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Kahn revisited




Kahn revisited

Giuseppe Strappa

In architecture, certain ideas and key figures need to be continuously reinterpreted, and each generation has its own form of reinterpretation. It has happened in the past in the case of certain architects, from Vitruvius to Borromini, whose lessons in creativity end up being the product of the times in which the interpretation took place, a result of the many, changing readings that have been made, layer upon layer, over time. It happens still today. I believe, however, that this fruitful form of rethinking and further examination is readily, if not principally, applicable in the case of Louis Isadore Kahn, who was the bearer of a message that was, by its nature, predisposed, one could say, to many different interpretations.

This book – the progress of which I have had the pleasure of following during its various stages of evolution – proposes exactly this: a new interpretation of Kahn’s legacy carried out with scientific scrupulousness, while being aware of the critical state in which design projects find themselves today. A “new” Kahn, in other words. A Kahn, certainly, who is completely modern, since in him are embodied the anxieties and abuses of the contemporary condition. But his is a modernity that is exceptional and different, one to be totally re-examined, because he painfully attempted to diagnose these divisive factors and re-arrange them in a single framework, to recompose the scattered elements of the shattered reality around him into an ideal form that would unify everything and hold it in place. In this quest for knowledge lies all the drama of Louis Kahn, and his perpetual innovation: surrounded by the most contradictory of all possible environments – the America of mass-production industry and market forces – he imagined a different, organic world, in which each thing had its own place in accordance with timeless rules (timeless, not ancient), and where everything recomposed itself, in a way unlike what happened in the past, of course, since nothing can take place without change. In a world dominated by speed, Kahn managed to perceive, once again and afresh, the slow, eternal ebb and flow of life in architecture. This concept was not linear in time, one could say, but a kind of cyclic, endless reappearance of forms.

I believe it is important for us to recognise his ability to place a measure on things, to set a limit that determined the actual meaning of a form: progressively rediscovering the poetic wisdom of the rule, and how it had functioned so well throughout history. We can sift through the ruins of a major calamity, but Kahn seems to be telling us that we know how to put those ruins back together again, like the young man in Tarkovsky’s Andrej Rublev, who faced with the annihilation of every scrap of traditional knowledge, remembers how to cast an iron bell, and gives this information to his fellow-citizens who are wandering lost among the destruction wreaked by the invasion of barbarian hordes.

And so, this re-composition, this activity of reconstructing anew what has been broken and scattered, is the great epic theme of Kahn’s entire course of experimentation, the anti-modern “other side”, we might say, of some of his many contradictory facets, which does not allow for simplification. This idea was inherited, to a certain extent, from Paul Philippe Cret, a remarkable architect and educator, whose career has been somewhat overshadowed by Kahn’s bright shining star, but which has also been dignified, as Elisabetta Barizza points out, by a recognition of Cret’s fundamental maieutic role in Kahn’s education. However, I believe that in the American architectural milieu, Kahn’s message was fated to fall on deaf ears. Despite the formidable amount of work that went into spreading his views, and the efforts of art historians in exploring influences and interconnections, there are few traces, in the work of architects of his time or later, of the influence of Kahn’s passing star.

The power of his architecture has, on the other hand, been the unintended driving force for an entire generation of Italian architects, who themselves had been brought up on teachings that differed from those of Cret, yet which were, in some sense, linked to them by an underlying idea of unity between parts, conveyed by geometry. Above all, the semi-forgotten notion of organism, put forward by teachers in Italian architectural faculties (in particular, that of Rome in the pre-war years), acted as an underground stream, deep-running and subliminal. Perhaps for this reason, Kahn’s teachings held a particular attraction for some members of the architectural scene in the 1970s, when, during a period of crisis and impermanence, they seemed to offer the illusion of certainty and longevity. Kahn appeared above all to bestow a new sense of pride and faith in the ways and means of architecture, which, long under threat for its basic principles, at that time was reclaiming its independence as a discipline.

Yet there was another affinity that, to my mind, favoured Kahn’s reception in Italy: a distinctive, Mediterranean way of perceiving the tangible quality of materials. The plastic potential inherent in Kahn’s work was, to a large extent, due to the genuine, masonry-based solidity created between spaces and construction, between the walls that supported the weight of a building and, at the same time, closed up the spaces; it also relied upon the form constructed out of the organic act of holding all the component parts of a project together. An act that nonetheless abandoned the precision of classical measurement, the ideal home of all ideas of organism, and took into account the fact that the ancient geometries of perfect cosmogonies had given way to the ambivalences of the modern world, and it was no longer a question of maintaining absolute unities, which did not include at least the beneficial seeds of the undefined. Since our minds have need for a crystal-clear esprit de géometrie, our hearts welcome the devices that create large shadows, the mystery of collapsing spaces, the light that shines from some hidden source, the glare that we want to shield our eyes from. Courageously, Kahn once more brings forth forgotten, grandiose themes that appear to engage the central core of an architect’s work: great imposing public buildings, the malleable design of monuments and the study of Platonic forms created by a meta-historic line of reasoning far removed from any form of internationalist rationalism. Thus, Kahn, using a language that was immediately comprehensible to Italian architects, assuaged the widespread distress and discomfort that emerged at that time, as architects were confronted with a modernist legacy, the limitations of which were already seen to be too confining. His ideas soon uncovered the real nature of this cultural crossroads – a point where many came together, or found themselves, only to disperse once again and follow other paths. That however brief moment of meeting nevertheless appeared to lay down a lasting foundation for an identity that was otherwise on the way to extinction. What would the researches, albeit original, of Franco Purini, Alessandro Anselmi, Claudio D’Amato, Massimo Martini and many others (if we consider only the Roman architects) have been like, without their encounters with Louis Kahn? I think that even apparently distant cultural contexts, such as that of The Swiss Ticino canton, managed to forge historical links with Italian architecture through the medium of Kahn. One only need think of the design project experience of Mario Botta, who inherited from Kahn certain research themes during his collaboration on the Palazzo dei Congressi project in Venice.

This subject matter has already been given wide treatment by the present author, along with Marco Falsetti, in their book Rome and the Legacy of Louis Kahn (Routledge, London, New York, 2018), which includes contributions from many of the protagonists of the time. Her working hypothesis, therefore, is solidly based on research into how much Kahn imparted to the Roman architectural scene, allowing her to claim that one could, in some ways, refer to a “Kahn season” experienced by all concerned. To go beyond this, to examine how this shared experience could have been drawn from a background of common ideas, is undoubtedly a task beset by uncertainty. However, what is clear and plausible is a recognition of a methodological source and a Kahnian poetic core, founded on a vitally new definition of an architectural organism, in its deepest sense of a design model that reconciles and links together the individual parts of a construction into a single, close relationship based on necessity, and assigns to each of them a common purpose. This interpretation is demonstrable – and is, in fact, demonstrated by Elisabetta Barizza – and links Kahn’s work to a European tradition of teaching and theory that found, in the inter-war years in Italy, not only its most modern and inheritable expression, but also its most convincing practical validation. This is to put forward an explanation that is partial, but that is also the task of any architect filled with enthusiasm for their work, even at the project stage. In today’s cultural climate, where it seems impossible to talk of unity and synthesis, the notion of organism remains one of the basic ideas on which one can establish a critical interpretation of constructed reality and, thus, of architectural design itself.

For this reason, then, a return to a study of Louis Kahn is a useful decision: to rediscover to what extent his work is valid for contemporary design, in order to resolve the current impasse in architecture, which has been stalled for decades in abstract, eye-catching researches, continually innovating without any form of central focal point. A new reading of Kahn’s concept of organism, by revisiting his works and his writings, I am convinced, can help our discipline of architecture find its way back to reality. This concept, updated and vital, does not, as his work demonstrates, imply any form of mechanical determinism, but is the expression of the multiple connections that link together elements, systems and structures, which together contribute to the final constructive outcome of architecture. The organism and organicity that Barizza identifies in Kahn’s work is altogether different from the naturalistic arguments utilised throughout history, nor do they have anything in common with the numerous interpretations proffered incessantly from the 16th century up to the current ideas of the organic, which have indirectly traversed modern architecture. The idea used here is more similar to the modern term, unknown before the Enlightenment, of “organisation”, in the sense of a set of rules that govern the coordination of separate elements with one another. This term entered the scientific vocabulary with the meaning of “ordering, arranging” in the mid-17th century, used to indicate a set of parts that collaborate together for the same function. Kahn’s employment of this idea – and his acknowledgement of the importance of necessity, congruence and proportion in design – enables one, in an exemplary fashion, to regard an architectural work as an artificial product of a unifying thought process that does not rely on the study of nature nor even on the study of single works created by architects, but on a form of universal formative structures that operate throughout history, within all histories. All of which goes to say that it is far removed from current thinking – which proves, to my mind, its greater usefulness.

The notion of process

Giuseppe Strappa

The notion of process ( learning form Alnwick)







Delft paper Alnwick pubblicato           click here

  1. Aims

Alnwick is a small, picturesque town in Nothumberland, on the border between ‘England and Scotland. Doubtfully it could  be of great interest to foreign art scholar for the value of its monuments or to the historian for its documental importance. The value of the book M.R.G.Conzen wrote about Alnwick and the reason why we believe it is important a new edition for the Italian readers are due to the relevant  ideas about  the city it contains, and the kind of reading it proposes, which is  generalizable.

What explicitly interests the author is, in fact, a theory on urban form. Theory (and not just method) in origin aimed to the studies in geography, but which is valid not only for other case studies, but also valuable for other fields of knowledge. In this sense, the study in the formation of a small urban center acquires an ontological value as  it deals with the fundamentals of urban  knowledge: it investigates why and how an urban form is born,  according to which laws it grows and changes to the current condition.

Analyzing the form of the built landscape not as an aesthetical product (as the surface of things), but as the visible aspect of a structure, thus  expressing its characters and transformations, the work of Conzen is somehow “architectural” just in the sense that our school gives that word. On the basis of the analysis of the Conzenian text we had made for the Italian edition, I would like to make, in this paper, some observations  about principles and definitions he employs:
1. Which of these principles are also architectural;
2  If they are working  for contemporary design.

  1. Architectural notion of “process”
    The most original of these conzenian principles for the architect is, in my opinion, the notion of process.
    Process, literally from Latin procedo, to advance, is, in the field of our  studies, a series of events related to each other leading to the formation, transformation and ruin of a territorial, urban or built structure.

But, beyond the definitions, bearing in mind the notion of process means looking at the world with different eyes: looking at things not as they just appear, but in their becoming, as a moment of transformation, as a temporary condition of passage. Nothing is immobile, even the monuments. The buildings, the urban fabrics, the city that we see are equilibrium states in the transformation of matter that becomes provisionally construction. The actual built landscape  is part of a large flow of transformations in which we must learn to recognize the origin, the  developments and the possible future changes. These possible future changes  are the project itself.
This notion of process expresses, as we see, a point of view very different from that of history. The historian, in fact, reconstructs the past as a path (as a sequence of events) aimed at the present. The history fixes steps and signs that have a direction. The same idea of modernity is a modern creation: it is made ​​to begin when it is useful to begin, with the Italian Renaissance, when the values ​​that we share today were acknowledged (freedom, individual expression, the man at the center of the universe etc.)
This also applies to the architects. The same history of modern architecture recognizes in the past the signs and stages that operate to demonstrate the need for modern forms. Le Corbusier reads  in ancient history what  is functional to point the way to the modern revolution. He see things as they appear and judges them  with his own aesthetical sensibility and beliefs. For him, for example, the Roman palazzos  are just containers  of “gold and horrors” not the result of a great urban and civil transformation. Understanding  its forming process, its character of a small town “turned”  inside, he would have interpreted the palazzo as a palimpsest of modernity . In fact, the concept of ​​process is alien to the ideals of the Modern movement: it involves not the reading of sudden revolutions, but of transformations that take place over a long time, performing a non-linear history.  It involves duration, transition states that occur in the slow passage of time.
Implies recognizing cultural areas and historical periods.

  1. The Conzenian notion of process
    M.R.G.Conzen never gives a definition of the term, but the whole book on Alnwick is a structured, rigorous, even meticulous enunciation of the concept of process, a demonstration of its validity for urban studies and, in my opinion, even a possible contribution, today, for the formation of a new architecture that overcomes the way of reading the city as space and volume “a method – he claims – which has its roots largely in an earlier architectural preoccupation with the contrast between  ‘voids’ and ‘solids’ and its aesthetic implications. ” (Conzen,1969, p.4).  The Conzenian notion of process involves all the scales of analysis, from the land plot to the city plan. See the case of the process of formation, saturation, transformation and recession of the burgage (medieval plot) through which we can understand the current form of housing types that form the central fabric of the city, from the Middle Ages, with the increase due to  the new density of the working-class neighborhoods, until the final demolition of part of the fabric subsequent to the contemporary urban renewal .  The Burgage cycle, as defined by Conzen, by producing typical forms of construction deep in the lot, and repeated in the fabric, also shows clearly specificities and  differences with other cultural areas, as in central and southern Italy, where the industrial revolution had a very different impact and single-family houses have been recast to form multifamily “in linea” houses. Conzen creates an entire universe of definitions to explain the general notion of process, where recurring terms such as accumulation of forms, persistence of forms, pattern metamorphosis, indicate a progressive development, according to certain laws of successive increments of the urban fabric. So, we can distinguish different ways of transforming the built landscape:
    – The process of transformation of the plot system [Plot pattern metamorphosis] through which the plot models produce diachronic variants,
    – The process of fusing  the lots [Plot amalgamation] that produces the growth in size of the lots or those of division and cropping.

–  The process of morphological  growth [Accumulation of forms] caused by particular social needs, economic and cultural conditions during subsequent periods more or less distinct .

Some definitions are identical to those of the Muratorian school such as restructuring cycle [Redevelopment cycle]: the transformation process in response to the economic revaluation of the central urban soil under conditions of gradual increase in the power of capital investments, with the formation of new urban tissue , followed by a phase of gradual replacement  of unitary parts. Even the most relevant and scientifically innovative of concepts introduced by Conzen, the one of fringe belt, is linked to the notion of process. I want just to remark here  its absolute actuality and how it can interpret the non-linear development of the contemporary city, their periods of stagnation and others of accelerated development, their  mixture of different types of land use, characterized from  great  fragmentation in urban fabric and diversified patterns.

The result is an “architectural” reading of the formation of Alnwick which starts from territorial routes, conditioned by the form of the soil, still identifiable (apart from the interruption of Pottergate church area), as links of the urban centers of Lesbury, Eglingham and Wittingham. A process of “knotting” is formed, in this case expressed by the central area of Alnwick, typical of all specializations  at any scale of the built environment, including building scale.  A process, I would like to point out, that should  be investigated in all its aspects as it explains the formation of many modern building  types.

The great triangle of Central Alnwick (Fig.1), resulting from intersection of routes, was originally in fact a large open area, the ancient market square of a border town that, for its size, could meet the needs of a  farming community and those of a regional center. The free market area of the Anglo period, is then transformed from agricultural and animals market in a space with shops. Starting with the first wooden structures, it is progressively saturated and solidified. While the burgage plots on the perimeter tend to repeat in succession, the node organizes having its own unitary plan, establishing a relationship of necessity between the parties. It tends to form a concluded space. The fabric  has developed spontaneously from small isolated buildings and temporary shops, through a slow process, in more compact unities, easily identifiable as market aggregates opposed to the surrounding, oldest and serial, road blocks. In conclusion, we can understand the actual form of central Alnwick as the expression of his transformation process where increasing pressure on the central spaces available will lead to the gradual saturation of the ancient triangular area of the market, resulting in the filling within the system of the three main roads and the formation of new roads and fabric within a structure previously developed.

  1. The Muratorian school notion of process

For the Muratorian school a process is the gradual mutation of urban fabrics and building types. The bearing process shall be the reference one, in that it contains the historical development of the solutions fully integrated, and therefore allows us to recognize the parallel processes, the processes of synchronical typological variants derived from diachronical transformations, which then identify mutations intrinsic to each place and development stages of each city.

Taken for granted the evident similarities between the theories of Conzen and those of the Muratorian school, it must be said that there are also evident specificities. Consideration should be given to the fact these their theories are not abstract ones applied to the built landscape, as Platonic ideas identified from time to time in individual cases, but on the contrary, principles of general validity extracted from the analysis of factual case studies (Caniggia, 1976).

The ideas of ​​organism and organicity are therefore specific to the Italian school (Strappa,1995; Strappa,2003) as they were born from the studies on a very different urban landscape.  Alnwick has been formed and is readable today as a serial structure, in which each element maintains its own specificity even in the aggregation. Even in fusions of burgage building types remain serial. In the Italian city units blend  together (or de quantified) to form new types of buildings , tending to organize themselves over time as a new organism.

Some examples. The small town of Castel Madama, east of Rome, for example, consists of a fabric formed by  courtyard houses separated by ambitus that organically formed even the city wall. Over time, the courtyard houses have been divided into smaller units, giving rise to new building types (pseudo row house or single-cell house), while the open space of the court has generated access routes to new city gates, due to the progressive worthlessness of defensive  walls (Camiz,2011). In this sense, perhaps the clearest expression of an organic forming process is the Italian palace, generated as a transformation of the fabric.

The apulian palazzetto, small palace, (Fig.2) derives from the transformation and recasting of housing units.
From the Ninth, Tenth century a type of palace derived from courtyard houses is formed in Apulia, identified by buildings such as Palazzo De Luca in Molfetta, De Lerma in Bitonto, Baldassare in Altamura, Beltrani and Palagano in Trani.  (Carlotti, 2010; Strappa et al., 2003).

In other areas the permanence of the court is even more evident. We cannot understand the facade of a Venetian palace, for example, but as a transformation of the original domus, where the central tracery, the  polifora light and transparent, is the heritage of the courtyard open space (Strappa, 1998).

And we cannot understand the Roman palazzo, as well, if we don’t recognize it as the result of a row houses recasting process in which the traces of the original modulus are retained on the facade.

Palaces as Lancellotti or Altieri are the clear product of a process that transforms a portion of tissue in a new building.

  1. Use of the notion of process in architectural design
    For the architect, the notion of process makes sense if it is “working”, if it is capable to have a real effect on the built environment. Reading, as the project, is always a critical operation and involves the responsibility of the designer. Let me present, as my interpretation of  what is said above, the processual design of a building for public services in a small Italian town. As the proposal is based on the continuation of a historical process of transformation of the city still going on, the reading of the forming process is a substantial part of the project . This reading is based on two ideas:
  2. The collaboration of housing to form thespecialized buildings.In particular,in the project,the notion of “palazzo” is used as a synthesis of the processof union betweenthe differentunits.Theproposedsolution is anupdatingof the existing fabric(residential and rural buildings currentlyabandoned)with virtually nodemolition. Reemployingexistingbuilding not only will help in defendingthe charactersof the built landscape, but will also produceasignificant economyin thecost of the intervention, and an energy savingdue to the considerablethicknessof theexisting wallsandthe shape, locationand exposureofold buildings.
  3. All the partscomposingthe townarelinked to each otherby a specificratioof necessitythatconstitutesthe main character of the urban organism.These relationships,made​​legiblethrough architecture,form thestructure of the newproject.The new buildingis formedas a newurban node, a knotting of the courses that establish the new public spaces.

The existing buildings to transform have characters that plainly indicate the derivation from three original courtyard houses, according to a type common in many other small historical towns of consolidated rural traditions. We hypothesized the evolutionary phases of the transformation process typical of these buildings:

The first formative phase is characterized by the presence of a fabric of elementary courtyard house, with access from the route;

– The second formative phase in which a partial filling of some of the courts is developed, with the construction of secondary rural buildings;

– The third formative phase (the current one) in which some of the large courtyard houses, originally owned by a single owner, are split up to develop a  new tissue of smaller pseudo row houses;

– The fourth formative phase (hypothesized on the basis of the ongoing process), in which the recasting of building cells is developed around a common court, and knotting of routes to form a new specialized building according to the palazzo building type

The fourth and final phase corresponds to the project, proposed as the result of a continuous process of cooperation between unities. The new building (Fig.3) will have the representative character of the palace, evidenced primarily by the space of the courtyard, where the paving expresses the hierarchy of routes, connected  to the main urban areas, tied together in an  internal square  which will be a new Carezzano civic center. The new space, bordered by old buildings reused, paved with stone slabs, will be used for public events, along with the space connected to the Piazza S. Eusebius and the Town Hall Square, in which the material and the design of the paving express a clear link.

  1. Conclusions

We developed this project not as practice work, but as a test of a designing  method in a site until then unknown to us[1]. So we did not absolutely expected to win, also because the spirit of the competition  implied the demolition of the existing buildings and the renewal of the old center trough the  input of contemporary ”mediatic “architecture. The fact that, instead, we unexpectedly won the competition is, in our opinion, a confirmation that things are changing. We believe that the architecture of the spectacle is ending.
Maybe people are tired of buildings for no reason twisted and is worried by the gherkin shaped  skyscrapers rising in almost every city, in London, in Barcelona, in China.
We must find new ways. Also due to the sequence of economic and social crises that pose obvious problems in employing resources, it is necessary to establish new principles in architecture (logical, economic, ethic ) based on the proper ratio between the means we employ and the goals to be achieved. We believe that, against the contemporary cult of luxury and waste, this new ethic and aesthetic of measured, parsimonious use of resources should coincide, in large part, with the understanding (following the teaching of Conzen and Muratori), the updating and the wise, innovative continuation of the formative process of existing buildings and fabrics.



CANIGGIA, G. 1976. Strutture dello spazio antropico, Firenze, Uniedit.

CARLOTTI, P. 2010. Studi tipologici sul palazzetto pugliese, Bari, Polibapress.

CONZEN, M.R.G. 1969. Alnwick Northumberland. A study in town-plan analysis. London, Institute of British Geographers, 1960 (1°).

MARETTO, M. 2012. Saverio Muratori. Il progetto della città. Saverio Muratori, a legacy in urban design, Milano, Francoangeli.

STRAPPA, G. 1995. Unità dell’organismo architettonico. Note sulla formazione e trasformazione dei caratteri degli edifici, Bari, Adda Editore.

STRAPPA,G. 1998. The notion of enclosure in the formation of Special Building Type, in Typological Process and Design Theory (Proceedings of the International Symposium held at M.I.T., Cambridge, on march 1995), Cambridge.

STRAPPA,G. IEVA M, DIMATTEO M.A. 2003. La città come organismo. Lettura di Trani alle diverse Scale, Bari, Adda Editore.

STRAPPA,G. 2003. La nozione caniggiana di organismo e l’eredità della scuola di architettura di Roma, in: G.L.Maffei (ed.), Gianfranco Caniggia architetto, A.Linea, Firenze.

STRAPPA, G. 2006. Lettura e progetto dell’organismo urbano di La Valletta, Bari, Polibapress.

STRAPPA, G. (ed) 2012 Studi sulla periferia est di Roma, Milano, Francoangeli.


Images captures

  1. Holdings in the central triangle of Alnwick, 1567 (from Conzen, 1969) .
  2. Formativeprocessof the Apulian “palazzetto”from courtyard house, to pseudo rowhouses, to specialized building (from Carlotti,2010).
  3. Recasting design ofcourtyard housesfor a newcivic center in Carezzano(design team: G.Strappa, project leader; A. Camiz, P.Carlotti, G.Galassi, M.Maretto, designers; N.Boggio, P.Ciotoli, M.Longo,collaborators).


Giuseppe Strappa – Università di Roma, “Sapienza” gstrappa@yahoo.com