and satisfying experience among the scattered drawings, models, and photographs, but a lay-person trying to understand why Kahn is so highly regarded by his peers is likely to be puzzled.

Still, certain displays within the show work very well. A magnificent cutaway plywood model of the Dacca National Assembly Building, raised to eye level, was illuminated with overhead light so effectively in Philadelphia and New York that one could get a very good idea of what it would feel like to be in the majestic Assembly Chamber. The opposite effect was achieved by a series of garish, back-lit color transparencies of the architect’s major works, shown at the Philadelphia Museum within a shrinelike chamber and in New York, somewhat less objectionably, along a single wall. Much less was made of the most beautiful photographic images in the exhibition, a black-and-white survey of Kahn’s masterpieces by Grant Mudford, commissioned for the show and its catalog. In Philadelphia, those superb prints were relegated to a gallery separated from the main body of the show by the book shop, beyond which only the most determined visitors were likely to have ventured to find them.

The exhibition’s catalog suffers from many of the same deficiencies as the show itself. Again, the problems are largely a matter of organization. Although the book is dense with new research on Kahn—indeed, it is now the basic reference—its material on individual buildings is diffused among several sections: a series of six thematic essays by the curators; a separate photographic portfolio of his major projects; a sequence of shorter monographic essays on individual buildings contributed by a number of Kahn scholars; and a complete chronology of his built and unbuilt works. Repetitions and overlapping are numerous, and a reader looking for a specific building has to do a great deal of index-consulting and page-flipping.


How the show will work when it arrives at the Kimbell Museum this summer is an intriguing prospect. By common consent, the Kimbell is not only Kahn’s chef-d’oeuvre, but also the most admired art museum of the modern period. Even those who have reservations about some of the architect’s other buildings—including his generally uninteresting private houses, his lifeless First Unitarian Church of 1959–1969 in Rochester, New York, and the grim Erdman Hall dormitory of 1960–1965 at Bryn Mawr College—never fail to be won over by the Kimbell. It is the perfect demonstration of the fact that architecture for the display of art need not be neutral to the point of self-abnegation, as some patrons and critics have argued during the recent period of extensive museum construction. At the Kimbell, art and architecture coexist in sublime equilibrium, each enlivening the other and creating an atmosphere best captured by Baudelaire’s famous and for once absolutely appropriate trinity of luxe, calme, et volupté.

For the Kimbell, Kahn went back again to Roman sources for his laterally arranged barrel-vaulted galleries surrounding four courtyards (a larger series of atriums was proposed in preliminary versions). But this time he did not draw on the grand public architecture of the baths and forums that he employed for Dacca and Ahmedabad. Rather he turned to the more intimate—though still imposing—scale of the Roman villa set in a garden. He also drew on less exalted classical forms, specifically storage structures and warehouses with relatively low vaulted ceilings, such as the Ramesseum at Thebes and the Porticus Aemilia in Rome.

Yet any hint of the workaday or utilitarian is avoided by the arcadian setting of reflecting pools and delicate yaupon holly trees and the structure’s rich cladding of tawny travertine marble. Although one now enters the museum through an unpromising door fronting the parking lot (a view illustrated in neither of the exhibition catalogs), Kahn had wanted visitors to approach via the elevation that is now considered the back of the building, facing Philip Johnson’s Amon Carter Museum of 1961 across a landscaped park.

Nevertheless, once inside one is drawn up to the exhibition galleries by both a flight of steps and the overhead illumination from Kahn’s ingenious skylights, the most suggestive and memorable since Sir John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery of 1811–1814. The eye is thus constantly carried upward, tending to return only incrementally to the pictures, which are thereby accorded a perceptual isolation far greater than that afforded by the galleries’ spatial divisions alone. Each masterwork—picture for picture, the Kimbell’s is among the greatest collections of paintings in the United States—inhabits an architectural volume, defined by light, all its own, and a complete rapport between the artifact and the viewer is achieved. In every respect Kahn exceeded the task set forth by the museum’s founding director, Richard Fargo Brown, who called upon the architect to aim for “warmth, mellowness and even elegance” in spaces of “harmonious simplicity and human proportion.”

How that goal was carried out is explained in detail in the catalog written by Patricia Cummings Loud to accompany the exhibition The Art Museums of Louis I. Kahn held in 1989 and 1990. (It, too, made a stop at the Kimbell, where it was not burdened with an ill-conceived simulacrum of the work of the building’s architect.) This exhaustively researched book documenting the creation of the Yale Gallery of 1951–1953, the Kimbell, and Kahn’s last completed work, the Yale Center for British Art of 1969–1974 (constructed after his death by the firm of Pellecchia and Meyers) as well as the planning of the unexecuted de Menil Museum from 1972 to 1974 for Houston, reveals that even with four exceptionally sympathetic patrons—Yale’s architecturally enlightened president A. Whitney Griswold, the civic-minded Velma Kimbell, the modern Maecenas Paul Mellon, and the distinguished collector Dominique de Menil—the architect found those commissions very rough going. Each scheme went through several major revisions—this in itself is not unusual in architectural practice—but in Kahn’s case it seems to have been a necessary part of the process by which he worked out a design, not unlike a writer who makes extensive revisions in his galleys instead of in manuscript.

Kahn was also capable of misreading his clients’ wishes: his first, grandiose proposal for the British Art Center proceeded from his imagined sense of what the fabulously rich Mellon would find appropriate. Under one early sketch Kahn wrote the legend “Palazzo Melloni.” The architect soon discovered that the unassuming sponsor had in mind something more along the lines of a comfortable but unostentatious English country house. (When he came face to face with his more eminent clients, Kahn had a tendency to become a bit unhinged. Jules Prown, a Yale art history professor who acted as Mellon’s intermediary on the British Art Center project, recalls that part of his job was trying to convince Mellon and his associates “that this guy wasn’t some kind of mad poet.”)

But any notion that Kahn was an impractical eccentric is dispelled by the ennobling aura of his best buildings, and even by the superb passages that can be found in his less successful works. The Yale Center for British Art, organized around two fifty-six-foot-high internal courtyards that demonstrate the problems Kahn often had with multistory interior spaces, nonetheless has skylit top-floor picture galleries of exceptional warmth and luminosity (if not quite the numinous quality of the Kimbell). The Exeter library has similar disjunctions between colossal public spaces and private study areas. Yet despite the lack of smooth transitions between the two different kinds of space, these not entirely resolved schemes express Kahn’s desire to infuse our cultural institutions with a sense of high purpose and to show that they have a central place in our society, which to a great extent recent architecture had denied them.

Better than any other American architect of his time, Kahn understood and brought to reality Le Corbusier’s dictum that architecture is “the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” For all of his mental meanderings, Kahn could sometimes suggest what he was about. “I am reminded of Tolstoy,” Kahn wrote in 1970, in the midst of his work on the Kimbell commission, “who deviated from faithlessness to faith without question. In his latter state he deplored the miracles, saying that Christ has radiance without them. They were holding a candle to the sun to see the sun better.”

That, in effect, was what Kahn attempted and often succeeded in doing. The interiors of the Kimbell, washed with a natural light that gives its arching vaults an ethereal presence, is as close as we are likely to come to an architecture of the infinite. There the spirit of Kahn makes itself felt in his enduring expression of architecture as art.

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