A Mystic Monumentality

Salk Institute for Biological Studies
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, designed by Louis Kahn and completed in 1965


How odd that the towering genius of architecture during the third quarter of the twentieth century—when his most conventionally successful colleagues prized innovation over tradition, analysis over intuition, and logic over emotion—was a mystically inclined savant who sought to reconnect his medium with its spiritual roots. Indeed, he ran wholly counter to prevailing images of the modern architect. Rather than casting himself as a technocratic superman along the lines of the young Le Corbusier, or a conduit between man and nature like the twinkling Frank Lloyd Wright, he made his name with an architectural gran rifiuto, rejecting the commercial blandishments of an increasingly corporate culture in favor of a quixotic quest to recapture the archaic power of shelter at its most elemental.

This charismatic anachronism was Louis Kahn, who by the time he died in 1974 at the age of seventy-three was widely and correctly considered America’s foremost master builder, even though his mature career spanned little more than two decades and he executed only about a dozen important buildings. In recent years Kahn’s messy personal history has threatened to overshadow his immense professional accomplishments, yet his aura has grown steadily, not just for what he achieved but also because of what has taken place in the built environment since his death. After he almost single-handedly restored architecture’s age-old status as an art form, his legacy was quickly squandered by younger coprofessionals. From the mid-1970s onward they have careened from one extreme, short-lived stylistic fad to the next—Postmodernism, Deconstructivism, Blobitecture—and lost sight of the profound values Kahn wanted to convey: timelessness, solidity, nobility, and repose.

Ten years after the publication of the architect’s first full-scale biography, Carter Wiseman’s Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style: A Life in Architecture, we now have Wendy Lesser’s You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Although Wiseman examines eight of the architect’s principal buildings in depth, Lesser focuses on what might be termed the Kahn Quintet: his Salk Institute for Biological Studies of 1959–1965 in La Jolla, California; the Kimbell Art Museum of 1966–1972 in Fort Worth, Texas; the Phillips Exeter Academy Library of 1965–1971 in Exeter, New Hampshire; the Indian Institute of Management of 1962–1974 in Ahmedabad, India; and the Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, or National Assembly Building, of 1962–1983 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Each is a masterpiece, but all are also in some ways imperfect, even the universally beloved Kimbell, with its mastery of the use of light to show works of art against stone walls. Its big failure is the parking lot that fronts the main entrance and brings to mind a suburban strip mall, even though Kahn intended visitors to enter via the recessed courtyard on the opposite side of the building, beautifully landscaped by…

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