The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas by Louis I. Kahn

Quality not quantity

The proposed demolition of the Indian Institute of Management, designed by Louis I. Kahn, prompted a wave of indignation in the architectural world. High time to take another look at the works and the impact of the great master-builder.
by Alexander Russ | 1/20/2021

At the end of the crisis year that was 2020, one particular report triggered outrage in the architecture world: 14 out of 18 student dormitories at Louis I. Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management in the Indian city of Ahmedabad were to be torn down. The reaction was not long in coming: Worldwide protests swiftly ensued and they were suitably thunderous. Faced with the responsibility of preserving the cultural heritage of the great American master, the school’s administrative board thought better of it and called off the demolition. The school complex, which was built between 1962 and 1974, was completed the same year the architect died and is a milestone in a body of work that evolved somewhat late in his life: Kahn was already more than 60 years old when he realized the projects that brought him global renown, such as the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California’s La Jolla, completed in 1967. The number of buildings he designed is similarly modest, but they include some of the most impressive works of architecture of the 20th century. I.M. Pei put it best in the film “My Architect”, in which Kahn’s son sets out to trace his father’s footsteps: “Quality not quantity”, he notes.

Louis Kahn looking at his tetrahedral ceiling in the Yale University Art Gallery

Yet what is it exactly that makes Kahn so significant? The short answer may well be: the timelessness of his buildings, which simply cannot be pigeonholed as reflecting a particular style. Even during his lifetime, it was similarly difficult to place the architect from Philadelphia. He was neither one of the Modernists nor one of the representatives of Postmodernism like his student Robert Venturi. As an architectural one-off, he strived for a universal and universally valid design idiom as is also attested to by his words: “What will be has always been.” Hence, basic shapes like circles, squares and triangles repeatedly crop up in his buildings. Their archaic design prompts associations with Roman ruins or Egyptian pyramids, and in fact Kahn frequently drew inspiration from the great buildings of architectural history, which he was able to visit on his trips to Italy, Greece and Egypt during the 1950s. There he completed sketches of the ruins in Ostia, Delphi, Karnak and the Roman Forum, among others. Despite this search for the primeval form, Kahn also integrated modern elements into his architecture, which is evident, above all, in the construction of his buildings. A proximity to the architectural trend of Structuralism becomes particularly clear in one of his later works, the factory building for office appliance manufacturer Olivetti, for whom Kahn designed an edifice built from orthogonally arranged concrete parasols.

An early influence was his teacher Paul Philippe Cret, who taught him at the University of Pennsylvania and in whose firm he worked for many years. Cret, who was an architect in the tradition of the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts, passed on his approaches to his students and helped mold Kahn, too, who subsequently adopted themes such as monumentality and symmetry or working with light and shadow into his own body of work. One example of this is the Kimbell Art Museum, completed in 1972 in Fort Worth, Texas, where he designed a symmetrical building comprising three parts with a centrally positioned recessed entrance area. On the longitudinal sides, the museum is made up of elongated concrete units lined up one alongside the other, each of which is crowned with a barrel-shaped roof and which serve either as a fitted-out space or as a porch. Between these, Kahn slots internal courtyards which, together with the porch roofs, create artful transitions between interior and exterior. In the exhibition area, the individual barrel roofs are crowned with a slot-shaped skylight. The daylight flowing in falls across perforated aluminum reflectors placed under the ceiling on the concrete surfaces of the barrel roofs, generating soft light.

The Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire

In fact, the interplay of daylight and architectural space is one of the architect’s key themes. Kahn himself mentions this in passing when he wrote: “Architecture appears for the first time when the sunlight hits a wall.”Here, he made a distinction between served and servant spaces, which were intended as a structural depiction of the functions associated with the building. One example of this is the Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire, built in 1972. Here, an atrium with skylight forms the central core of the square building, which is one of the biggest school libraries in the world. Access is from the four diagonally positioned corners. The main entrance is via a double-flight, Baroque-style staircase that connects the ground level with the atrium on the first floor. While the reading and study areas are positioned along the façade and therefore benefit from daylight, the shelves housing 250,000 books provide a servant area in the middle around all four sides of the atrium. Subdued light falls from above onto the surrounding concrete structure, the large, circular openings of which create a visual connection between the bookshelves and the atrium and set the stage for the library as a monumental store of knowledge.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California

Kahn’s possibly most beautiful building is the afore-mentioned Salk Institute for Biological Studies, designed for Jonathan Salk who developed the vaccination against polio. Salk wanted an institutional building, which Kahn transformed with great artistry over the course of the design process into an complete ensemble. The plot designed for this on the site of the University of San Diego in the villa-dotted suburb of La Jolla straddles the crest of the steep Pacific Ocean coast and therefore offers the perfect setting. In keeping with this, the view of the water and the breadth of the horizon played an important role in the design and particularly the creation of the central plaza. This is flanked by two blocks housing the research laboratories and individual workrooms for the researchers. Both are connected to each other via loggias, which face the Pacific Ocean and offer the researchers a place for informal meetings with colleagues. The key element of the complex is a water channel in the middle of the plaza, which runs towards the ocean and merges with the horizon. It is hard to think of a more fitting symbol of eternity. The idea for this actually wasn’t Kahn’s, but came from another great maverick, the Mexican architect Luis Barragán, whom Kahn had previously asked for advice. Thus, we discover that great things sometimes come about only through cooperation. That could be a mantra for 2021, too.