Kahn (A homage) | Sergio de Miguel

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Louis I. Kahn, teaching from the silence to the light

The architect Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) is born in Estonia but is carried in his first years of life to the United States where after a brilliant period of artistic restlessness studies architecture in the University of Pennsylvania, learning the precepts of the “Beux-Arts” of his teacher Paul Cret.

It had no  if the bad or the good luck to be born almost a generation afterwards that Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Of course that it did not have neither the inventiveness of the first neither the elegance of the second, but his perseverancia and intuition did that, somehow, aunara both qualities, inventiveness and elegance, like any another.

It obtains his title of architect in 1924, a year after Le Corbusier published his influential “Towards a architecture”, in full modern revolution. It is not by then the sufficient mature as to be protagonist of the fertile and revolutionary period of between wars, by what in his beginnings will have to the big figures like clear reference. The events bélicos and economic will carry him to the years 50 with a practical experience vivamente marked by the principles of the International style and the functionalism, doing him happen practically careless. Between the year 1950 and 1951, in the maturity of the fifty and teaching architecture in Yale’s University, he accedes to the scholarship of the Academy of Rome and this allows him to travel and to know the archaic spirit of Egypt, Greece and Rome. A surprising brilliancy makes him glimpse in the ancient architecture the reference of his more than relevant future architecture.

From then, as if it had opened a dazzling door for the knowledge, it was not going to use the historical sources to copy them but as evocations of the timeless greatness that in his opinion was absent in the majority of the paradigms of the modern architecture. His search has as end a “New Monumentalidad”, a quality that it had to see with the feeling eternity so impregnated in him after his trips. His references were going to be in Luxor and Karnak, in Athens and Delphi, in Ostia and Pompeii, though for Kahn, the architecture of the Imperial Rome was going to be the most influential. His friend and more fervent admirer Vincent Scully defines his architecture as “the transformation of the ruins of the archaic Rome in modern buildings”. In any case, the anxious Kahn was not disdaining of anything, and test of it is that he liked to affirm that

“the architecture always must begin with an eye in the best architecture of the past”.

One of The Kahn’s most influential contributions was his personalísimo message of poetical words that had as object express his more deep reflections on the architecture. In his mind and his language he was reigning an almost obsessive duality that was characterizing all his manifestations. During all his last period it laboured to explain the nature of the creative process in an eloquent effort for explaining to if same and certainly, for transmitting what he understood like the most fundamental beginning of the Architecture to his numerous pupils. Because Kahn before he was considered to be one of the big teachers of the 20th century was, first of all, the excellent one and very dear teacher of Yale’s Universities and Pennsylvania. His educations penetrated depth in the whole generation of disciples, many of them (Venturi, Stern, Moore, Burden, Botta, Tadao Ando, etc.) they were active protagonists of the change that was going to suffer the architecture as consequence of the review of the modern thing.

His devotion, his special sensibility, they made him affirm that

“the architecture, it is first of all, an expression of the institutions of the man, which go back to that origin in which the man managed to realize his desires or his inspirations”.

His obsession for the origins, for the “beginning” of the architecture they made him define the comprehension, the inspiration before the creative act as

“the feeling of to begin in the threshold where the silence and the light are: the silence with his desire to be and express, and the light as creative of all the presences”.

Always it was using enigmatic words, expressive records that were coming to mean, in the bottom, a simple message: The architecture is born of a continuous sway, of a constant return tour between the mental thing and the physical thing, between what still it does not exist and that one that is. Between what and how, definitively, between the ideas and the things. The duality for Kahn, this aspect appellant of his thought and of his work, far from chasing a dichotomy, a confrontation, wants to be a balance, a scale in which an aim is obtained: the meeting, the threshold of what he conceived as the “possibilities”.

“The architecture starts by doing a stay”.

The stay, the room, “the room”, is for Kahn the indivisible element of the architecture. And from his particular approximation to what a stay is and can manage to be his works arise. The whole formal evolution of his architecture turns out to be clearly directed by a pondered and surprising conception of the stays. For Kahn the architecture has to see in spite of “a world creates inside a world”, that is to say, the architecture believe the sensation of a world inside a world, and this sensation gives the stay.  The stay is not for Kahn but “a place with a particular character”, and this character is determined especially for “the relation between the light and the structure”. The structure is for him the generating one of the light, and this relation, again dually, does not stop being an appellant disquisition between aspects if it fits deeper; between the mass and the space, between the emptiness and the abundance, between the exterior and the interior.

The persons who knew Kahn stopped to see that it had two big obsessions: History and the structure. The alchemy between both is fundamental, since we will see, to understand his architecture.

Being still in his brief stay in Rome in 1951, after having been three years teaching in Yale, him his first great order arises. A golden opportunity to begin his new way as architect. After the influence of his companions of teaching, the work is entrusted to him of realizing the new Gallery of Art of the University, building that had to be the extension of the existing one of historicist court. After his trips he was interpreting such a basic architecture and so “without time” as the one that he had estimated in Rome, it is more, it was returning absolutely seduced by the archetypal order of the geometry, and this consideration would never leave him.

In those days Kahn is interested for the three-dimensional structures. Very probably influenced by his relation of friendship with the engineers Buckmister Fuller and Le Ricolais. As consequence, the project for him designed, which undoubtedly does not give up leaving at the moment the vocabulary of the modern thing, that is to say, diaphanous plants, walls appear curtain, blind fronts and tangential accesses, nevertheless a new structural system investigates of forged with a peculiar reticle of tetrahedrons that sheltering the facilities provides to the spaces of a great continuity. But it is undoubtedly the triangular stairs inscribed inside a cylinder of concrete and his characteristic lucernario the element that allows to guess his newly inaugurated longing for conceiving a new formal vocabulary.

Once finished the building repents not having been more categorical in the character of the stays, and of having chased too many versatility, manages to affirm grieved:

“A good building is that one that the client cannot destroy with an evil use of the spaces”.

In any case, the experience undoubtedly him will be of great help to open new fields of formal investigation.

A later drawing is clearly expressive of how he had liked to take until the end the expressiveness of his structural invention and obtained credit like that a more suitable character of the stays. The reticle of tetrahedrons spreads infecting to the vertical supports. Years later, in the project of the City Tower for the center of Philadelphia, it dreams of a building done in its entirety from this three-dimensional consideration of the order.

After the experience of Yale, the great theoretical one of the architecture Colin Rowe, great friend of Kahn and connoisseur of his investigations, makes him come a copy of the influential book of R. Wittkower “Architectural principles in the Age of humanism”, indicating him in I make concrete a graph of explanation of the villas palladianas and annotating him:

“I think that you can discover attitudes with which you are in deep sharm”.

In the graph there appear twelve schemes of eleven of the most representative Villas Palladianas, being the last one a scheme that answers to the legend of: “Geometric Model of Palladio’s villas”, a square divided in nine squares with two specialized lines of dispute they had to astonish to Kahn’s abstract creativity, infected undoubtedly by the knowledge of the criteria that Tomás de Aquino was giving to determine the beauty of an object: the integrity (integritas), the perfection (perfectio), the symmetry and the proportions (proportio) and the clarity (claritas).

This generating square of geometry and beauty will be an appellant in Kahn’s work. Managing to affirm in numerous occasions

“I always begin the projects for a square”.

But not only it captivated Wittkower’s scheme, the “system of rooms” of the plants Palladianas, this architecture of thick walls where the structure of the closing was not distinguished, they were going to direct him for a way appellant in his formal digest: the composition of stays.

The design of the house Adler of 1954, it began with a scheme clearly Palladiano. A plant of squares forming a cross it is the germ of a “displacement” which result is a balanced composition of stays defined by the thick supports of his corners. The structure, since it cannot be otherwise in Kahn’s work, is the protagonist and the one that provides the character of the stays.

In the bathhouse, the only piece constructed of the global project of Center for The Jewish Community of Trenton (1954-57), part of the same scheme of Greek cross, but if in his development it does not leave the inflexibility of the scheme, it introduces an innovation that him would provide big formal possibilities: the idea of the hollow columns. The covers of the building rest on the thick supports of the corners, but this time they shelter in his interior the secondary functions, which allows to obtain the chased order of spaces served opposite to spaces servants. A way of structuring the buildings that it was obsessing Kahn and that it was going to be revealed in numerous occasions.

In the order for the laboratories of medical investigation Richards, in the University of Pennsylvania, it was going to be able to develop his recent formal discoveries with major freedom. His clarifier was going to allow to distinguish a complex program emphatically system of served spaces and servants, his hollow columns and certainly, the chased composition of stays.

A set of towers squared with expressive elements servants in the centers of the paraments him were going to allow to liberate the corners valuing this way the force of the reigning geometry. (There can not escape from us the evident influence of any works of Mies Van der Rohe). A new prefabricated structure of concrete pretensado of inert surfaces is juxtaposed by elegant cloths of red brick. The placement of the glass in this building answers to the will to eliminate of the architecture the superfluous elements, that is to say, the hollows are looked without lintels capable of completing and emphasizing the value of the structure.

It is undoubtedly an interesting evolution of his “plant of pavilions”.

Understanding which were the references that Kahn was handling to develop so enigmatic architecture is necessary to stop in some aspects

His collaborators more next count that in one of the principal walls of his place of work Kahn he had placed a giant reproduction of the engraving of Piranesi (Marcio’s Field) in the one that was doing an idealization in plant of the imperial Rome. The contemplation of similar family of forms was undoubtedly an evocative landscape for his architecture. The juxtaposition, the geometric order of the walls that were enclosing the diverse stays must feed constant the fervent creativity of a Kahn fascinated with the timeless thing, with the discovery of a new but eternal architecture.

Other one of his more fertile obsessions they were the plants of the Scotch castles, with his thick walls lived by the elements servants liberating in his interior the great principal stay.

The above mentioned obsession was coming helped by that of the centered plants, result of the geometric perfection recommended by the great Alberti. In that of the same way, the thick walls perimetrales were allowing “encasing” secondary stays and to organize into a hierarchy in a more effective way the space.

The house Esherick of 1965 is a good example of the development of the idea of the thick walls, fattened here across the incorporation of furniture to the perimeter walls.

In the first Unitary church of Rochester (1959-67) the degree of implication is guessed by such obsessions. The previous schemes of the finally constructed project make perceive the development of such ideas of a clearest way. Kahn had commented that

“due to the fact that an interior is different from the exterior … we have come to the point where it is possible to separate the exterior wall of the interior wall … and create a space between both along which it could walk, thing that might not be done if it was a wall of massive stone”.

The thick exterior wall is “lived“ by the secondary stays and his delimiting across the corridor perimetral allows to organize and to emphasize the principal stay of worship.

Kahn was in full creative effervescence, was starting dominating a personal geometric language that did not have limits. His formal digest was going to be extended of the hand of the diagonal. This subtle one allied of the square.

In the house Goldenberg of 1959, a new freedom appears, the plant relaxes across the exploration of the diagonals. A new subtlety that him was going to allow to open his field of action.

In the house Fisher of 1960, the degree of freedom that was guessed in the incorporation of the diagonal was going to continue the path undertaken of the composition of stays together with the predilection by the square. Two equal squares connected by the corner of one of them complete a surprising set in his simplicity and certainly in his efficiency. How much with so little. They are the beginnings of the Kahniano world of “the architecture of the connection”.

In the project for the residence Erdman of the University of Pennsylvania (1960-65), it starts combining with mastery his formal findings. One battles again with both basic aims of his architecture: he structures one clearly expressed, generating of the character, and the geometric order. The architecture of the connected pavilions meets here the developments of the centered plant, the thick inhabited walls and the incorporation of the diagonal as method of connection. Three concatened diamonds, each of them with a principal stay in the center and surrounded with the bedrooms they were going to form the “giant house” that Kahn had imagined for the residence. For him it was necessary to evoke “the presence of a house” and therefore to differentiate clearly the public zones (lounge, dining room and foyer) of the private stays of to sleeping.

The diagonalidad in the connection was going to allow him that every square should solve his connection with his own corner, without intermediate elements. It had as one of his more profitable tactics to avoid the corners, knew that always they were a problem to solving that it could muddy the looked clarity. And that better way of avoiding a problem that it not to have.

The architecture of the connection came to his zenith with the project of the convent of the Dominicans of Philadelphia (1965-68). Taking the stay as the indivisible unit of the architectural design there stood out the pieces of a previous drawing and arranged as if about a collage it was treating itself. Kahn was affirming:

“I think that the architects should be composers not designers, composers of elements, understanding as elements the things with own entity”.

But his formal investigations were not finishing in the considerations in plant. One of the most new contributions of the architectural vocabulary of kahn were the windows in the shape of “keyhole”. Kahn experiments with the form of the openings on response to the light. She is interested in constructing without lintels, without fences of carpentries if it is possible. It designs this type of hollows for his special gradation of the light.

In the building for the newspaper “Tribune Review” in Pennsylvania (1958-61), it tests a simple structure where the stays meet characterized by this type of “essential” openings.

It is in the project for the consulate of The United States in Luanda, Angola (1959-69), where this mechanism is started considering to be a “vertical tent”, which manages to leave air between the interior walls and the exteriors, inside the whole family of protection mechanisms opposite to the tropical climate. But it is undoubtedly his predilection for the beauty of the ruins, for the absence of fences, for the formation of enigmatic hollows without anything behind, which moves him principally.

In the project for the house Fleisher of 1959 this formal mechanism is investigated in a more intense way.

Sergio de Miguel, architect
Madrid, march 2010

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