The exhibition on Louis Kahn currently being held at the Design Museum, London, is worth seeing for all students of architecture, young and old. Kahn’s place in the panoply of modern architects is well deserved and this exhibition demonstrates why. Much of the material is familiar to anyone with an interest in his work, but the revelation for me is a series of large scale wood models of his work created by the Vitra Museum in 2012. These large-sale models, particularly of some of his unbuilt work, bring it to life in a new way. Models of the unbuilt section of the Salk Institute at La Jolla show the sophistication of that design in a way that drawings have never done, a design that presages the Government buildings at Dhaka many years later.
The full size model of the Fisher House window seat shows how Khan was able to manage the transition from the large scale down to the smallest scale in a way that few other architects have ever managed. This model illustrates a dwelling that was clearly humane and inhabitable in a way that few other architects have managed. Somehow Kahn was able to focus on the essentials of each of his projects without bringing his ego to the table. A quality sadly lacking in the work of many of our modern ‘starchitects’ who appear to be lauded for bringing their egos to the table to the exclusion of anything else.
Fisher House Window (Vitra Museum model)
Kahn’s particular philosophy , which can seem so obtruse and difficult at a casual reading, was sophisticated enough to guide him towards the creation of buildings places that are both humane and monumental. His buildings are effortless looking because he cared about the mechanics of construction and was prepared to use low or high tech materials where each was relevant. His interiors are beautiful because he cared deeply about how to illuminate them with daylight, the most precious commodity for an architect, and he wanted people to delight in occupying them and not just find them useful.
His design for the City Tower in Philadelphia, an unbuilt project, showed how radical he could be when he decided to expore structure. This tower, based on a space frame structure in the heady days of Buckminster Fuller, demonstrates that when architects follow an idea through to its logical conclusion it is possible to be both innovative and convincing. Fifty years later, nothing quite like this has been built.
Philadelphia City Tower (unbuilt) A three-dimensional space frame design that would be challenging to construct now, imagine how difficult this would have been in the 1950’s.
Finally, there is the Hurva Synagogue, and unbuilt project that demonstrates how he could take a design brief and extract a powerful, almost monumental building from it. It has more in common with Egyptian architecture from 3000BC than anything built since then. This apparently simple structure belies the sophistication of the ideas that have gone into it. Seeing it as a model brings home the power of the internal spaces and the imagined quality of the light that would have filtered through the gaps in this powerful structure. Like the Kimball Art Gallery he uses the structure to control the light into thin shafts that would have brought a magical quality to the interior spaces.
I continually find inspiration in Kahn’s work, go along to this and hopefully you will too.