Saturday, June 20, 2009

Top 10: 4. Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn blended the spatial theories of the Beaux Arts with modern clarity of geometric simplicity to create a unique vision and expression of architecture. While the bulk of work produced by students of the Ecole de Beaux Arts was neoclassical, a good argument can be made that the school was about teaching students to develop methodology of design, ratther than merely how to work in a particular style.

Whatever the merits of Beaux Arts approaches to design, Kahn's primary use of it was, I think, in the formal arrangement of spaces. He certainly didn't articulate spaces' surfaces in a way that could be in any way confused with Beaux Arts, but he often proportioned them and arranged them in a way that harked back to his education at Penn.

Kahn was, as an academic, always interested in the use of analogies to understand and express ideas concerning architecture. A useful analogy he coined described spaces in a building as "served" or "service" spaces. By this he meant, for example, a dining area was "served," a kitchen was "service," as would be closets, mechanical rooms, rest rooms, stairs, etc. Somebody has pointed out, in discussing this idea, that spaces that don't fall into the categories of served and service could be called "interstitial" space, a necessary but essentially null space such as structure, air conditioning ducts, chimneys, etc. A more limited use of the term refers specifically to space between floors dedicated to mechanical elements.

As a professor at Yale, then Penn, Kahn mantained an office in the practice of architecture during the years he taught. Parenthetically, of this 'top ten' list, most shared Kahn's dual role as professor and practicioner, usually for extended periods. Exceptional achievement in design, particularly when notably innovative, naturally requires that one be conversant with the theoretical implications of the approaches they employ and the choices they make. Academic surroundings both foster this and attract individuals who are prone to theoretical exploration. Kahn was more than prone to explore theory, he was seriously regarded as a philosopher of design and was sometimes actually poetic in the expression of his insight.

Kahn was able to do striking and memorable structures with the not-always-so-simple technique of using basic geometric shapes and volumes. The richness came from the materials and lighting, paricularly natural light, not ornament. If there is one attribute of Kahn's work that architects regard as particularly unique to him, it's probably his great ability in the use of direct and indirect daylighting in his spaces.

Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban houses the Parliament o...Image via Wikipedia

The reason basic forms, if they're to read as basic forms, isn't necessarily simple is that functional exigencies tend to work against a cylinder, cone, cube, sphere or cycloid. It typically requires that some space be wasted, that more expensive roofing, custom doors and window, etc in order to accomodate forms that vary from the more conventional building vocabularies. Consider a window. If a designer feels that a window should "read" as a clear, punched opening in a wall, for example, the absence or minimization of head, jamb and sill material isn't easy to do, and certainly can't be obtained using off-the-shelf components.

Above, Library, Phillips Exeter Academy

An excellent series of photos.

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