The architect Louis I. Kahn (1901-74) was a classic late bloomer. He was nearly sixty when Richards Medical Laboratory, his first project to be internationally celebrated, was built at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. At an age when many artists are wrapping up their careers, Kahn was just beginning his. Over the next fifteen years he produced a solid body of work that met with almost uniform critical acclaim, something true of none of his contemporaries. Of these buildings the best known are the Jonas Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, the library at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and the new capital for Bangladesh in Dhaka. When he died in 1974 he was at the peak of his influence, a kind of architectural oracle in Philadelphia, where he had moved as a child from his native Estonia and where his career had always centered.
That career is now the subject of a vast exhibition, “Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture,” which will open in June at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, after showings in Paris and Philadelphia. Long overdue, the exhibit is the first major retrospective of Kahn’s work and the first study of this architect that is historical and critical, and not merely hagiographical. It has been intelligently and gracefully assembled, and is distinguished by its liberal use of models and photographs, Kahn’s work being especially photogenic. Accompanying the exhibition is a comprehensive catalogue containing a meticulous and impeccably researched essay by David B. Brownlee and David DeLong.1 Here Kahn’s biography and works are discussed, and here his mythic position in America’s postwar architecture is assessed.
As myths go, it is a good one, with broad themes and boldly drawn battle lines, and as with all good myths there is much truth to it. According to the story, modern architecture in the late 1950’s had become stagnant, either reduced to tired modernist formulas or else degenerating into idiosyncratic personal experiments, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum or Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at Kennedy airport. Onto this stage strode Kahn, who returned modern architecture to a state of vitality. This he did by elemental and powerful means—by using solid and substantial materials, by bathing these materials in natural light, by making monumental spaces out of abstract geometric forms, and, above all, by once again making architecture serious and solemn. In short, Kahn found a modern architecture that was essentially functional and gave it an inspirational dimension. This is a restoration myth, with Kahn cast in the epic role of the restorer.
Kahn’s early life marked a gradual victory of ability over environment. He was born in 1901 to an assimilated Jewish family on the island of Saaremaa, Estonia, the son of a paymaster in the Russian army. In 1906 his family came to Philadelphia where they eked out an indifferent living, his mother making textile samples. Kahn’s drawing talents having attracted attention, he entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1920 to study under the tutelage of the great classicist Paul Philippe Cret. His job after graduation was a plum: assistant to John Molitor, a gentlemanly alcoholic who served as Philadelphia’s city architect and for whom Kahn ghost-designed the Palace of Education and several large exhibition halls for America’s 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition. His earnings from this project were enough to pay for a year-long study trip overseas, and for a first peek at the modern architecture of Europe.
Kahn returned in 1929, perhaps the worst year in history for an architect to come on the job market. As the Depression deepened, he scrambled for meager commissions: altering storefronts, rendering other architects’ designs, even submitting a design for a memorial to Lenin to be built in Leningrad.
In 1935 Kahn established the trajectory of his career with a project for a planned community at Hightstown, New Jersey, to house 200 Jewish garment workers. This was the brainchild of Benjamin Brown, a Ukrainian-born promoter of cooperative communities who served as a housing consultant to the Soviet Union, and it was as close to a collective on the Soviet model as any housing project in the United States: a self-sufficient community, the residents earning their livelihoods from cooperative farming in the summer and textile work in the winter. With strong support, ranging from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union to Albert Einstein, the Department of the Interior was persuaded to bankroll the community. Kahn, who served as chief assistant to the project architect, designed many of the major buildings.
The Philadelphia press branded Hightstown a Stalinist “commune,” and the state licensing board tried to sabotage the registration application of Kahn’s collaborator, whose pro-Soviet views were well known. For Kahn, whose politics were more nearly “progressive” than radical, this was his closest flirtation with the prewar Left. “You wouldn’t find Kahn marching in the May Day parade,” one of his friends has said of his activism in the 1930’s. In general he seems to have subscribed to the views of the journal he helped edit, Shelter, which saw politics as a choice of “Housing or Armaments.” All this changed between 1939 and 1941, when Kahn became actively involved in providing both housing and armaments by designing housing projects for defense workers. For much of the next decade his principal work was for the U.S. government.
After World War II Kahn was recruited to teach at Yale, where he commuted weekly while running his Philadelphia office. His practice consisted primarily of commissions for modernist houses for a largely Jewish clientele drawn from his (and his wife’s) circle of friends. These flat-roofed, open-plan houses may in retrospect look prophetic, but in the late 1940’s they seemed products of their time.
Around 1950, Kahn began to exchange the sheer surfaces and dematerialized walls of his early work for more geometric and more substantial forms. Architecturally this was a shift from Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus to Le Corbusier; materially it was a shift from steel and glass to concrete. His first prestigious commission, an addition to the Yale Art Gallery in 1951, signaled the change. Its minimal brick exterior, almost self-deprecating, housed wide galleries without intermediate partitions, a scheme made possible by the concrete space frame that spanned the ceilings. The frame itself was based on a repeated geometric module of interlocking triangles that Buckminster Fuller had been exploring. Kahn remained interested in these honeycomb geometric systems for the next decade, although his interest had begun to fade by the time he designed the Richards Medical Laboratory at the end of the 1950’s.
Thirty years after its completion, it is now difficult to credit that the Richards project, with its innocuous concrete frame and brick and glass curtain walls, was taken for a revolutionary building—in the words of the architectural historian Vincent Scully, “one of the greatest buildings of modern times.” Richards did, however, overturn one of the fundamental tenets of modernism according to the Bauhaus system. This was the notion that there must be no hierarchy of spaces within a building—that is, that there must be no distinction in importance, no progression from simple utilitarian rooms to richer formal rooms. Within a Bauhaus building, all space was to be treated equally; both the mighty director’s office and the humblest janitor’s closet were to be equally functional in detail and materials. This had been one of the most radical of modernist doctrines, dismissing at one blow virtually all of the monumental architecture of the West.
At Richards, Kahn reintroduced hierarchy to architecture. But it was a hierarchy of a peculiar sort. Here he coined his celebrated notion of “served” and “servant” spaces, emphatically distinguishing the laboratory rooms, for example, from the ventilation towers, stairwells, and corridors that supported them. The laboratories were housed in six well-lighted cubes (too well-lighted, it turned out), which were bracketed by an outer ring of sheer brick shafts containing the auxiliary functions.
While designing Richards, Kahn lavished most of his attention upon the plan and the system of construction; the overall composition came later. But the building was appreciated for somewhat different reasons. Visitors to the Museum of Modern Art, where the design was exhibited in the summer of 1961, were struck less by its formal hierarchy than by its exterior character. After a decade of bland steel-and-glass boxes, Kahn’s free grouping of brick towers seemed the most interesting feature of Richards, something picturesque and expressive, as animated and rambling as a medieval Italian hill town. Scully enthusiastically declared that the ventilation towers recalled the campanile of San Gimignano, and the search for such architectural pedigrees soon became a staple in critical writing about Kahn’s work.
Following Richards, Kahn’s work changed again rather quickly. There swiftly appeared a series of buildings whose principal hallmark was their organization around public spaces of monumental scale and character. Simple in their geometry, likewise simple in their materials of concrete, slate, and brick, these spaces were lighted by natural sunlight introduced from above through monitors in the corners of the ceiling. Kahn was at his best in the making of such spaces, like the great public reading room of the Phillips Exeter Academy Library or the galleries of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. While he did not abandon his early interest in construction, it was now subordinated to a growing concern with the emotional effects that the spaces of a building might produce. And for this he began to take his cues from history, speaking incessantly about it in his classes.
By 1964 Kahn was calling for “very archaic-looking buildings, buildings that will be considered archaic in the future.” At the National Assembly in Dhaka (1962-83), East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, he achieved something close to his goal. Forced to use brick, the cheapest building material in an unindustrialized economy, he made an asset out of necessity, finding precedent in imperial Rome for a monumental architecture of brick. Actually, this new monumentality was less that of Roman architecture than of Roman archeology, of buildings stripped by time of their decoration and preserved as raw construction, vessels emptied of content.
One historical form that fascinated Kahn was the axis. This device, the alignment of spaces along a precise linear sequence that converges upon a space of great importance, was at the core of the classical tradition in which he had been steeped as a student. Kahn revived the device in his Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth, Texas (1966-72); the interior spaces, composed of parallel aisles capped with curved concrete vaults, admitting natural light from above, were like the vaulted aisles of a medieval church. Even more dramatic was the research complex he built for Jonas Salk at Lajolla, California (1959-65). Treating it as a kind of monastic settlement, Kahn organized the research and guest rooms in compounds gathered around a single monumental axis, a mighty crescendo that culminates in a triumphant vista of the Pacific.
Once again Kahn was overturning established modernist doctrine. There had scarcely been an architectural device more reviled in the 1930’s and 1940’s than the formal axis. Traditionally, an architectural axis is important because it points in a straight line to something, such as a throne or an altar. But neither throne nor altar figured in the world view of the Bauhaus modernists; the axis was the formal machinery of a discredited and bankrupt world, the tool of deposed kings (Louis XIV’s Hall of Mirrors) or modern tyrants (the vast corridor in Hitler’s Reichskanzlerei). The axis fell by the wayside; there was nothing worth pointing to anymore. And yet Kahn not only resurrected the axis but was rewarded for it with the praise of critics.
Still, as with Kahn’s hierarchy of spaces, his axiality is of a curious sort. It does not culminate in some ceremonial focus—nor is it often visible to the viewer. At his Erdman dormitory for Bryn Mawr College, Kahn strung three cubes together along their corners; the geometric scheme is crystal clear on paper, but to a visitor the right-angle jogs are utterly baffling. With Kahn, in other words, an axis does not show the way to somewhere, it is geometry in its own right. His favorite Roman monument was the Pantheon, itself a directionless monument meant to commemorate all the gods, lighted by a single circular window at its apex, the sort of all-embracing gesture for which he came to have much sympathy in his later life. Perhaps the clearest statement of his values is the great monumental axis of the Salk Institute, pointing triumphantly to the sea. In Kahn’s hierarchy the apex is neither throne nor altar, but nature itself, some sort of pantheistic universe of light and natural forces.
Kahn’s late successes are so spectacular that they overshadow his failures. Some of these, such as his lifelong inability to push through any of his visionary city plans for Philadelphia, were especially galling to him. But there were even more acute failures. In 1954 Kahn made plans for the Adath Jeshurun synagogue near Elkins Park in North Philadelphia, at virtually the same moment that Frank Lloyd Wright was asked to build the nearby Beth Shalom synagogue. Kahn was not yet as prestigious as Wright, and his designs for a triangular sanctuary inserted within a cylindrical mantle were quietly shelved. By contrast, Wright’s surging pyramid was built to instant acclaim, and it quickly became one of America’s most celebrated pieces of Jewish architecture.
Kahn’s insistence on the collective and the universal, his ideal of an architecture so spacious that it could encompass everyone, endeared him to architectural philosophers; it did not necessarily endear him to clients. Here, perhaps, lay one reason for his failure with Jewish institutions. Although he was entrusted with half-a-dozen major projects in his final decades, all that came of them was a small synagogue in Chappaqua, New York, and the Jewish Community Center Bathhouse in Trenton, New Jersey, itself a small sliver of a much larger project from which he was dismissed. Of his projects for religious buildings in general, his most successful remains the simple brick church he designed between 1959 and 1969 for a Unitarian congregation in Rochester, New York.
Religious qualities are often ascribed to Kahn’s late architecture, but its religious spirit was by no means specifically Jewish, or specifically anything: he spoke of evoking “not a religion but the essence religion.” This vision consorted with the general ecumenical mood of the period, which may account for Kahn’s rather surprising popularity among Unitarians and Vatican II-era Catholics. Not surprisingly, however, it failed to impress his Jewish clients. Most of them had worshiped in synagogues built in the 19th century, whose vaguely “eastern” styles had maintained a distinct presence in the American landscape. This was something that Frank Lloyd Wright, himself ultimately a 19th-century architect, seems to have sensed intuitively; his clients at Elkins Park knew his angular pyramid evoked the Burning Bush. In Kahn’s work, by contrast, apart from the necessary details of ritual, there is little difference in formal character among the Unitarian church in Rochester, the unbuilt synagogue in Philadelphia, and the mosque at the National Assembly in Dhaka. In reaching for the universal, Kahn lost the particular.
Similar problems vexed Kahn’s most poignant failure—his Holocaust Memorial in New York. In 1965 a large number of Jewish organizations joined together to form a committee to erect a monument to the victims of the Final Solution; the following year the city offered a site in Battery Park, at the southernmost tip of Manhattan, and Kahn was quickly appointed architect. This was exactly the type of commission for which Kahn should have been ideally suited—a monument of profound tragedy, related to powerful themes from Jewish history.
But Kahn faltered. His first scheme called for a stark platform on which would be raised nine piers, each fifteen feet in height and made of translucent glass bricks. This solution troubled the building committee, which felt that the number nine might suggest the nine months of pregnancy, evoking birth rather than death; they asked him instead to use six piers, to represent the six million Holocaust victims. Late in 1967 Kahn submitted a scheme of six piers organized around a commemorative central pier. Once again the committee wondered whether, apart from the literal symbolism of the number six, there was any explicit connection between the monument and the Holocaust. Unwilling to change his basic design, Kahn revised the central pier, which was now to be hollowed out as a kind of shrine, decorated with Hebrew, Yiddish, and English inscriptions and completed with some piece of explicitly Jewish art capping the ceiling. It was a clever compromise: Kahn preserved the abstract geometry of his scheme while giving the committee the symbolism it wanted.
Kahn was hardly the first artist to stumble over the problem of expressing the vastness of the Holocaust. He was tugged in two directions, expected to show the event as something unique in history, but also to relate it to other more general themes, particularly the long history of oppression of the Jews. But the more his project became about everything, the less it expressed something. Ultimately, fundraising problems prevented the construction of Kahn’s monument, but the whole story reveals one of the weaknesses of his final works. His subject matter was becoming more and more general, until it seemed that Kahn was only interested in the broadest abstractions, pursuing an architecture freed from material, program, or content, literally an architecture of “Silence and Light,” the phrase that became his mantra at the end.
A historian complained some years ago that the eccentric British architect Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) was still not properly appreciated, perhaps because of the “disgusting affluence” of his clients. Lutyens has since been rehabilitated. Disgusting affluence, however, has not; architectural critics are generally implacably hostile toward commercial success. This was true in the 1930’s, when Kahn’s architectural ideas were formed, and it is true today. The catalogue to the famous International Style show of 1932, the first major exhibition of modernist architecture in America, sneered at the great art-deco towers of the 1920’s, already then a thing of the past, “We are asked to take seriously the architectural taste of real-estate speculators, renting agents, and mortgage brokers.”
For those made uneasy by commercial success there was never any problem with Kahn. When he came of age in the 1930’s, architectural journals which a decade earlier had featured skyscrapers and townhouses fronting on Central Park were now dominated by the serried slabs of mass housing. In the wake of the Depression, the situation in America had come to resemble that in Europe, where government rather than the private builder was the most prominent client. Kahn spent most of the decade learning to cultivate civic commissions, as he went from the City Planning Commission to the Philadelphia Housing Authority to the United States Housing Authority. After World War II, when private building began again in earnest, Kahn devoted much of his time to teaching.
As a result, Kahn never underwent what for many architects is a formative experience—the cultivation of a clientele by building a social circle, the contact in church or club, the reaching-out to those of similar views or preferences. He had learned to make the rounds of government corridors, instead of wooing clients in corporate boardrooms or on golf courses.
Kahn’s career was forever stamped by this early experience. The catalogue to the exhibition says that he “rescued modernism from the banality induced by its commercial success,” and indeed among his major works there are no office buildings, skyscrapers, or stores, and no speculative real-estate developments or buildings that have to advertise for occupants. His plans for commercial skyscrapers were invariably rejected by clients. Instead, his career was based on institutional buildings—libraries, schools, churches and synagogues. In the America of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Kahn conducted an architectural practice that flourished as if there were no such thing as advertising, commerce, or speculative building. It was as if, for Kahn, the 30’s went on and on.
The turn away from architectural commercialism that characterized Kahn’s career is perhaps admirable, but one wonders what is to be learned from it. For most practicing architects, to be able to refuse work, let alone an entire class of work, is a luxury. Nor was Kahn’s vision of the monumental particularly easy to emulate. In place of the powerful and explicit symbolism that has historically justified architectural monumentality, Kahn could offer only inspiration and vague talk about human assembly.
To hold this against him would, however, be wrong. It is the task of the client, not of the architect, to provide the ideas that justify a building and the tremendous expenditure that it requires. If by default the task is left to the architect, he can only improvise. The inspirational if rather generic monumentality of Kahn’s architecture reflects our own uncertainty about our institutions and their ultimate validity. It is not surprising that the only institution in which Kahn always seemed to have a specific and active confidence was the educational—perhaps, as well, this is his most nearly Jewish trait as an architect.
In any event, Kahn made the best of his task, and often achieved poetry in the process. In the public spaces of his final buildings he recreated the feeling of being in the hulk of some vast Roman building where the precious marble panels have long been pried off, leaving awed visitors to ask themselves what rituals and ceremonies once took place there.
1 This essay, along with other essays on Kahn and illustrations of his work, appears in Louis I. Kahn, Museum of Contemporary Art/Rizzoli International, 448 pp., $60.00.