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Salingaros on Kahn

There are four great American architects carrying the name Kahn, one of them a master of Art Deco, the other of traditional architecture, another on classical architecture and our Kahn on contemporary Modernism. Louis Kahn seems to be one of very few modernists we can actually learn something from.

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, TX from southwest of the museum.

Salingaros on Kahn

by Nikos A. Salingaros, original post here.

1. Which Kahn?
First let’s get the architect’s identity straight. There are three Kahns in American architecture: Albert Kahn; Ely Jacques Kahn; and Louis Isadore Kahn. The first was a great Classical architect — a contemporary of Julia Morgan and Stanford White who also built some plain industrial buildings, but not for human habitation. Albert Kahn made the mistake of pointing out that the industrial style is inappropriate for most buildings, and claiming that modernism is not real architecture, so you don’t hear much about him nowadays.

The second Kahn was a master of Art Deco, who helped to define what New York ought to have become were it not for the modernists. Ely Kahn built some of the more attractive modest skyscrapers, which were replaced by the faceless monstrosities of today. When archaeologists of the future define New York culture by its artistic style, it will probably be the Art Deco style of 1930, just as Paris is indelibly associated with the Art Nouveau style of the 1900 Metro station entrances. Nevertheless, both New York and Paris have done their best to erase their identifying symbols, like the ex-convict Jean Valjean trying to hide all traces of his true identity.

The third Kahn was the champion of modernism that we know so well — the Kahn of “what does a brick want to become?” It is de rigueur for young architects to refer to him casually as “Lou” so as to imply a nonexistent familiarity.

Even though Kahn was born in Estonia, he grew up in the USA, and is thus considered more American than the numerous European modernist architects who immigrated as adults. The “official” histories of architecture are written so as to imply that genuinely homegrown American innovation in architecture really took off with Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson. To think this way is ridiculous, but it represents modernist dogma and is not meant to be supported by either reality or facts. To criticize Kahn’s work amounts to criticizing the spirit of American Architecture. Louis Kahn is an American Icon, and I respect that.

Christopher Alexander and I were talking about famous modernist architects, and Louis Kahn’s name came up. Christopher said: “I cannot bring it in my heart to criticize the guy, since he always went out of his way to be nice to me when I was a young man. He really liked me, and amazingly, he sounded just like I do when he talked. Very philosophical; emotional; conceptual; overwhelming; inspiring. Pity his buildings don’t do the same thing. I could never tell him that I didn’t like his buildings.”

2. The Yale University Art Gallery Extension, 1953
I had visited Yale as a graduate student and remember seeing the Art Gallery. I didn’t know anything then about its architect, but the discontinuity of the side facade struck a very negative chord. Why did Kahn willfully refuse to connect to the original building in any way? Perhaps he had to uphold the dogma if he wanted to play the role of “Great Modernist Architect”, so he could not connect stylistically; yet he still needed to physically connect to the older building. Coming with a sheer dead wall right up to the older living structure reminds me of a prosthesis — like Jonathan Small’s wooden leg, which replaced the one bitten off by a crocodile while he was swimming in the Ganges. When absolutely necessary, two contrasting materials have to connect very carefully via a linking boundary, but that’s precisely what Kahn avoids here.

This was Kahn’s first grand project, a combination of lucky break and initiation trial, and he proved himself worthy of the modernist credo. The discontinuous effect is deliberate. He violated the aesthetic integrity of the old art gallery, and I don’t like that, but I don’t see any other way to do it and remain within modernism.

3. The Salk Institute, 1959
In a largely forgotten paper I published in 1997, I computed the index of architectural “life” of famous buildings, according to a mathematical model. Unsurprisingly to me, the Salk Institute came down very low on the list, with an overall estimate of only 6%. Perhaps because of this result (and similar results for the icons of the Modernist movement such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), my model has not caught on in architecture, but has instead become well-known in computer science, where it is now used to compute indices for the usability of computer-human interfaces.

Anyone can read the original paper online, available from my website: just look for “Life and Complexity in Architecture from a Thermodynamic Analogy”. I ought to mention that my friend Christopher likes this paper so much that he included an extended discussion of it in Appendix 6 of his new book: “The Phenomenon of Life: The Nature of Order, Volume 1″.

There’s a story that Kahn wanted to fill in the Salk Institute’s central plaza with trees, just like the copse in front of the Kimbell Museum, but that Luis Barragán told him not to. Instead, Barragán advised using just plain stone — keeping the plaza stark and empty: “Don’t put one leaf, nor plant, nor one flower, nor dirt. Absolutely nothing“. Barragán was right, since that dramatic view to the sea does represent the essence of what modernism is about, and it put the Salk Institute on the architectural map. I would have preferred the trees, however. They would have provided a pleasant place for the scientists to eat a sandwich.

Not related, but a point nevertheless, is that I happen to have a Salk coauthorship number of 2. This indicates that I wrote a paper with Bruce J. West, who wrote a paper with Jonas Salk. The smaller the number, the closer you are linked to the great man. (This system of “coauthorship number” was developed to classify the degree of closeness to the mathematician Paul Erdös).

4. The First Unitarian Church, 1969
I’m tempted to relate a story from when I spent a year in Rochester with my wife some years ago. We went to a chamber music concert held in the First Unitarian Church. I had never been there before, but had the address. For some reason, I drove by it three or four times before I checked the street number and drove in. This was such a disconcerting experience that it left me worried throughout the time we waited for the concert to begin. How could I have missed this building, standing apart and so clearly indicated?

I had to draw this very disturbing conclusion by re-playing my memory of what really occurred on the numerous drive-bys. The reason I did not see the building is that I was expecting to see a church, and this building looked like a maximum-security prison. My mind could not possibly reconcile the actual object in front of me with my previous expectation.

I of course looked around once inside, and discovered that it was designed by Louis Kahn. I did not know this beforehand, and at that time was not yet taken up by architectural questions.

The interior was so disturbing in its raw concrete slab form that I could not pay attention to the concert — the surfaces ruined what would have been a lovely performance of the Brahms Horn trio. I’m talking about visual effects and not acoustics. I asked my wife to leave at the intermission.

Looking at pictures years afterwards helps to explain my reactions. The ceiling slopes down along the mid line, like a V, the opposite of what a ceiling ought to do to define a concave space for human beings; and the light comes in eerily from the sides. The walls are raw concrete blocks. All of this gray creates an ominous feeling.

Just to emphasize that it’s indeed possible to design a church that is alive but does not resemble a traditional church, look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple. It’s an architectural masterpiece, even though one cannot celebrate a Christian Mass inside it because of the geometry. I’m not an uncritical fan of Wright, and I am focussing on this building for its own qualities.

5. The Kimbell Art Museum, 1972
My wife and I lived in Dallas for three years, and we went to the Kimbell museum often. Its cafeteria was a nice place to have Saturday brunch. The art collection itself is first-rate, and the museum kept bringing in excellent visiting exhibits. But the main interest here is about the building. I liked it, and spent a lot of time analyzing why I liked it despite the fact that it violates hierarchical scaling and connectivity at the joins. (Details of these measures may be found in my papers and in Christopher’s “The Phenomenon of Life: The Nature of Order, Volume 1″). Inevitably, however, the same thing always happened. After about an hour of being there, I grew uneasy and wanted to leave. The place got to me in a negative way. This was in spite of the interesting and warm travertine surfaces on the interior (which is what I experienced most of the time). The only thing obviously depressing was the massive steel bathroom doors, but you didn’t have to see them or touch them except once per visit. I could not fault the overall geometry, but the disruption between forms — the walls meeting the roof — eventually bothered me and overrode the positive effects.

The glare from the ceiling (especially at the vault ends) was something that could have been fixed with cheap mockups during preliminary design, such as Christopher does for his buildings, but I suspect that Kahn never thought of doing that. I get the feeling that pure geometry and obligatory modernist edges took priority over any possible glare.

Outside it’s a very nice building. Attractive and friendly with its repeating arches, but some of the best effects such as the reflecting pools are lost because of the misjudged path circulation. A beautiful sunken lawn on the side is never used. Couldn’t Kahn foresee that visitors would inevitably approach the museum from the back, which is industrial and totally uninspiring, like the truck loading ramp behind a supermarket, and would never use his orchestrated pedestrian front entrance through a copse of trees? It’s a pity, since the unused pedestrian entrance is lovely. (I read that Kahn didn’t drive, and he never believed that all visitors would be arriving by car.) The Kimbell remains the one building by Kahn that appeals to me, in contrast to his other buildings.

Christopher likes the Kimbell very much. He told me that this is the only one of Kahn’s buildings that he really likes — that it represents something apart from the rest of Kahn’soeuvre.

Michael Benedikt, a friend of mine and a very intelligent man, wrote a book about the Kimbell entitled “Deconstructing the Kimbell”. It was extremely successful among the deconstructivist crowd. I read it, but cannot agree that Kahn thought anything about deconstruction in designing the Kimbell. When I was visiting Michael one day, we talked about Kahn, and his assistant cornered me: “Of course, you agree that the Kimbell is the greatest building in the USA?” I answered that I’m willing to concede it could be the greatest MODERNIST building in the USA, but by far not the GREATEST building. And that I consider Thomas Jefferson, Henry Richardson, Louis Sullivan, Bernard Maybeck, Stanford White, and others to have built far greater buildings — as measured on an absolute scale of having “life”. He didn’t like this. I in turn didn’t like seeing the world through magic glasses that show only modernist buildings.

But why didn’t Kahn make the Kimbell the greatest building in the USA? It is already part-way there; all it needed was some more push in the direction he was already going with the design. Here is the irony. Established and famous, he evidently felt free enough to abandon some of the unnatural qualities of his earlier buildings and adopt a clean, light, and well-proportioned structure. But to do the rest, it would have been necessary to renounce the modernist principles for which he stood. I have read between-the-lines criticisms of the Kimbell by “authoritative” architectural critics — that it is too influenced by folkloristic elements; that it is too sweet; and by implication it is not as good as those buildings, such as the First Unitarian Church, which stick to the basic minimalist principles. I can imagine these nasty, narrow-minded persons ready to pounce on Kahn for becoming an apostate.

6. The “feminine touch”
Someone told me that the reason why the Kimbell is Kahn’s greatest building is that it was designed in part by Kahn’s girlfriend, Anne Tyng. She had written a thesis on proportional ratios, and could have contributed a sound geometry to the Kimbell’s internal and external spaces.

Checking this out, the story fell apart. It is well known that Tyng did indeed influence Kahn’s appreciation of geometry when they worked together twenty years earlier, but apparently their collaboration (and liaison) had ended well before the Kimbell. Since their interaction was long-lasting, however, and Kahn was obsessed with formal problems in geometry, her geometrical influence must be felt in most of his buildings. And yet, the Kimbell has that special quality. In my opinion, it is due to the individual creative genius of Louis Kahn.

Even though this story is untrue, it did lead to an interesting discussion. I raised the point with Christopher, who said that even if Anne Tyng were involved in the Kimbell, the building’s positive qualities could simply be due to the “feminine touch”, and not to any special geometry. This is to say that female architects are more sensitive to the emotional response from a building than most male architects are. (Dare I mention the forbidden great architect Julia Morgan?) Christopher tells me that his female students have a much easier time grasping concepts of connectivity and feedback than male students, who are caught up in images of power and self-expression.

7. Louis Kahn’s role in the New Architecture
I’m not an architectural historian; my goal is to provide the theoretical foundations of a new, humane architecture for the new millennium. Why, therefore, study the work of Louis Kahn, especially as he is not my favorite architect? I had a lengthy discussion with my friend and colleague Kenneth Masden, and we reached the following conclusions:
  • Louis Kahn had an unswerving integrity in his ideas. He pursued a formal approach to design that stripped out all other elements. I don’t agree with that method, but he was honest about it, and did not do it for his ego. Geometrical themes recur throughout his oeuvre, and he constantly improved upon ways of expressing them. 
  • If only for his intellectual honesty, Louis Kahn is worth studying. He provides a marked contrast with opportunistic and self-aggrandizing architects of much lesser talent. Integrity is not so common among contemporary American architects, and it’s the fault of our society of spectacle that promotes them. 
  • Kahn’s formalism derived from abstracting classical geometry. The advantage of this is that geometry is raised to a supreme level of concern. The disadvantage is that human beings are irrelevant. And yet, formal geometry is needed in any building, and the larger the structure, the more one needs to be concerned with problems of formal geometry. Contemporary architects have abandoned geometry and ordering, without replacing them with anything else. 
  • When contemporary architecture eventually tires of its destructive games, students are more likely to turn first to American Icons like Louis Kahn, and only then to other architects for inspiration. For this reason, it is important to outline what is good and what is not good in his work. Kahn’s work is most significant in academic architectural memory. 
  • As we move forward into the New Architecture, we have to decide which modernist architects are worth learning from. Of all the immense number of currently idolized architects, the handful that has something to offer includes Louis Kahn, Erich Mendelsohn, and the very few others whose work identifies the limits of modernism. 
From what I gather, Louis Kahn was the Frank Gehry of his generation. After spending an entire career designing nondescript commercial buildings and housing projects, he got a lucky break and it catapulted him to the top of the architectural profession. He had something to express and explore, and he was already in his 50′s. There is something very touching about his assistants having to convince clients that this strange and intense mad poet was indeed the celebrated — and eminently practical — architect. And he just loved playing the guru to admiring architecture students. Of course, he wasn’t going to compromise his key to success, and this explains why he was so uncompromisingly modernist. While I don’t like the tectonic qualities of many of his buildings, I cannot really blame him for what he built, since it has its own justification.


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