Tag Archives: Louis Kahn

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.

Dormitories in Louis Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad to be demolished

Let us sign against the demolition of a monument that belongs to both India and the world
Prem Chandavarkar
An Open Letter to Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad   

Dear Dr. D’Souza,

Iam writing this open letter to articulate the deep concern felt by many architects and non-architects, from India and elsewhere in the world, on hearing that Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) plans to demolish most of the dormitory blocks designed by Louis Kahn that form a key part of the historic core of IIMA, and has invited bids from architects to redesign these dormitories, albeit in an architectural language sympathetic to the Kahn idiom.

An article in The Indian Express of 25 December 2020 raises some of these concerns and cites you as stating that you have written a letter on 23 December 2020 to all IIMA alumni, and all queries are answered in the letter. I have been through this letter and feel compelled to state that many concerns still remain.

At the famous house ‘Fallingwater’ in Pennsylvania, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, there is a plaque that marks the moment that Edgar Kaufmann Jr. surrendered his ownership to donate the house to a trust that would preserve it as a milestone of architectural heritage accessible to the public.  The plaque cites Kaufmann’s justification of this donation, saying that there are some houses built by one man for another man whereas this is a house built by one man for all of humankind.  The work of Louis Kahn should be seen in the same spirit. Kahn was a seminal figure of 20th century architecture who occupies a unique place in history in the way his built work and writings display mastery of an architecture that is simultaneously modern and timeless. He has left a heritage that carries value to all of humankind, and IIMA has been privileged to act as a custodian of a valuable piece of this heritage.  This is a mantle that must be granted its due and not worn lightly, a fact that is already acknowledged by IIMA in naming the main plaza of the campus after Louis Kahn and acknowledging on the institution’s website that Kahn’s designs at IIMA “instil in the viewer a sense of awe and wonder”. This spirit is infectious and involves more than Kahn: it affected many who collaborated with him on the IIMA project. More significantly, it has had an impact on generations who have inhabited the spaces of IIMA, demonstrated by the fact that there are very few institutions who acknowledge the architect who designed them with the reverence that IIMA shows to Kahn on their website. It is more than the matter of a specific individual; we hold in these buildings a wider legacy the reflects primordial human spirit, and this spirit should provide the light under which the challenge of restoring the dormitories must be evaluated.

You have said in your letter to alumni, “We have grappled with questions as to why we should presume that the past is not changeable and why we should assume that future generations will value things in exactly the same way that past generations have. We wondered if it is appropriate for us to colonise future perceptions of living spaces.”  Can awe and wonder colonise the future? Are they not timeless values that sustain the core of the human soul? I urge IIMA to not look at this as a conflict between past, present and future. Heritage is not solely about the preservation of the past.  In its essence, heritage is a contemporary moment of critical discernment where we look at the past and carefully choose what is worth remembering because that memory will serve the future well.  Surely, Kahn’s legacy is a past that does not degrade, and its continued physical presence, in all its authenticity, will serve the future well through the eternal values of awe and wonder that it evokes.

You have stated that Dormitories 16,17,18, along with the restored Dormitory 15, will be retained as “they constitute the periphery of the built campus and are the first buildings that persons who enter the campus see and understand along with the LKP and associated buildings as the grandeur associated with the work of Kahn.”  This reasoning is troubling, as it implies a devaluation of heritage to place more emphasis on a public façade, assigning lesser value to what lies behind the façade. Kahn’s design is more than a façade to be seen, it is embodied in a spatial order to be experienced, where the union of the academic block, library and dormitories create an intimate network of courtyards that, along with the buildings, capture the spirit of a monastic community of learners where knowledge is collectively held as sacred. The cohesiveness of this spatial core forms the entirety of the restoration project launched by IIMA in 2014 and is something that must be preserved. To modify it substantively is to devalue the integrity of Kahn’s legacy.

It is striking that your letter does not cite a specific recommendation from Somaya & Kalappa (SNK), the firm appointed by IIMA in 2014 to steer restoration work of the Kahn designs. The quality of their effort is reflected in their restoration of the Vikram Sarabhai Library at IIMA winning an Award of Distinction in the 2019 UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards. As recently as 28 November 2020, Ms. Brinda Somaya, Principal Architect of SNK, delivered an online lecture to CEPT University on the IIMA restoration project. In that lecture, she did not mention a need to abandon any of the Kahn dormitories. She mentioned that Dormitory 15 was selected as a prototype project for restoration as it was one of the dormitories in the worst condition, and if this could be restored, the others would be easier to tackle. In her lecture, she presented the successful restoration of Dormitory 15, a fact that is also affirmed on the IIMA website. In the Indian Express article cited earlier, the reporter mentions contacting Ms. Somaya who responded that she has not been informed about this new bid for architectural services to replace 14 out of 18 Kahn dormitories. It is troubling if this is true and the decision to demolish the Kahn dormitories and invite bids to replace them with new structures was taken without consulting the experts appointed to guide the restoration of the Kahn buildings.

In Ms. Somaya’s lecture she speaks about the seismic vulnerability of the dormitory blocks. She mentioned that while they had a structural consultant to work with them on the project, they realised deeper expertise was needed, and they consulted Dr. Arun Menon of Indian Institute of Technology Madras. Dr. Menon is an internationally recognised expert on seismic design, is one of the primary authors of India’s building codes on seismic design, and one of his specific research interests cited on his CV is “Seismic Response, Assessment and Retrofit of Masonry Structures.” Ms. Somaya spoke on how Dr. Menon’s analysis showed that most of the seismic concerns in the dormitories spring from the height of the masonry drum that encloses the staircase as it rises above terrace level. In the restoration of Dormitory 15, this has been addressed by marginally reducing the height of the drum and adding masonry buttresses that are lower than the parapet height and therefore not visible from outside. It is striking that your letter does not cite any specific recommendation from Dr. Menon, despite the stature of his expertise and his involvement with the restoration project.

Your letter mentions many technical problems that have influenced IIMA’s decision to demolish close to 80% of the Kahn dormitories: seismic risk, poor quality of brickwork, cracking of masonry caused by corrosion of reinforcement rods, a pointing technique used in masonry joints that encourages water seepage, etc.  You state that these make the buildings both impractical and unsafe, and your letter implies they are determining factors. All of these problems are present in the buildings being restored: the Vikram Sarabhai Library, the Classroom Block, the Faculty Block, as well as the four dormitory blocks being restored. Clearly, IIMA would not put people in unsafe and unusable buildings, so the plan to restore these buildings shows these problems have solutions, and Ms. Somaya’s lecture presents many of these solutions.  Clearly, the technical dimensions of these problems cannot be the determining factor.

You state that three imperatives guided IIMA’s decision: (1) functional needs, (2) cultural heritage, and (3) available resources. But your letter throws no light on how you weighted these imperatives in your analysis, especially given the challenge of cultural heritage being the only one of the three whose value is almost wholly intangible. If it is primarily a matter of available resources, a value assigned to heritage would, at the very least, demand tabling an assessment of the resources needed for a complete restoration. And if there is a gap between needed and available resources, the question rises on whether IIMA made an effort to leverage its standing with government, its international reputation, its long list of illustrious alumni, and the global respect and affection granted to Louis Kahn and his designs for IIMA in order to raise the required resources. Your letter is silent on these aspects.

I can appreciate that functional needs have changed, enrolment has grown, and buildings designed close to five decades ago will not accommodate current demands. This challenge is not new; it has been successfully faced by many universities across the world, often with a history going back centuries (far longer than that of IIMA). There are multiple case studies available of how these universities have successfully preserved their built heritage yet been able to adjust to changing times, and their built heritage is a key component of the identity, brand and culture of these universities. Has IIMA surveyed these best practices across the world and benchmarked its evaluation against them? Has there been a campus-wide assessment of how to adjust to new needs, looking beyond the historic core of Kahn’s architecture? Just because the Kahn buildings are the oldest, should they be the only ones considered for demolition, especially given their heritage value? A campus-wide master plan to assess and design for long-term needs, that holds heritage conservation as a core value, should be conducted by a reputed and qualified architect, and this plan should be openly tabled and reviewed as the frame that guides the final decisions. This too finds no mention in your letter.

Your letter states, There were even difficult questions around the central theme of Kahn’s work at the campus which was that everything was planned around the idea of meeting. In today’s world our experience is that students hardly use these shared spaces as they have gravitated to virtual modes of interacting.”  It is true that cyberspace is far more significant to the current generation of students than to earlier generations. But this recognition should not be given undue weightage. First, it is not correct to assume that physical meeting spaces are no longer significant as they have been completely appropriated by cyberspace; students still value physical meeting, and a visit to any reasonably priced coffee house or pub is sufficient to demonstrate this.  Second, as the work of scholars such as Tristan HarrisHossein Derakshan, and Zeynep Tufekci shows, there is a growing body of literature that shows virtual fora to be tempting but damaging, for they decrease capacity for concentrated attention and analysis, encourage addictive behaviour, induce psychological alienation, and reduce ability to cope with diversity due to social fragmentation into filter bubbles of like-minded people. Third, there is significant management literature to demonstrate the value of physical and serendipitous interaction; to name a few sources touching on this aspect that come readily to mind, Ettiene Wenger’s work on communities of practice, Nonaka and Takeuchi’s study on how Japanese corporations leverage tacit knowledge, and Peter Senge’s articulations on personal mastery. It would be a shame if a premier institution like IIMA surrenders so readily to the temptations of the virtual, especially given the power of face-to-face interaction is so intrinsically baked into the bricks and mortar of the campus core. While the pandemic may have temporarily put the brakes on physical meetings, they are not lost to us forever. The power of serendipitous physical meetings can easily be revived and leveraged if this is adopted by the institution as an explicit pedagogical goal.

I beseech you to place this issue once more before the Governing Council to be evaluated afresh given the concerns articulated here. I urge the Governing Council to look at the Kahn dormitories heeding the words of the famous economist Kenneth E. Boulding in his classic paper “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth”, where he says, “….the welfare of the individual depends on the extent to which he can identify himself with others, and that the most satisfactory individual identity is that which identifies not only with a community in space but also with a community extending over time from the past into the future. If this kind of identity is recognized as desirable, then posterity has a voice, even if it does not have a vote; and in a sense, if its voice can influence votes, it has votes too. This whole problem is linked up with the much larger one of the determinants of the morale, legitimacy, and nerve of a society, and there is a great deal of historical evidence to suggest that a society which loses its identity with posterity and which loses its positive image of the future loses also its capacity to deal with present problems, and soon falls apart.”

Yours sincerely,



Terminata la stagione dei “maestri” (Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe), quella di Louis
Khan è stata senz’altro la figura più rilevante nel panorama architettonico mondiale
degli anni ’70.
In anni recenti si sta assistendo, a livello globale, a un rinnovato e crescente interesse per la
sua opera, riconosciuta come vero atto di rifondazione dell’architettura moderna.
Una prima fase di tale riscoperta, legata essenzialmente alle vicende umane dell’architetto
americano è stata inaugurata dall’uscita del film My Architect di Nathaniel Kahn (2003); a
pochi anni di distanza il restauro della Yale University Art Gallery (2006) ha riaperto in America
il dibattito su Louis Kahn, al quale hanno fatto ampia eco in ambito europeo la retrospettiva
“Louis Kahn ,The power of Architecture” al NAi di Rotterdam protrattasi poi a Basilea e Oslo ,
il libro di William Whitaker e George Marcus “The houses of Louis Kahn” e il testo, in lingua
italiana di Maria Bonaiti “Louis I. Kahn. 1901-1974” (2013). Il 2012 ha visto inoltre
l’inaugurazione del magnifico Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, realizzato postumo a
quarant’ anni di distanza dalla morte dell’architetto americano.
Grande attesa sta suscitando, inoltre, l’inaugurazione della nuova ala del Kimbell Museum (uno
dei capolavori di Kahn) progettata da Renzo Piano e prevista per la fine di Novembre 2013.
La maggior parte di questi nuovi studi verte, tuttavia, soprattutto sulle opere del “primo Kahn”
o su quelle incompiute. Si avverte ora, invece, l’esigenza di indagare il fondamentale
rapporto di Louis Kahn con Roma, città che lo ha affascinato con le sue potenti rovine
e che è all’origine del suo nuovo modo di progettare. Roma ha, infatti, influenzato
enormemente Louis Kahn e, a sua volta, Kahn ha condizionato in maniera durevole un’ intera
generazione di architetti romani.
Rispondendo a questa necessità il DRACO, Dottorato in Architettura e Costruzione della
Sapienza di Roma, diretto da Giuseppe Strappa, organizza, con la collaborazione dell’American
Academy in Rome, e con il supporto dei figli di Louis Kahn (il regista Nathaniel, la musicista
Sue Anne, la pittrice Alexandra) e dei più importanti studiosi del tema, la giornata di studio
: “Roma,l’eredità di Kahn” , moderata dagli architetti Elisabetta Barizza e Marco Falsetti.
La prima parte della giornata indagherà le tematiche legate al soggiorno di Kahn a Roma e la
vitale influenza di tale soggiorno sul suo pensiero. Interverranno i figli di Kahn Nataniel, Sue
Ann e Alexandra (in streaming da Philadelphia), e gli architetti, Maria Bonaiti, Giorgio Ciucci,
Paolo Portoghesi, Giuseppe Strappa. Saranno indagati il contesto italiano e romano in cui il
messaggio di Kahn è stato accolto e le diverse forme della sua ininterrotta influenza.
La seconda parte della giornata interesserà gli aspetti più direttamente legati al progetto,
analizzando l’ influenza di Kahn sulla generazione di architetti che per prima ha conosciuto e
indagato la sua opera. Interverranno Franco Purini, Lucio Barbera, Claudio D’Amato, e gli
architetti del G.R.A.U. (Gruppo Romano Architetti Urbanisti) eredi diretti del messaggio
kahniano: Paola Chiatante, Gabriella Colucci, Anna Di Noto, Roberto Mariotti, Massimo Martini,
Pino Milani, Francesco Montuori, Patrizia Nicolosi e Corrado Placidi.
Aula Magna della Facoltà di Architettura, sede di Valle Giulia, Via Gramsci, 53,
Martedì 26 novembre, ore 10.

Louis Kahn: the brick whisperer

by Oliver Wainwright

The Guardian, Tuesday 26 February 2013


‘Ruins in reverse’ … the National Assembly in Dhaka.

Louis Kahn used to tell his students: if you are ever stuck for inspiration, ask your materials for advice. “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ And brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ And you say to brick, ‘Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel.’ And then you say: ‘What do you think of that, brick?’ Brick says: ‘I like an arch.'”

Believing his materials had a stubborn sense of their own destiny was one of the many quirks of this oddball architect, who died of a heart attack in a toilet at New York’s Penn Station in 1974. His body went unclaimed for four days, as the much praised 2003 film My Architect, made by his son Nathaniel, detailed. A vast new retrospective of Kahn’s work has just opened at the extravagantly contoured Vitra Design Museum in the German town of Weil am Rhein. Kahn, a conjuror of strange, monumental forms that have the gravity of ancient ruins, was one of the most influential architects of the 20th century – yet, even after that film, he is still one of the least known. Why?

“His strange, quasi-religious utterances were all rather irritating to me and my generation,” says the exhibition’s curator, Stanislaus von Moos, an art historian who has produced definitive tomes on Le Corbusier and Robert Venturi. “He is very difficult to characterise. I had always admired his work, but found it a bit intimidating.”

Born in Estonia in 1901, the Jewish American brick-whisperer is most famous for a series of enormous institutional complexes that stand in swelteringly hot places: the laboratories of the Salk Institute in California; the Institute of Management at Ahmedabad in India, with its dynamic brick colonnades; and the brooding concrete fortress of the National Assembly in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

For Kahn, form did not necessarily follow function; nor did his projects celebrate all the new possibilities of industrial materials. Created from monolithic masonry, and drawing on primary geometries with great circles, semi-circles and triangles sliced out of their weighty walls, his buildings exude a timeless and sometimes sinister presence. They look like the hastily vacated remnants of a future cosmic civilisation.


Primary geometry … Kahn’s Salk Institute in California.

Much has been made of Kahn’s spiritual dimension, his ability to channel the ancients, but this exhibition, which arrives in London next year, strives to show the many other sides to his work. The result is a vivid picture of a curious man, with his obsessions – from utopian urban-planning to scientific discoveries of molecular structures – all brought to life through his personal ephemera and correspondence.

The show begins by placing Kahn in the context of Philadelphia. He arrived there as Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky, the child of poverty-stricken immigrants. Painfully near-sighted and severely scarred by facial burns, he was drawn to architecture at an early age, witnessing the radical remodelling of his city at first hand, as the scenic Benjamin Franklin Parkway sliced an axis of museums diagonally through its grid.

We see the Philadelphia of the 1950s as a laboratory for urbanism, sparking Kahn’s (unrealised) vision for the city as a network of pedestrian boulevards. He imagined all traffic banished to a ring of cylindrical multi-storey car parks each the size of the colosseum – foreshadowing our contemporary park-and-ride culture. The structures have a hi-tech, crystalline quality, revealing that fascination with the natural sciences and the beginnings of his search for geometric order.

It is an obsession vividly demonstrated by his model for City Hall Tower, a spiralling double helix based on Francis Crick and James Watson’s discovery of DNA in 1953. Far ahead of its time, it was never built, but would go on to inspire the clustered tower structures of the Japanese Metabolism movement in the 1960s and 70s, as well as Norman Foster’s more recent triangular-patterned Hearst Tower in New York.


Louis Kahn (right) in front of a model of the City Tower Project in an exhibition at Cornell University, New York, February 1958

Never one to try too hard to ingratiate himself with his clients, it wasn’t until he was in his early 50s that Kahn completed his first major building: the rigidly cubic Yale University Art Gallery. By the time he was 60, this short man who wore loose bowties and combed his hair forward to hide his baldness had risen to international prominence, building the Richards Medical Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania. Comprising stacked towers of column-free laboratories, this was the first of his projects to articulate the difference between “served and servant spaces” – the latter being stairwells, airducts and other supportive networks. He housed these in separate, chimney-like structures echoing the towers of San Gimignano in Italy he had sketched a few years earlier.

These energetic pastel drawings depict ruined temples across the classical world, from Corinth to Rome, and Luxor to Giza. They dot the exhibition, alongside postcards home in which Kahn writes of long hours watching the changing light play across the stones. It was these trips, undertaken in the 1950s, that led him to believe that the essence of architecture was only truly revealed in its ruined state: devoid of function, a building could then speak solely of how it was made. This realisation came to define his most important work, completed over the next 20 years.

Kahn would describe his building sites as “ruins in reverse”. In Dhaka, this served him particularly well: legend has it that, during the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971, bombers spared the construction site of his National Assembly, taking the mysterious cellular complex to be the ruins of an ancient historic site. But, as the exhibition stresses, such layered shells were no aesthetic folly or indulgent fetish for the archaic. The Dhaka building’s perforated walls are a vital tool, protecting the interior spaces from direct sunlight and allowing passive ventilation. As Von Moos says: “We wanted to show that, behind this facade of neoclassicism and historic revival, he really embedded his buildings in an understanding of the environment.”

There is also some new film footage of his projects, shot by his son Nathaniel. My Architect painted a not altogether sympathetic picture of his father, who left behind three children by three different women. His complex personal life makes the section on his house designs all the more poignant, particularly in the full-scale reconstruction of an entire corner of the seminal cypress-clad Fisher House in Pennsylvania – which includes the very window seat where his three children meet to discuss their estranged father in the film.

Kahn was bankrupt when he died in that toilet at the age of 73, his small Philadelphia practice $500,000 in debt. Why did the body of such an eminent architect, who gave the 20th century some of its most spellbinding buildings, go unclaimed for so long? Apparently, the address in his passport had been mysteriously obliterated. Fortunately, as this show demonstrates, Kahn’s reputation is proving more durable.

Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture is at the Vitra until August. It comes to the London Design Museum in 2014. Oliver Wainwright travelled courtesy of show sponsor Swarovski.



di Giuseppe Strappa

in «Corriere della Sera» del 25.04.2005

Nella notte del 17 marzo 1974 la polizia di New York trova, nei bagni della Penn Station, il corpo senza vita di un anziano immigrato dall’Estonia, con il volto, sfigurato da vecchie cicatrici, coperto da lunghi capelli sottili. L’inspiegabile abrasione dell’indirizzo sul passaporto ne impedisce l’identificazione e così solo dopo tre giorni di obitorio si  scopre che si tratta di Louis I. Kahn, architetto tra i più significativi della seconda metà del XX secolo. Vengono alla luce, anche, le sue tre famiglie con le quali aveva contemporaneamente intrattenuto relazioni lunghe e distaccate, che vivono non lontane l’una all’altra ma si conoscono solo il giorno del funerale.
Sulla vita misteriosa e complessa di Kahn il figlio Nathaniel, avuto a 61 anni da una giovane collaboratrice di studio, ha ora prodotto e diretto My Architect. Il film è il racconto drammatico di un viaggio durato cinque anni alla ricerca del padre, quasi sconosciuto, attraverso le sue architetture sparse per l’intero globo terrestre, i suoi clienti, le sue mogli. Ma è, anche, lo spaccato di un mondo dove i grandi messaggi si mescolano alle miserie familiari, i sogni alle ambizioni.
Un mondo che Nathaniel riporta senza odio o rancore, nonostante il contraddittorio rapporto di Kahn con la madre, coinvolta nel felice progetto per il Kimbell Museum ma anche umiliata, chiusa a chiave in una stanza durante le visite della moglie ufficiale.
My Architect è un film strano e triste, le cui sequenze restituiscono un’immagine diversa del Kahn eroe positivo che conosciamo: nel suo mondo architettonico tutto si tiene e lega insieme in indissolubile unità; nel suo mondo privato, al contrario, tutto sembra disgregarsi, disperdersi, svanire.
Se ci si aspetta che il rigore e la grandezza della ricerca artistica si riverberi, in qualche modo, nella vita privata degli autori – sembra dire Nathaniel – si è destinati a rimanere delusi. La ricerca autentica prosciuga ogni linfa vitale, dissecca, assorbe totalmente le energie.
Nathaniel non dà giudizi e lascia allo spettatore decidere quanto i risultati artistici ripaghino di una vita spesa in una sola direzione. Perché, a fronte dell’immagine umana di Kahn che s’incrina, il film mostra anche questo: come le sue opere invecchino bene e si dispongano per tempo, gloriosamente, alla condizione di rovina, come si chiede alla grande architettura, facendo intuire, dietro i muschi e i licheni affioranti dalle murature, la presenza di un nucleo ideale incorrotto dal tempo, come un bene collettivo conquistato ad un prezzo troppo caro e generosamente trasmesso alle future generazioni.
Una conquista iniziata a cinquant’anni con un lungo soggiorno a Roma, nel contatto, all’epoca dell’acciaio e delle grandi vetrate, con le possenti masse murarie dei monumenti antichi. Al ritorno a Filadelfia Kahn si sente investito della missione profetica di riportare l’architettura sulla strada maestra indicata dalle antiche rovine. E come un profeta nomade ed irrequieto, incurante degli affetti che intralciano il suo cammino (“non si può dipendere – affermava – dai rapporti umani”) comincia a costruire grandi spazi silenziosi, nudi, simbolici, dove i passi risuonano nel vuoto e l’uomo si sente sollevato da ogni precarietà,  immerso pienamente nel flusso maestoso della storia.
Quando, nello smarrimento degli anni ’60, altri cercano nel dialetto e nel vernacolo un’alternativa alla crisi del linguaggio internazionale, il piccolo Kahn, controcorrente, riscopre la dimensione epica del proprio mestiere, l’arte dei grandi sentimenti religiosi e civili, dei temi poderosi e solenni, della lingua aulica e universale.
Si è detto molto del suo uso dell’antico. Ma quella di Kahn, prodotto artificiale di miti privati, non è una lingua morta. Le sue opere risalgono agli etimi più semplici e profondi delle forme, parlano con un’immediatezza che rende superflua ogni spiegazione. Non è un caso che il governo musulmano del Bangladesh abbia affidato a lui, ebreo americano, la costruzione dei simboli della propria nascente identità nazionale.
Interviste e dialoghi del film si svolgono all’interno di costruzioni notissime come la Fisher House, la Exeter Library, il Salk Institute, la National Assembly di Dacca. Le opere di Kahn, usate come fondale, si popolano di personaggi, escono dall’astrazione dei libri ed entrano nella vita mostrando l’architettura nella sua contraddittoria essenza: una condizione d’equilibrio temporaneo, un momento di transizione della materia che, per pochi decenni o qualche secolo si adatta ad ospitare le tragedie degli uomini e le loro gioie, le loro miserie e i loro tradimenti.

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