In college I didn’t get Louis Kahn. This was contrary to the prevailing understanding. Maybe it was his manifesto “Order Is” which seemed a bit silly in its semi-poetic seriousness or his 1944 essay “Monumentality” in which, among many important points, he proclaims that his generation “accepts the airship as a vital need,” that gave me the wrong impression, or maybe it was the magnitude of praise that didn’t quite click with the justifications provided, or, as I am discovering now, maybe it was just me. I knew the interior of the Exeter library was incredible, and the photos of the Salk Institute were also impressive, albeit apparently cold (the architectural photos never show the view of the ocean or the people who work there), but based on what the slides revealed, these didn’t resonate with me as much as I thought they should have or as much as other works of architecture did. As an aside, why are architectural photos so often uninhabited? These are buildings, not sculptures. Perhaps that’s why Julius Shulman’s iconic image of Case Study House #22 by Pierre Koenig stands out so much: the cocktail party happening suspended in the air.
Fortunately, this week I finally watched “My Architect,” and started to think about Kahn and his buildings differently based on the views of the buildings and interviews with others who worked on them and in them. There were some duds to be sure, such as the Richards Medical Research Lab, which seems blandly imposing on the outside and was, as revealed in the film, uncomfortable for the people working inside, but the Exeter Library, the Esherick House, and the National Assembly building in Dacca warranted further study.
As part of this study, I did a few quick pen and ink sketches based on some pictures I found online. I wanted to spend only a short time sketching, hence the crudeness of the renderings, so I would stick with the core impressions to understand what really jumps out. Then I thought about those points in more detail in the context of the film, photos, and other readings.
I will key in on two examples here:
Using a photo by Ezra Stoller, I looked at the exterior of Esherick House, which revealed a few things I didn’t appreciate on first glance that might be telling. I hope my sketch helps to illustrate these things.
I noticed the use of depth and volume. The house is fantastically open, but in that openness there is a lot of framing, often in ways that crop the view from the outside. It’s almost like looking at a gallery wall, but instead of paintings, there are shadow boxes. This is because of the receding perspective in each frame. These aren’t just lines, they’re planes, which serve to situate the frame in space and vary the depth of the views. It was a nice variation on the tendency at the time to put Mondrian onto building facades, something that can be seen on some of the townhouses in Reston.
Looking at the National Assembly building, I was struck by the play with darkness and light, and heaviness and lightness.
From the outside, the building is hulking and imposing, despite the softening element of the water. This hulking aspect is enhanced by the large geometric cutouts which appear exceedingly dark in the images.
But when you look at the same shapes from inside the building, they are a fantastic source of natural light. The building interior, while still massive, is incredible and inclusive and symbolic–a true realization of what Kahn meant by monumentality. This was apparent in the film, especially when seeing the architect being interviewed starting to cry while discussing what Kahn did for them in Bangladesh. It was that moment, that humanization of the work, that made me connect with Kahn. Between that and my small sketching analysis here, I have a new interest in his works and hope to see a few in person some day.
Thanks for reading.