Apollo Magazine

Keep cool: the concrete castles of Louis Kahn

The architect wreathed his buildings in mystical language – but his modern citadels are clearly among the great achievements of 20th-century architecture

National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, Dhaka (1962–83), designed by Louis Kahn (1901–74).

National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, Dhaka (1962–83), designed by Louis Kahn (1901–74). Photo: © Cemal Emden

Louis Kahn (1901–74) was an architect who designed buildings that looked like castles; this was true whether they were small Philadelphia villas or vast institutions such as his parliamentary complex in Dhaka. His style – which he arrived at only in his fifties – is characterised by what look like thick fortified walls of massive masonry pierced by simple geometrical shapes and sometimes topped with turrets, as if they have been designed by a necromancer or numerologist in the 13th or 14th century. The architectural historian Vincent Scully, an admirer, thought these buildings an intimation of divinity, and much writing about Kahn is overblown: ‘inventive power’, ‘personal discovery’, ‘fundamental geometry’ – that sort of thing.

Alongside this lies the fact that he was a charismatic teacher given to gnomic utterances – a stream of consciousness about bricks, for example, went thus: ‘The brick was always talking to me, saying you’re missing an opportunity. The weight of brick makes it dance like a fairy above and groan below but brick is stingy…’ It means nothing, but students in Kahn’s circle were entranced: Anthony Wade, a young British architect, returned from studying under Kahn in Philadelphia to design Eliot College (1965), a large residential building on a Kahnian plan at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

Nearly 1,200 of Kahn’s present-day admirers, some in the top tier of architectural academia and practice worldwide, signed a letter at the end of last year protesting against the proposed demolition of dormitory buildings at his Indian Institute of Management complex in Ahmedabad (IIMA) in India. The IIMA has rowed back, for the time being, but the episode demonstrated the power of his incantations: the construction of his wonderful library at Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire – blatantly a castle keep – seems to have been accompanied by a continuous flow of these characteristic aphorisms.

Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter, New Hampshire (1965–72), designed by Louis Kahn. Photo: © Cemal Emden

He looked the way he sounded: in Native Stone, Edwin Gilbert’s Yale-based roman-à-clef of 1956, the Kahn character is ‘an almost gnome-like figure encased in an oxford-gray suit’. And there was occasionally a sense of incredulity, too, at Kahn’s challenge to puritanical, mainstream modernism. The front elevation of his performing arts centre at Fort Wayne, Indiana (1961–73) has a funny face with explicit eyes, nose and mouth, a fact that modernist critics could never address directly.

Kahn’s career as an independent architect began in the late 1940s but the turning point in his life had come 20 years earlier, when he travelled to Italy and made beautiful atmospheric drawings and paintings of buildings. What Kahn and the Kahnites called his ‘tartan grid’, a mesh of ‘master’ and ‘servant’ spaces, was his updated response to Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand’s Précis of the Lectures on Architecture (1802–05) and Beaux Arts planning. So there too he was consciously reaching back into the past, something that no other heroic-period modernist ever admitted to; and as modernism is increasingly re-evaluated in architecture schools today, his work provides a useful illustration of the ways in which traditional forms can be constantly updated and referenced. Philip Webb, who in English architectural history was similarly revered by contemporaries, looked back to find an ‘Idea’ – that is, a historical building type – for each original new building; Kahn likewise re-envisaged medieval monasteries as an assembly of distinct volumes that recall chapels, halls and cells.

The IIMA could be seen as either a monastery or a collection of castles; it has barbicans, defensive walls and outer forts – those being the threatened dormitory buildings. At La Jolla on the Californian coast, Kahn designed for the Salk Institute for Biological Studies – founded by the polio-vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk – what looks like a single massive defensive wall that has been cleft down the middle, each half placed either side of a rill that runs towards the Pacific. The basic elements of the design appear to be frozen as though in a balletic tableau. This equilibrium had appeared in a group of open, atavistic temples that form part of Kahn’s first ‘Kahnian’ project of 1954–58, a Jewish community centre in Trenton, New Jersey, and towards the end of his career at the barrel-vaulted Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (1969–72). Here the vault is split lengthways with a rooflight running down the middle; it’s not really a true vault, although it resembles one. All Kahn’s completed buildings are visually stunning, and have been recently captured by the photographer Cemal Emden in a book published by Prestel this month.

A dormitory building at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (1962–74), designed by Louis Kahn. Photo: © Cemal Emden

Kahn’s design for the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem was never built, but this too would have reached out towards the elements, in the manner of the sublime – in this case upwards and downwards rather than outwards as at La Jolla. Denys Lasdun’s successor scheme for the Hurva was not built either, and thus Ahrends, Burton and Koralek’s somewhat Kahnian Nebenzahl House of 1972 has remained the only building of any architectural quality whatsoever built within the Old City in the 20th century.

The British architect James Stirling met Kahn in Philadelphia in 1959, and Kahn immediately became a hero: Stirling thought his work was ‘very English’, though in fact Kahn told I.M. Pei that his inspiration had been Scottish castles. Stirling’s own WZB Social Science Centre in Berlin is planned in the form of a monastic dormitory, an amphitheatre, a chapel and a castle keep (unbuilt), and seems to be derived from an early scheme for Salk’s institute. Stirling shared Kahn’s imperious attitude to everything and everyone other than the building itself, which in Kahn’s case included a failure to recognise the work of engineers who made his buildings possible: August Komendant, for example, who designed the cycloid section that made the Kimbell’s vault stand up, was omitted from the building’s published credits.

The reason for the IIMA dormitories’ demolition, according to the institute’s board, was that their unsatisfactory construction had become a danger to residents – a point that the signatories to the objecting letter notably failed to respond to. What is a leaking roof, however, when a building speaks of the mysteries of the universe?

Essential Louis Kahn by Cemal Emden and Caroline Maniaque will be published by Prestel in April.

From the March 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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