Anda di halaman 1dari 27

This article was downloaded by: [York University Libraries] On: 27 May 2015, At: 09:37 Publisher: Routledge Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

This article was downloaded by: [York University Libraries] On: 27 May 2015, At: 09:37 Publisher: Routledge Louis I Kahn @ 40s: Architecture in the 1950s Gevork Hartoonian Published online: 21 Jul 2008. To cite this article: Gevork Hartoonian (2008) Louis I Kahn @ 40s: Architecture in the 1950s, Architectural Theory Review, 13:1, 3-28, DOI: 10.1080/13264820801915096 To link to this article: PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the “Content”) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis, our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as to the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors, and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Content should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims, proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or arising out of the use of the Content. This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing, systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at and-conditions " id="pdf-obj-0-6" src="pdf-obj-0-6.jpg">

Architectural Theory Review

Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:

Louis I Kahn @ 40s: Architecture in the


Gevork Hartoonian Published online: 21 Jul 2008.

To cite this article: Gevork Hartoonian (2008) Louis I Kahn @ 40s: Architecture in the 1950s, Architectural Theory Review, 13:1, 3-28, DOI: 10.1080/13264820801915096


Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the “Content”) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis, our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as to the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors, and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Content should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims, proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or arising out of the use of the Content.

This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any

substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing, systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at and-conditions

ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

Louis I Kahn @ 40s: Architecture in the



Starting with the particularities of the postwar American architecture, this paper aims to discuss Kahn’s recoding of what might be called the culture of building, for example, themes internal to the formation of the disciplinary history of architecture. Additional attention is given to Kahn’s discourse on monumentality pronounced in 1944. Emphasis is also placed on Kahn’s concern with structure and ornament, but also the tectonic. The paper then presents an historical analysis of Kahn’s design for the Philadelphia City Tower and the Yale University Art Gallery, arguing that in spite of, or rather because of postmodern conditions, the project of modernity should be considered neither as a perfect past, nor a phenomenon that is working towards its completion. Modernity should rather be considered a project whose periodic crisis is endemic to architects’ ongoing recoding of the culture of building.


The years following World War II unleashed unprecedented uncertainties for American architecture. Victorious from war, America was desperately seeking to consolidate her image beyond the pride in liberty and democracy espoused by the country’s constitution. Another sense of identity was experienced by a nation whose military industries would soon open the door to a consumer culture that would react to the ‘‘durability’’ essential to the art of building. Architecturally, the nation was divided, if not confused, around the following dilemma: how to institutionalize the post-war victory. In other words, the question was how to domesticate the political apparatus of the State, avoiding strategies used by the left and right political camps of those decades. In 1944 Elizabeth Mock, then the director of the Department of Architecture in the Museum of Modern Art, wrote: ‘‘A totalitarian nation demands buildings which still express the omnipresence of the State and the complete subordination of the individual.’’ She continued, ‘‘But the problem is not quickly disposed of, as a democracy needs

Corresponding author: Gevork Hartoonian, e-mail:

ISSN 1326-4826 print/ISSN 1755-0475 online ª 2008 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/13264820801915096

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


monuments, even though its requirements are not those of a dictatorship.’’ 1 It took almost two decades for the profession to unearth the causes of the implied confusion.

It is not the intention of this essay to address the historical context of the post-war American architectural discourse in its entirety. Presenting a critical reading of Louis I. Kahn’s famous piece on ‘‘monumentality,’’ written in 1944, this essay discusses the singularity of his early work. The intention is to historicize Kahn not only within the postwar situation of America, but also within the project of modernism. This dual historical trajectory and its architectonic implications are mostly dismissed by scholars who either discuss Kahn’s work in association with what he said and wrote, or attempt to map Kahn within the discursive formation of postmodernism.

In a gathering whose aim was to discuss what was then called ‘‘The Period of Chaoticism,’’ the post-war uncertainty was seen as in part due to emerging new technologies, including the speed of social and cultural transformation unfolding in the 1950s, and the failure of the project of modern architecture. That architecture was expected during the early two decades of the last century to play a decisive role in the transformation of western society had lost its incentives by the post-war period. Alongside other participants in the gathering organized by Progressive Architecture, Kahn emphasized the importance of ‘‘institutions.’’ Others underlined the need for ‘‘community’’ and ‘‘system.’’ Buckminster Fuller’s technological optimism, for instance, was balanced by Philip Johnson’s emphasis on ‘‘the principle of uncertainty.’’ Obviously, Fuller’s position mediated between Kahn’s and Johnson’s. Kahn presented a discourse of architecture that was centered on postmodern interest in mass-culture and communication. Johnson’s presentation, instead, anticipated the formalism that would be entertained by the New York Five Architects. In retrospect, nothing short of the debate between the ‘‘Whites’’ and the ‘‘Greys’’ speaks for the post-war demand for a different direction in architecture. The content of the debate underpinned the thematic of the architecture of postmodernism, overshadowing the scope of American praxis for at least another three decades. 2

During the 1950s, however, the choices were few. One could either endorse the instrumental logic of the Enlightenment, or recall the humanist aspiration for regionalism. 3 This paradox was exemplified in the debate running between a group of people gathered around Lewis Mumford, Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, on the one hand, and the Haussmanian vision put forward by Robert Moses, on the other. In this paradox, Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of democracy can be characterized as a ‘‘bipartisan’’ approach (the term used in American political jargon), the thematic of which attained a new momentum in the early work and writings of Kahn.

History’s Disquiet 4

For the objectives of the argument presented here, it is necessary to remind the reader that contemporary architectural historiography relies mostly on historicism. 5 Even Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s timely ‘‘Coda’’ does not do full justice to the issues that this essay will discuss. Rejecting the views that would approach Kahn’s work from the postmodernism’s presumed departure from modernity, the essays


ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

compiled in her book attempt to historicize a selected number of post-war architects, discussing architecture in the historical context of events that shaped the years between 1930 and 1965. In her contribution to the volume, Goldhagen discusses Kahn and Alvar Aalto in terms of ‘‘situated modernists’’—architects who, according to her, ‘‘became ever more sceptical that architects could significantly improve modern life by adapting their practices to the needs of industrial technology.’’ 6 The final pages of her text do indeed provide a concise summary of the modernist ideas and idioms that Kahn re-conceptualized in the socio-political and cultural field of post-war America, including the problems caused by the emerging mass culture. 7

Goldhagen’s text develops its argument at the threshold of a Foucauldian historicism. Criticizing the myth of lone genius, she makes an attempt to situate Kahn not only in the intellectual life of post-war America, but also in the architect’s personal experience of the era he lived through. To depart from the traditional conventions of art history, which are mostly informed by the idea of style and periodization, Goldhagen’s text draws primarily from Michel Foucault’s ‘‘discursive formation’’ and Pierre Bourdieu’s discourse on what is called the logic of Practice. 8 Although the author acknowledges the importance of a semi-autonomous understanding of architecture, her discussion of post-war architecture remains at a discursive level. She is at best when the purpose of the text is to map the thematic of architectural discourse along the socio-political and technological developments of the years ending with postmodernism. A discursive approach to architecture, however, leaves questions of the following kind unanswered. For example, why would a ‘‘situated’’ modernist like Kahn choose brick as the main cladding material for most of his buildings? Or, what were the spatial and tectonic implications of this choice? Was Kahn’s rejection of abstraction attuned to the modernists’ dislike of historicism, which in his case means the whitewashed aesthetic of the international style architecture of the 1930s? Or, was it a modernist indulgence with the Zeitgeist, though now seen through the fog surrounding the failure of the project of modernity, and the postmodernist return to historical forms blended with stylistic and tactile connotations? Goldhagen does address aspects of the issues raised here. 9 Nevertheless, a sense of ‘‘in-betweeness’’ 10 is implied in these questions, which, if discussed in the context of what might be called the ‘‘culture of building,’’ can produce a different understanding of Kahn’s architecture.

Elsewhere I have discussed the idea of the culture of building in terms of themes central to the formation of the disciplinary history of architecture. 11 One is reminded of the architectonics of the inside/outside relationship: the dialogical rapport between column and wall, and the tectonic achieved by poetic embellishment of a constructed form and that of the earth-work and the frame-work discussed by the nineteenth-century German architect Gottfried Semper. 12 Of interest here is the need to recode the thematic of the culture of building when the overall scope of architectural praxis changes its form according to socio-political and technological transformations endemic to the ongoing life of late capitalism. What makes the presented paradigm useful is the emphasis it puts on the dialectics between autonomy and semi-autonomy. While a discursive approach to contemporary architecture provides a comprehensive understanding of how certain events and themes would influence the way an architect thinks, or what motivates a critic to write on architecture, a discussion centred on the culture of building highlights the tectonic implication of the same discursive formation. Instead of saying this or


Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


that concept was formative for an architect’s work, the suggested paradigm would rather underpin the significance of the dialectics between autonomy and semi-autonomy for a critical understanding of the complexity of horizon(s) that interweave the work of the architect with the text of the historian.

In discussing architecture in terms of the tectonics of the core-form and the art-form, for example, the idea is to retain that which is internal to architecture. What this means is that architecture is not a direct product of construction, and yet the core-form (the physical body of the building) inevitably puts architecture in the track of technological transformations and scientific innovations. The same might be said about the art-form: if the notion of beauty, centred on the subjective inner imagination, is suspended, then the art-form remains the sole venue by which architecture is charged with aesthetic sensibilities that are, interestingly enough, informed by perceptual horizons unleashed by technology. The art-form also reveals the tactile and spatial sensibilities accumulated through the disciplinary history of architecture. Therefore, while the core-form assures architecture’s rapport with the many changes taking place in the structure of construction, the art-form remains the only domain where the architect might choose to imbue the core-form with those aspects of the culture of building that might side-track the formal and aesthetic consequences of commodification (a state of aesthetic exchange fundamental to the cultural production of late capitalism) and yet avoid dismissing the positive aspects of the latest technological developments.

This theorization of architecture is also useful for avoiding a linear or structuralist vision of history. There are analytical moments in the historiography of architecture that suggest the reading of the contemporaneity of architecture in a different light. Following Walter Benjamin’s idea of ‘‘spectral experience of history,’’ Harry Harootunian writes, ‘‘a history founded on the ‘now of recognisability’ is not a step in a continuous process, but, rather, a ‘tableau,’ a ‘presentation,’ a recovery of what was lost, repressed, excluded.’’ 13 What does this statement suggest? Consider this: in 1929, Henry-Russell Hitchcock coined the term ‘‘the New Tradition,’’ 14 to discuss some buildings that would blend modernism’s architectural achievements with conventions the origins of which can be traced back to the Arts and Craft movement. Recalling the work of early pioneers of modern architecture, Hitchcock’s vision seems less radical, so to speak, than, say, Sigfried Giedion’s. Nevertheless, the theoretical dimension of Hitchcock’s argument was alarming as far as the historicist’s investment in the Zeitgeist is concerned. Hitchcock’s position undermines Giedion’s, for whom the spirit of the time was the essential driving force if architecture had to be modern. Obviously the urge to synchronize time and space was a driving force during early decades of modernism. Alongside other thinkers, Giedion wholeheartedly entertained the idea of Zeitgeist. Nevertheless, thinkers like Ernst Bloch held a different opinion. Bloch argued that the present should be seen pregnant with ideas coming from both the past and the ‘‘now of the present.’’ Thus, for Bloch there was no simultaneous understanding of architecture and time. 15 Continuing along this track, one might expand the horizon of the culture of building to include the materiality of the historical work on architecture (labeled either conservative or radical). If this last proposition is accepted, then one might see in Kahn’s architecture the return of ‘‘the new tradition,’’ a conservative turn of events perhaps, though blended with radical socio-political incentives such as the claim for civic architecture and monumentality.


ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

The stakes are high for the current historiography of the architecture of the last fifty years. Contemporary historians and critics are facing a body of well-crafted theories and buildings that were not available to the architects and historians of the 1940s. 16 This observation is an obvious one and perhaps glosses over late seventeenth century literary debate between the ancients and moderns. But the stakes are truly high if one suspends the linear vision of history and sees the apparition of the past, which in this case means the presence of modernity, not only for post-war architecture, but also for the architecture of postmodernism. What for the latter was intended to be a clear-cut departure from the project of modernity turned out to be nothing but a deeper plunging of the cultural into that project. Devaluation of all values and the prevailing gap between the language of architecture and the capitalist forces of production and consumption are critical subjects for architectural praxis even today. 17 The modalities of this clash, however, change their form from one period to another. 18

Consider Kahn’s famous aphorism, ‘‘what the building wants to be.’’ The phrase could be interpreted in many ways. 19 What needs to be added here is that ‘‘What the building wants to be’’ can also be discussed in relation to Kahn’s obsession with the space-defining role he attributed to a structural system. Vincent Scully suggests that, ‘‘what the building wants to be as an ideal scheme is profoundly modified by how it can be built and, perhaps most of all, by what all its specific functions want to be.’’ 20 What this means is that, while the brick wanted to be an arch, Kahn tried to convince his imaginary interlocutor that an arch is expensive to build, let alone the fact that by using a steel lintel the opening made in a brick wall would be aesthetically more pleasing. While economic incentives could have also motivated Kahn to formulate the idea of serve/service spaces, his earlier aphorism alludes to the dualistic nature of his approach to architecture. Dualistic not only because his differentiation of ‘‘House’’ from ‘‘a house’’ is peppered by the existential thinking in vogue in post-war years, but also because he wanted to re-think the tectonic traditions anew. According to Arthur Danto, Kahn’s statement recalls the arche, ‘‘the beginnings on which true architecture rests.’’ 21 Kahn’s phrase is also suggestive of the split between sign and signifier, discussed during the semiological phase of postmodernism. According to Kahn, ‘‘House is the form, in the mind of wonder it should be there without shape or dimension. A house is a conditional interpretation of these spaces.’’ 22 Separated from its signifier, the ‘‘building,’’ an autonomous entity, gave Kahn the chance to rethink the culture of building in conjunction with economic factors informing a cost-effective construction system, whilst cashing in ideas and concepts that would justify his design choices—though mostly articulated in tectonic terms.

Having established the dialogical relationship between Kahn’s theorization of architecture and the situation of the 50s, it is not farfetched to associate Kahn’s strategy with Hitchcock’s ideas in ‘‘the new tradition.’’ Similar to the latter, one can argue that Kahn’s was a transitional case, smoothing the way to postmodern conditions (architecturally speaking). His was definitely a point of view moving against the line of thinking that pushed the autonomy of the sign towards its formalistic end—in both its historicist and abstract manifestations. 23 This much is clear from Kahn’s rumination on space and institutions, and his belief that new spatial configurations will affirm ‘‘a promise of life and will reveal new availabilities and point to human support for their establishment.’’ 24 Kahn’s rapport with historical typologies, his love affair with brick—a mundane tactile and sensuous material—and finally, his


Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


recourse to monumentality, were indeed strategies resulting from the drive for the autonomy of architecture, whilst at the same time addressing an historical necessity: America’s timely ‘‘desire’’ for civic architecture, and the reconciliation of institutions with the demands of a mass-culture that was in its formative years. Having briefly mapped the historicity of the post-war era, what should be asked is the following: is it possible to expect a one-to-one correspondence between architectural form and the architect’s theorization of his/her work? Thomas Leslie has convincingly demonstrated that in spite of his inspiring words, Kahn’s architecture is ‘‘entirely rooted in prosaic of practice and technique.’’ 25 His observation demands channeling the discussion to the theme of monumentality and its tectonic manifestation in Kahn’s early work.

Of Monumentality

In the classical treatises, the idea of monument is mostly associated with the memory of an event or a person. During the Renaissance, for example, architecture was deeply connected with the culture of its time. Even though the church authorities or monarchs were the principal patrons, architecture could not but pursue its own language and thus was not totally sought after as a monument serving the state. It was only after the nineteenth century and the rise of the bourgeois concept of nation and national

identity that the state came to terms with the idea of monument as an agent of power. Since then, even the ruins of the past are charged with heritage value, establishing a different discourse of monument that can be associated with the values of the art-work displayed in museums. According to Francoise Choay, ‘‘The historic monument has a different relationship to living memory and to the passage of time.’’ She writes, ‘‘On the one hand, it is simply constituted as an object of knowledge and integrated

into a linear conception of time: in this case its cognitive value relegates it irrevocably to the past, or

. to the history of art in particular; on the other hand, as a work of art it can address itself to our artistic

. . .

sensibility, to our ‘artistic will’.’’ 26 Thus we see the importance of nurturing the concept of monumentality with visuality—something to look at either in association with a historical event, or the building’s admiration for its sublime beauty expressed in majesty and size. Such an appreciation of architecture was unknown to the classical wisdom of building. Renaissance architecture, for example, was comprehended in its similitude to the divine forces. This much is clear from the best churches and villas built during the Renaissance where the image of cross and mathematical proportions, both attributed to the body, would inform the building’s planimetric organization.

If the idea of monumentality was central to the nineteenth-century discourse on national identity, during the post-war era the concept received a different currency. To rebuild the devastated cities—but also to camouflage the barbaric side of history—ideas such as monument and civic values were called to shore up the divide, but also to charge the emerging capitalism in America with a human face. The point is not to discuss the socio-political history of the post-war era but to turn the discussion to the ways architects, especially Kahn, internalized monumentality in theorizing architecture. Although Kahn used the word ‘monumentality’ occasionally, 27 he was less concerned with the mere size of buildings. He was rather keen for the message and the representational capacity of architecture. His generation, Kahn claimed, ‘‘is looking forward to its duty and benefits to build for the masses with its problems of housing


ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

and health

. . .

the nation has adopted the beginnings of social reform.’’ 28 But is it not one of the

characteristics of any institutional building to associate ‘‘size’’ with symbolism? And doesn’t the adjectival use of the word ‘‘monumental’’ open Kahn’s architecture to the discourse of ‘‘excess,’’ which is attributable to a noun? Any response to these questions cannot but demand recourse to the historicity of the concept of monument.

In the ‘‘Lamp of Power,’’ John Ruskin ponders the importance of mass, wall, and shadow, to discuss a ‘‘size’’ that is associable with what he calls ‘‘sublimity.’’ 29 The early modern architects, instead, articulated monumentality in institutional buildings, which did not follow Ruskin’s interest in the sublime beauty of architecture. The abstract and unadorned forms of modern architecture address monumentality in the building’s aloof standing in the pre-modern context of European cities. 30 Still a different sense of monumentality was achieved by juxtaposing large-scale architectonic elements with landscape, as noted in Luis Barragan’s work, for example. 31

This rather brief comment on the subject reminds us of the idea of monumentality reformulated by three prominent figures of modernism, Jose Luis Sert, Fernand Leger, and Giedion. 32 Their argument was based on a vision of monumentality that stands for the collective’s ensuring a sense of totalization that, as far as the architecture of symbolism is concerned, was not attainable by the abstract idiom of early modern architecture. In retrospect, one might claim that the post-war discourse on civic architecture and monumentality was suggestive of the rising idea of the collective implied in mass- culture, and the permeation of image as a visual means of institutionalizing the separation of sign from signifier, if not monumentality from monument. Drawing conclusions from the ill fate of Le Corbusier’s 1927 design for the Palace of the League of Nations, Giedion, for one, blamed politicians and bureaucrats for the architect’s alienation from what he called ‘‘the emotional life of the community.’’ The latter he believed to be the lost horizon seen ‘‘from the humanist point of view.’’ 33 Comparing Picasso’s Guernica of 1937 to Le Corbusier’s project for the League of Nations, Giedion presented the former as a work that responds to the emotional life of the community. He was also keen to remind his readers that if architecture followed contemporary painting, then, rebirth of the lost sense of monumentality could be announced.

As noted at the beginning of this essay, in the post-war years, the urge to return to the ethos of humanism was strong. There were, however, exceptions to this generalization. James Ackerman, for example, was of the belief that humanism is not attainable in modernity. To him, the appeal for monumentality was a vain effort. In a forum on ‘‘Monumentality and the City,’’ held on December 12, 1981, drawing from Sigmund Freud, Ackerman made the argument that, ‘‘we have severed links with tradition and are forced to act without the benefit of the experience of the past.’’ His position is supportive of the claim that the classical monuments spoke to a collective value system that, since the advent of modernization, has broken into pieces. 34 Giedion and his colleagues, however, hold functionalism responsible for architecture’s detachment from ‘‘the common man,’’ a popular phrase in those days. In addition to the above-mentioned emerging mass-culture, the word ‘‘collective’’ acquired special currency in the context of the ‘‘new empiricism’’ of the 1950s. J. M. Richards, the editor of


Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


Architectural Review, gave a new twist to the concept of collectivity and drew his readers’ attention to modern architecture’s lack of appeal to, what he called, ‘‘the man in the street.’’ The collective also acquired a new meaning through what many scholars have termed mass society or mass culture. Hannah Arendt, for example, sees the rise of modern society with the decline of the family as a process of annihilation that many groups have gone through as part of the formation of mass society. 35 However, fundamental to Giedion’s vision of monumentality was the need to adorn the surface with artificial lights, a design strategy that would provide for painters and sculptors the opportunity to play an important role in the design of civic architecture. This last point resonates with the suggested post-war era’s turn to image and visuality, the communicative potentiality of which played a significant role in the formation of mass-culture. Contrary to Ruskin’s esteem for the culture of stone, and the symbolism associable with the products of handcraftsmanship, Giedion, rather, underlined the importance of transparency and light for the surface.

Giedion’s vision of spectacle, and its capacity to express the emotional life of ‘‘people,’’ soon joined the postmodernist’s interest in billboards. This much is again clear from Choay, who, while reminding her readers of the importance of the idea of ‘‘staging’’ for Viollet le Duc’s and Camillo Sitte’s vision of national heritage, observes that artificial light, sound, and music do indeed divert one’s attention from building in favour of the spectator. Choay discusses these issues in light of the transformation of the monuments with use-value into commodities that are packaged through the culture industry. She writes, ‘‘Pushed to its limits, animation becomes the exact inverse of the staging of monuments, which it transforms into a theatre or stage. The building enters into competition with an autonomous show or an ‘event’ that is imposed upon it.’’ 36 Nothing short of her observation assesses Robert Venturi’s problematic discourse on postmodernity. Following Las Vegas’s commercialized landscape, Venturi discussed monumentality not in association with the ‘‘cohesion of community,’’ and big-scale volumetric spaces, but in relation to a shift from spanning high volume to big, low spaces. 37 Without wanting to exhaust the contemporary discourse on monumentality further, it is timely to map Kahn’s ideas on the subject in reference to Venturi, and aspects of the thematic of architectural discourse that go back to Viollet le Duc.

Kahn’s theorization of architecture demonstrates his interest in the ‘‘spiritual’’ dimension of monumentality achieved through investment in ‘‘impressiveness, clarity of form, and logical scale.’’ These three categories frame an architecture that can be associated with the discourse of the Enlightenment. He also emphasized the essentiality of scientific knowledge for the progression of art and architecture, although galvanized by the aesthetic of the sublime. Interestingly enough, Kahn’s three suggested categories recall the work of the nineteenth century rational positivists: Viollet le Duc’s discourse on ‘‘methodology,’’ for example, underlines the importance of material and techniques for the emergence of a new architectural style. These tropes of the nineteenth century will find their architectonic language in Kahn’s interest in history, and the modification of historical types using new structural systems. Kahn soon realized, Leslie writes, that ‘‘Economy, structural performance, construction, and aesthetics could be intricately linked in an overall conception of building,’’ if one intends to attain monumentality. 38


ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

Off Lightness

If one accepts the centrality of one or another kind of image for the formation of post-war cultural discourse, is it not then convincing to associate Kahn’s architecture with the disciplinary history of architecture, and his utilization of industrial building techniques? Of interest here is the separation of the element of enclosure from the structure codified in the practice of contemporary architecture since Le Corbusier’s conceptualization of the Dom-ino frame. Of further interest is Kahn’s inclination to avoid the perceptual lightness implied in early modernism’s use of the frame structural system, whilst developing a notion of monumentality that would aspire to heaviness (particularly in his later work) and be even different from Le Corbusier’s later work. This paradox not only recalls the architect’s Beaux Arts training, 39 but the fact that monumentality, both visually and formally, is primarily registered in the traditions of masonry construction systems.

In raising these issues the intention is to discuss Kahn’s two important but diverse projects, the proposed tower for the city of Philadelphia, and the Yale University Art Gallery. 40 These two projects are important because they demonstrate the American architect’s search for the language of monumentality at the time when the postmodernist idea of both/and was not yet formalized. If there is any connotation of both/and in the Yale Art Gallery, it has to do with Kahn’s interest in articulating the tectonic form, and the need for one’s aspiration for spatial comfort deeply rooted in the tactile and visual habits accumulated in conjunction with conventional construction materials such as stone and brick. 41

Now, if one considers Ann Tyng’s project for an elementary school dated 1951 (Fig. 1), the same year that Kahn received the commission for the Yale Art Gallery, then it is reasonable to agree with Leslie’s claim that Kahn re-designed the ceiling of the latter building based on Tyng’s advice at a time when

ATR 13:1/08 Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015 Off Lightness If one

Figure 1 Ann Tyng, project for an elementary school, 1951, image from T. Leslie, Louis I. Kahn, 2005.


Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


most of the construction documents were prepared. Tyng’s project demonstrates her interest in geometry and the space-frame structural system beyond what Buckminster Fuller had already achieved. What stands out in Tyng’s proposed project, however, is the strong projection of a space-frame roof and its simultaneous use as a support element: a tectonic configuration that has little to do with the tectonic tradition of column and lintel. This observation is convincing when attention is given to Kahn’s design for a tubular structure, Philadelphia city (Fig. 2). In addition to Fuller, references should be made to the tubular structures used in the masonry roof of what seems to be an amphitheatre designed by Viollet le Duc (Fig. 3). 42 At this stage of his career, however, Kahn was interested in the nineteenth century rational positivists’ search for architectural forms that were mostly motivated by new building techniques. Likewise, Kahn was concerned with the craft of architecture and the poetic interpretation of a chosen construction system. For Kahn, the tubular structure presented the natural growth of a construction system. It had the potential to blend Greek knowledge of material and construction with the modern I-beam system.

As far as the question of the tectonic is concerned, one might associate Kahn’s interest in spatial potential of a given structure to that of Carl Botticher, the nineteenth century German architect. Unlike Gottfried Semper’s reservation concerning the monumental effects of iron structures, Botticher saw iron as the most suitable construction material for covering space, rather than stone whose tectonic potential was already exhausted. 43 While some German architects designed iron structures whose members were beefed up to provide a depth appropriate to the expected monumental effects, Kahn’s tubular structure enjoys a sense of proportion that is analogous to the delicate relationship between a tree’s branches and its trunk.

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015 Hartoonian most of the construction documents

Figure 2 Louis I. Kahn, proposal for a welded tubular steel structure, Philadelphia, 1944. Image from K. Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture, MIT Press, 1995.


ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

ATR 13:1/08 Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015 Figure 3 Eugen-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc,

Figure 3 Eugen-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, project for a hall. Image from K. Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture, MIT Press, 1995.

Kahn’s design also recalls the classical debate on the origin of architecture suggested in Marc- Antoine Laugier’s image of a wooden hut, or the Vitruvian vision in which the Greek temple is seen as the tectonic translation of a wooden hut into a stone structure. 44 There are two reasons for Kahn’s esteem for tubular structures: the first has to do with the availability of welding, a technique that eliminates the problem of joint in the I-beam structural system. According to Kahn, in tubular structures the column becomes part of the beam. The second reason has to do with the analogy Kahn would make between tubular structures and Gothic architecture. He saw in tubular structures the potential for improving the work of Gothic builders who obviously did not have access to materials such as steel and glass. 45 Interestingly enough, Kahn’s tectonic vision of space and construction became more complex as he moved away from the structural rationalist agenda. The suggested departure is convincing if one accepts the historical observation that Mies van der Rohe’s later architecture had already exhausted tectonic

forms available within the idiom of early modernism. Also important to Mies of the American period is the notion of repetition, and a tectonic that is centred on interlocking the element of column to the lintel. Obviously this was an attempt to recode the classical notion of monumentality. 46 If Mies’s case was the ‘‘monumentalization of technique,’’ 47 then, the following pages will demonstrate the singularity of Kahn’s conceptualization of the paradoxical rapport between technology and monumentality in his early work: dematerialization, lightness, but more importantly, modernism’s drive for volumetric composition against that of mass and heaviness.

Consider Kahn’s design for the City Tower, the Municipal Building dated 1952 (Fig. 4), whose triangular plan recalls Mies’s 1921 glass skyscraper designed for Fredrichstrasse. Both architects wrap the final form with a curtain-like glass membrane. The difference between these two projects is, nevertheless, historical. Mies was less concerned with the placement of the vertical supports. His design stresses the openness of floor space and its distinction from the placement of what Kahn would later call ‘‘service spaces.’’ Still, a perspective drawing of the glass skyscraper shows the arrangement of floors and the overall image of tower, the one that looks like a translucent mass cut out of an ice-cube. In Kahn’s design, instead, the glass enclosure stops above the ground level showing its leg-like vertical supports


Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015 Hartoonian Figure 4 City Tower, Philadelphia,

Figure 4 City Tower, Philadelphia, 1952-57, image from K. Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture, the MIT Press, 1995.

from which the building’s clothing is hung. Mies’s esteem for grafting the aesthetics of the new into the traditional morphology of Berlin has no place in Kahn’s timely rapport with the post-war experimentation, and the impact of new techniques on architecture. In Kahn’s hands the neo- empiricism of the post-war era is molded with historical perspective. In Gothic times, Kahn claimed, ‘‘architects built in solid stones. Now we can build with hollow stones. The spaces defined by members of a structure are as important as the members.’’ 48 Here he speaks for the spatial and formal potentialities embedded in a triangular concrete space-frame structure, the members of which will be the main form- giving element of the final scheme. This much is clear from Kahn’s statement for the first scheme of the tower, ‘‘The tower is an experimental exercise in triangulation of structural members rising upward to form themselves into a vertical truss against the forces of wind. The forces of gravity are secondary in a tower rising high.’’ 49 The spatial and formal potentialities of a concrete triangular space frame played also an important role for the final scheme of Kahn’s addition to the Yale Art Gallery (late March 1952) although with a different end in view.

According to Thomas Leslie, Kahn abandoned the earlier scheme of the Yale Gallery (April 1951) where the square structural grid’s system dominated the planimetric organization, leaving no room for a structural system, which ‘‘can harbor the mechanical needs of rooms and spaces and require no covering.’’ 50 Kahn’s early rapport with modern architecture’s concern with form and structure made him to realize that his own idea of ‘‘monumentality’’ demanded a tectonic configuration that would respond to the complexity involved in knotting together the support and service elements. To this end, he had to look for another historical precedent, the French connection, discussed by Kenneth Frampton. 51


ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

Accordingly, Kahn approached the experimental work of E ´ tienne-Louis Boulle´e and Claude-Nicholas

Ledoux for two ends: firstly, to explore the form-giving power of axes, hierarchy, and the importance

given to the composition of the processional spaces, circulation; secondly, to reinterpret the typological

work of the French Revolutionary architecture in reference to the culture of building, the nineteenth

century discourse on the tectonic in general, and the tectonic dialogue between the column and the wall

in particular.

In the Yale Art Gallery, Kahn’s design concerns a standstill space that is framed by the column and the

wall (Fig. 5). According to Vincent Scully, 52 although Kahn had problems with the wall in his early

work, after his experience with tubular structures, he did not use the column as the sole architectonic

element dominating the space. Kahn’s departure from structural positivism opened the possibility for a

tectonic practice in which the wall emerged as the essential form-giving element. On this move, which

became the main language of his later architecture, Frampton has this to say: ‘‘In one design after

another, Kahn constantly strove to reveal the structural skeleton, together with its cross-sectional

reduction in areas as the load diminished.’’ For Frampton, the Washington University Library of 1956 is

Kahn’s last ‘‘didactic tectonic essay,’’ and thereafter, ‘‘masonry would play a more decisive role in his

work, either rendered as a screen wall or treated as a kind of stressed-skin construction.’’ 53 There are two

reasons for the shift in Kahn’s tectonic thinking: firstly, the need to integrate mechanical elements

within a given structural system, a phenomenon new to architecture; and secondly, the need to

ATR 13:1/08 Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015 Accordingly, Kahn approached the

Figure 5 The Yale Gallery, plan, image from C. Wiseman, L. I. Kahn, 2007.


Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


articulate a ‘‘flesh’’ suitable to the expected image of civic

architecture and monumentality. After the Yale Art Gallery,

where the mechanical elements are hidden in the

structure of the ceiling (Fig. 6), Kahn decided to channel

those elements through vertical enclosures. The exagger-

ated volume of service spaces is charged with a

monumental effect, notable in Richard Medical Research

Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania (Fig. 7).

Secondly, the shift should be discussed in terms of what

civic architecture meant to Kahn. In the context of

American mass-culture of the 1950s, Kahn soon realized

that his idea of civic architecture is attainable not ‘‘only in

the conventional socialist thinking he had embraced in

Philadelphia, but also in the institutions that could have

an impact beyond their immediate precincts.’’ 54 To this,

one should add the aesthetic side of Kahn’s understanding

of the role an institution played in the America of the post-

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015 Hartoonian articulate a ‘‘flesh’’ suitable to

Figure 6 The Yale Gallery, detail of the

ceiling, image from T. Leslie, Louis I. Kahn,


war era. Even though the City Tower project expressed

monumentality through its exposed structural system, the time still was not ripe to blend

monumentality with the modernist aesthetic of abstraction. And yet the suggested aesthetic dimension

was in part a derivative of Kahn’s close experience with the abstract expressionism in painting, many

painters of which were his colleagues at Yale. The work of Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko—to

mention the two most famous names—‘‘involved the employment of solid masses of unmixed colour,

fundamental geometries, and the expression of the act of making,’’ but also light and darkness. 55 This is

what Kahn thought a civic centre should look like. While lecturing at Tulane University Kahn declared:

‘‘At Yale, now, we are given a problem which is a civic center. Please forget the word civic and please

forget the word center. That’s important. If you think of civic, what do you think of? You think of the

city hall, you think of the firehouse, the post office, you think of other things that go into a civic

center.’’ 56 Underlining the ineffectiveness of holding on to the old idea and believing that the people

actually could participate in the politics of decision-making, Kahn’s position alludes to the power of

communication as the emblem of a civic centre. And this shift in conjunction to his simultaneous

esteem for ‘‘room’’ and the brick wall, though occasionally articulated in lacerated surfaces, necessarily

ended in taking two steps away from Mies.

Kahn had to abandon both the Miesian idea of large space with no identical function, and the tectonic

of steel and glass architecture. The result was an image of architecture in which the served space is

visibly framed by its frame-structure while the service spaces are clad in brick. Another consequence of

Kahn’s departure from Mies involves the architect’s juxtaposition of monumentality with the jargon of

authenticity, noted by Goldhagen. 57 Kahn’s indulging work on these two themes distanced him from the

ethos of modernism, especially the idea of open space and its radical implication for reducing the barrier


ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

ATR 13:1/08 Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015 Figure 7 Louis I.

Figure 7 Louis I. Kahn, The Richard Medical Research Laboratory, Philadelphia. Image Gevork Hartoonian.

between the inside and the outside to sheer

glass. While Mies’s later work flattens the

conflict between monumentality and authen-

ticity in favor of an existentialist vision of the

body, space, and landscape, for Kahn, instead,

it was important to situate the body within a

masonry enclosure. Goldhagen writes, ‘‘It is all

but impossible to enter Kahn’s buildings and

not to notice it, not to inspect it or look

internally at it.’’ 58 Thus, central to Kahn was

the exploration of the tectonic enclosure of an

‘‘authentic’’ monument, but also the need for a

particular inside/outside relationship, the many

architectonic manifestations of which are

suggestive of Kahn’s distance from the early

modernist infatuation with the aesthetic of

lightness, and the importance he gave to light.

What makes Kahn different from Mies, is that

in his case the tectonic figuration, and the

detailing of how different elements of the

building are put together had to be legible and

experienced through light, as if the latter ‘‘had

a physical presence.’’ 59 The interlocking of

different constructed elements in the gaze of

light is what makes Kahn’s tectonic different

from that of Mies.

In the light of these considerations, the Yale Art Gallery (Fig. 8) should be considered a transitional work

in Kahn’s repertoire. The design still enjoys Mies’s concept of space, as well as the tectonic dialogue

between the element of wall and column. This is the first building where Kahn uses both the brick wall

and an articulated ceiling for monumental effects, such that the building itself becomes an ornament.

Juxtaposing a brick wall next to a Miesian curtain wall, Kahn did indeed anticipated the architectonic

language of ‘‘both/and,’’ which soon would be popularized by Venturi. The final planimetric

organization of the Yale Art Gallery (Fig. 5), however, is touched by the humanist discourse presented in

Colin Rowe’s ‘‘Mathematics of the ideal Villas,’’ first published in 1947. In the Yale Art Gallery, the plan

is informed by a pattern of a-b-a where the ‘‘b’’ section houses service spaces, including two stairways,

one for emergency exit, and the other wrapped in a concrete circular wall leading to the upper floors.

Part of the space between these two stairways is given to mechanical shafts. The two ‘‘a’’ stripes are

occupied by frozen spaces, one looking to the outside, and the other opening into another smaller

section of the plan—like a joint—connecting the new gallery to the existing nineteenth century

building. Centered on the long side of the ‘‘b’’ stripe, this square-shaped space marks the main entrance


Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


to the gallery. The overall plan, however, is punctuated by the presence of concrete columns that endorse

the a-b-a spatial division, and establish a 2 to 1 proportional ratio between the ‘‘a’’ and ‘‘b’’ stripes.

The mathematics of the plan is in part supportive of the ceiling’s triangulated structure (Fig. 9). The

plan is also informed by the dialogical relationship between the column and the wall. The

freestanding columns demarcate the two exhibition spaces, flanked by the central service space. They

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015 Hartoonian to the gallery. The overall

Figure 8 The Yale Gallery, view of the main entrance, image from T. Leslie, Louis I. Kahn, 2005.

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015 Hartoonian to the gallery. The overall

Figure 9 The Yale Gallery, reflected ceiling plan, image from T. Leslie, Louis I. Kahn, 2005.


ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

also weave the vertical and horizontal web of the window panels that cover the north and west sides

of the gallery. The north wall, mostly glass and elegant in mass and shadow (Fig. 10), recalls Mies’s

tectonic language in the Lake Shore-Drive apartments, Chicago. The shadow surfaces of this wall,

more visible at night, allude to the thickness of the concrete floor slab and its ceiling, which is made

of triangulated space frames. Seen from below, the triangulated space frames seem to be suspended

from the floor above. During construction, the concrete slab was poured after the electrical bars and

air conditioning ducts above had been laid and within members of the concrete space frame (Fig. 6).

The articulating of a tectonic form that integrates structural system with a space dedicated to

mechanical elements, which otherwise are mostly hidden behind a suspended ceiling, is credited to

Kahn. Here the tectonic shores up the dualistic vision implied in the nineteenth century debate that

saw ornament either as an addition to construction, or as an empirical result of the processes of

construction. The ceiling of the Yale Art Gallery also recalls Le Corbusier’s tectonic articulation of the

wall at the Unite´ d’habitation in Marseilles, though rotated ninety degrees. Of interest here are both

architects’ attempt to thicken (excess) constructive elements, responding to a non-functional

requirement of the brief, sun and orientation in the case of the latter project, and the mechanical

conduits in Kahn’s case.

The ornamental quality of the thickened ceiling of the Yale Art Gallery resonates with the brick wall

of the south:

the stone

ledge placed at

each floor level

of this wall interrupts the continuity

of the

brick coursing (Fig. 8). These limestone joints, ‘‘the beginning of ornament,’’ as Kahn would like to

say, express the way in which the concept of construction is made visible (Fig. 11). The stone ledge

both covers and reveals the intricate construction system of the floor structure. The top of the stone

ATR 13:1/08 Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015 also weave the vertical

Figure 10 The Yale Gallery, view from the garden, image from T. Leslie, Louis I. Kahn,



Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015 Hartoonian Figure 11 The Yale Gallery,

Figure 11 The Yale Gallery, under construction, image from T. Leslie, Louis I. Kahn,


ledge is aligned with the floor slab, itself


on the


of the

joists braced by

the tetrahedral

elements of the ceiling (Fig. 12). The limestone appearing at all floor levels also extenuates the fact

that the brick wall is veneer. The wall attains a monumental sensibility not because of its brickwork,

but for its look: the brickwork appears to be an applied ornament. Kahn claimed that, ‘‘there is no

reason why one can’t apply it [ornament]. But one must apply it with humor, and know he is

applying it. But one must satisfy other things too. It isn’t merely a question of saying ‘I need

ornament, because these things are too bulky and I am going to put something on so that it has

more life to it.’ This is meaningless as we all know.’’ 60 The exaggerated limestone ledge charges the

south brick wall with a monumental quality, which, according to Kahn, gives the wall the chance to

be washed smoothly when it rains. Whatever other speculations one can make about this wall, it also

provides a sense of continuity and enclosure to the fabric of the campus. In addition, the wall

demonstrates a unique instance in Kahn’s tectonic of column and wall. In a conversation with

students, Kahn spoke of the relationship of the wall to the column not only in reference to Leon

Battista Alberti’s ideas, and the genealogy of these architectonic elements, but in reference to the

architects’ will to accommodate these elements in their design. 61 Nevertheless, and unlike his later

work—Dhaka, for one—the brick wall of the Yale Art Gallery stands silent: it provides no opening

for looking into or out from; neither does it allude to the presence of the columns behind it. While

the columns speak for the way the space is made, the exterior wall says nothing except that it

remains anonymous. It stands there for an image of monumentality and a functionally needed

enclosure for the exhibition space.


ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

ATR 13:1/08 Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015 Figure 12 The Yale

Figure 12 The Yale Gallery, reflected ceiling plan and section details, image from T. Leslie, Louis I. Kahn,

Off History


In the Yale Art Gallery, the placement of the stone ledge, and the freestanding gesture of the wall charge

the idea of anonymity with excess. 62 This aspect of Kahn’s work recalls Mies’s suggestion that

‘‘architecture depends on facts, but its real field of activity lies in the realm of significance.’’ 63 How

different his ‘‘realm of significance’’ is from the realm of architecture that Kahn spoke of so

enthusiastically! 64 Mies was reflecting on technology and how architecture should utilize technique, and

elevate facts to the level of significance. Was he recalling Semper, who saw monumentality in relation to

the transfiguration of material, technique and structure to the point that a constructed form turns into

‘‘self-illumination’’ of technique? 65 This may be so. But, Mies’s statement also anticipates Kahn in the

Yale Art Gallery, where structural techniques are integrated with the idea of a constructed space that is

appropriate for the display of artwork. And yet, if it is correct to characterize the brick wall and the

ceiling of the Yale Art Gallery as ornamental, then is not the building itself elevated into a monumental



Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


The difference between Mies and Kahn remains historical. Kahn’s lamentation for civic architecture

should be regarded as one consequence when architecture’s ‘‘interiority’’ is compromised with values

extraneous to the culture of building. Interiority here refers to that historical moment in architecture

when the architect’s attention is focused on ‘‘building’’ as a constructive project. 66 One might argue that

Kahn’s architecture was an attempt to domesticate the early modernist experience in two moments: first,

in the context of 1950s empiricism; and second, in reference to his metaphysical narratives of

monumentality and civic architecture. While the first instance addresses the tectonic rapport between

column and wall, exemplified in Mies’s architecture, the second moment necessitates a return to

geometries embedded in the French revolutionary architecture of the eighteenth century. These

geometries are clad in brick to ensure a romantic tactility accessible to the ‘‘man in the street.’’ Yet they

are charged with the formal achievements of modern architecture, including fragmentation and

decomposition. One might argue that the montage of fragments is the most singular tectonic figuration

permeating Kahn’s architecture. Paradoxically, the historical impossibility of achieving civic architecture

in the 1950s distilled the metaphysics of monumentality no matter how hard Kahn tried to charge his

design with new meanings such as the place for ‘‘gathering,’’ and the rhetoric of community, or

representing the tectonic of fragmentation with platonic geometries. One consequence of this

historicization of Kahn has to do with the fact that in late capitalism the idea of monumentality has

turned out to be nothing but ornamentation, if not spectacle. The fragmented and lacerated body of

Kahn’s later architecture is indeed ornamental and yet it is the tectonic language that differentiates his

work from postmodern ‘‘decorated shed.’’

Kahn’s attempt to compromise the constructive dimension of architecture with the metaphysics of civic

architecture and monumentality has led Manfredo Tafuri to argue correctly that, ‘‘In the operation of

overturning performed by Kahn and Venturi, it makes little difference whether the material of their

image-system is made up of dreams of nonexistent institutions or nightmares dominated by the

crowding together of the ephemeral icons of cosmic merchandization.’’ 67 Therefore, ideological delusion

might be one reason why the new generation of American architects is disenchanted with Kahn. Another

reason has to do with the periodic shift of architects’ theoretical interest. Architects have to theorize the

design process in order to create forms and spaces that operate on an imaginative plateau, free from the

given constraints. Kahn’s metaphysical speculation in differentiating form from design, for example,

fitted not only with the intellectual climate of the 1950s, but also stimulated him to generate rich

images. Still, his was a return to the ethos of the revolutionary architecture of Boulle´e and others who

formulated new typologies according to the institutional demands of the Enlightenment. Nevertheless,

subsequent and radical theoretical departures taking place since the 1960s have left no historical tunnel

to Kahn’s work.

To the mainstream of current architectural practice, Kahn’s work remains an enigma, if not the

ruins of a bygone era. This observation relies on the historicity of the post-war era: that Mies’s work

exhausted the tectonic question put on the table of architects since the late nineteenth century,

leaving postmodernists with no choice but to look back into the abyss of historical eclecticism. In this

development, Kahn occupies a sensitive position: he charged architecture with socio-political ethos, a


ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

point of view essential to the modernity of modern architecture. Ironically, this strategy distanced him

from his contemporaries as well as from the new generation of architects who also revisited the

experience of modern architecture, albeit from a different angle. The New York Five architects, for

example, attempted to discharge architecture from any communicative burden, civic or otherwise,

except for the process of the conceptualization of form. In addition, the cultural experience that

contemporary architects are framed by has pushed abstraction and formalism of the modern

experience one step further, to the point that, aesthetically, Kahn’s tactile sensibilities are not

accessible anymore.

Now what does the argument presented in this essay entail for architectural historiography? Firstly, the

work of an architect should be seen as a document in its own right, but also a project that re-presents

its own historicity. The suggested concept of project embodies both the architect’s meta-narratives, and

the body of work, that is, the culture of building whose themes and strategies differentiate architecture

from other artistic activities. This last point is fundamental to a semi-autonomous understanding of

architecture, and indeed for any critical reinterpretation of post-war architecture. Secondly, the idea of

the project should be understood as a failed attempt to present a totalized picture of diverse stories

involved in the process of its own realization. This demands contaminating the historicality of the work

with the problematic of the present architectural praxis. In addition to recent inclination for

hybridization, 68 of interest is the concept of technification of architecture, 69 and the level of abstraction

involved in the process of design as architects utilize telecommunication technologies. From this

perspective, Kahn’s rhetorical remarks on monumentality remain unattainable, regardless of how hard

architects try to juxtapose the ethos of modern architecture with the contemporaneity of the present

culture. Finally, the future that a project assigns to itself should be regarded as the architectonic

realization of a past whose traces can be recovered in the fleeting moments of the present. Kahn lived in

the post-war years, but his architecture re-presents the problematic of modernism. Seen from the

spectral experience of the present everydayness, the theatricality nurturing his later buildings resonate

the spectacle permeating the present commodified world. 70 In spite of this latter development, and

perhaps because of contemporary drift into the digitalization of architecture, there are many recent

publications that re-approach Kahn with an eye on the tectonic dimension of his work, 71 searching

perhaps a way out of the present infatuation with virtuality. Seemingly still there is room to learn from

Kahn’s early buildings, specially the idea of served/service spaces. The latter does indeed inform the

planimetric organization of every thoughtful design conceived today, even those produced by digital



  • 1 Quoted in Christiane C. and George Collins, ‘‘Monumentality: A Critical Matter in Modern Architecture,’’ Harvard Architecture Review, 4 (1984): pp. 15-32, p. 17. George Howe was of the opinion that, ‘‘The monuments of democracy must be founded in the symbolism of democracy, they must return from the arbitrary scale of vanity to the human scale, from the boastful show of plutocracy to the dignity of honest men who wear felt hats to keep off rain instead of silk hats to show that they can afford to hire a valet.’’ Christiane and George Collins, ‘‘Monumentality,’’ p. 24.


Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


  • 2 See ‘‘The Sixties a P/A Symposium on the State of Architecture: part I,’’ Progressive Architecture, 42 (March, 1961): pp. 122-133.

  • 3 Joan Ockman contextualizes fifties architecture in Architecture Culture 1943-1968, New York: Rizolli, 1993. For detailed references on humanism and regionalism, see Sarah Ksiazek, ‘‘Architectural Culture in the Fifties: Louis Kahn and the National Assembly Complex in Dhaka,’’ Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 52, 4 (December, 1993): pp. 416-435.

  • 4 The subtitle recalls Harry Harootunian’s History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the Question of Everyday Life, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

  • 5 On this subject see Gevork Hartoonian, ‘‘Beyond Historicism: Manfredo Tafuri’s Flight,’’ In the Making of Architecture’s Past, 18th Annual SAHANZ Conference, (2003): pp. 33-40.

  • 6 Sarah Williams Goldhagen, ‘‘Coda: Reconceptualizing the Modern,’’ in S. W. Goldhagen and Rejean Legault (eds.), Anxious Modernisms, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001, p. 313.

  • 7 S.W. Goldhagen, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, p. 201.

  • 8 See S.W. Goldhagen’s introduction and the last chapter in Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism.

  • 9 To my knowledge she is the first scholar to stress the importance of art theories (as taught at the Yale University of those days) for Louis Kahn’s architecture. According to Goldhagen, both Josef Albers’s vision of an aesthetic of abstraction that demanded honest use of everyday materials and geometric forms, and Willem de Kooning’s abstract expressionism were influential for Kahn’s interest in the optical side of architecture. Goldhagen, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism, p. 51.

    • 10 As early as 1969, Robert Stern discusses Louis Kahn’s work in the theoretical divide separating what he calls the third generation of American architects, Robert Venturi, Romaldo Giurgola, and Charles Moore, and the second generation, that is Kevin Roche, Paul Rudolph, and Philip Johnson. See Stern, New Directions in American Architecture, London: Studio Vista, 1969. Even when one reads Kenneth Frampton’s and Vittorio Gregotti’s essays on Kahn, one can’t avoid the sense of in-betweenness implied in the titles of their essays, the ‘‘French Connections,’’ and the ‘‘Modern Connections,’’ respectively. See also this author’s essay on Kahn in Modernity and its Other, College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1997.

    • 11 Gevork Hartoonian, ‘‘Two Textual Levels of Architecture,’’ Modernity and its Other, pp. 121-140.

    • 12 Gevork Hartoonian, ‘‘Five Points: Unweaving the Old Cloth,’’ Architectural Theory Review, 5, 1 (2000): pp. 34-45.

    • 13 Harootunian, History’s Disquiet, p. 16.

    • 14 Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Modern Architecture, Romanticism and Reintegration, New York: Dacapo Press, 1993. At a certain point, the idea of new tradition operated as a general role: in Italy, for example, it was suggested that, ‘‘for architecture to become the monument of an age and of a nation, it must be intimately connected with the past,’’ and thus to become national rather personal. See Estter Da Costa Meyer, The Work of Antonio Sant Elia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, p. 3. The author cements her observation by presenting examples from Germany and England.


  • 15 J.










Grey Room , 3 (2001): pp.


  • 16 Aspects of what makes architecture so different since 1968 are discussed in Gevork Hartoonian, Modernity and its Other.


ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

  • 17 I am thinking of the historical consciousness of autonomy at work since the eighteenth century French architects, and its subsequent reformulation as architecture entered the capitalist system of production and consumption. Most historians who entertain the critical theory of the Frankfurt School discuss this historical vision. See, for example, Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976.

  • 18 Although Kenneth Frampton’s and Vittorio Gregotti’s reading of Kahn contain some historical truth, both scholars shy away from demonstrating the architectonic choices that Kahn made in order to respond to the historical clash between architecture’s desire for autonomy and the chaos of fragmentation and disorder that is at the heart of the capitalist production system. On this subject see Kenneth Frampton, ‘‘Architecture and the State: Ideology and Representation 1914-43,’’ Modern Architecture: A Critical History, London: Thames and Hudson, 1980, pp. 210-223.

  • 19 On this subject see, Gevork Hartoonian, ‘‘Louis Kahn at the Salk Institute: What the Building wants to Be,’’ Modernity and its Other, pp. 81-102.

  • 20 See, for example, my views on this subject in a previous footnote. Also see Vincent Scully, Louis I. Kahn, New York: George Braziler, 1962, p. 33.

  • 21 Arthur C. Danto, ‘‘Louis Kahn as Archai-Tekt,’’ in Philosophizing Art: Selected Essays, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999, p. 193.

  • 22 Louis Kahn, ‘‘Form and Design,’’ in Alessandra Latour (ed.), Louis I. Kahn Writings, Lectures, Interviews, New York: Rizzoli, 1991, p. 113.

  • 23 Here I am thinking about the New York Five architects and the debate running between the Grays and the Whites.

  • 24 Louis Kahn, ‘‘Alessandra Latour,’’ p. 267.

  • 25 Thomas Leslie, Louis I. Kahn, Building Art, Building Science, New York: George Braziller, 2005, p. 4.

  • 26 Francoise Choay, The Invention of the Historic Monument, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 13. In this book, Choay pursues the development of the idea of the monument from its anthropological dimension in pre-Renaissance times to Alberiti’s discourse on the monument as a work of art until the nineteenth century, when the purpose of the Latin monumentum gave way to the historic monument.

  • 27 Louis I. Kahn, ‘‘Monumentality,’’ in Ockman, Architecture Culture, pp. 48-53. This and the following cited article were originally published in Paul Zucker, New Architecture and City Planning, New York: Philosophical Library, 1944. Sarah Williams Goldhagen provides two reasons for architects’ interest in monumentality. One was in anticipation of the need for monumental memorials at the end of World War II, and second, the fact that America felt left behind in the esteem for monumental buildings that had permeated Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Goldhagen, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism, pp. 25-26.

  • 28 Louis I. Kahn, ‘‘Monumentality,’’ as footnote 27. Housing and the commitment of modern architects to mass housing was a central issue throughout the years prior to the Second World War. The subject was broached in America in part due to the massive immigration that took place after the war. For Kahn’s involvement in social housing and detailed references about housing activists, see Sarah Williams Ksiazek, ‘‘Critiques of Liberal Individualism: Louis I. Kahn’s Civic Projects, 1947-57,’’ Assemblage 31 (1997): pp. 57-79.

  • 29 John Ruskin ‘‘The Lamp of Power,’’ in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981, pp. 69-99.


Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


  • 30 On this subject see Christiane and George Collins, ‘‘Monumentality.’’ The entire issue is dedicated to the subject of monumentality. Although the editorial text is dated, the panelist discussions on the subject (especially James Ackerman’s views) are interesting. The above article presents a succinct summary of the idea of monumentality as discussed by modern architects.

  • 31 Kenneth Frampton, ‘‘A Propos Barragan: Formation, Critique and Influence’’, in Fredrica Zanco (ed.), Luis Barragan: the Quiet Revolution, New York: Abbeville Publishing Group, 2001, p. 14-27. Frampton here refers to Giedion’s ‘‘Nine Points of Monumentality,’’ suggesting that the authors of that article ‘‘anticipated Barragan whose architecture mediates between the built and unbuilt’’ (p. 27).

  • 32 See J. L. Sert, F. Leger, and S. Giedion, ‘‘Nine Points on Monumentality,’’ in Joan Ockman, Architecture Culture, pp. 29-30.

  • 33 Sigfried Giedion, ‘‘The Need for a New Monumentality,’’ in Paul Zucker, New Architecture and City Planning, pp. 547-604, p. 563.

  • 34 James Ackerman, ‘‘Monumentality and the City,’’ Harvard Architectural Review, 4 (Spring, 1984): pp. 38-45.

  • 35 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, New York: Anchor Books, 1959, pp. 37-38. Before Arendt and around 1944, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno introduced the idea of ‘mass culture,’ to speak for the stratification and control of society based on a system of production and consumption in which the fusion of culture and entertainment would take place. This leads ‘‘not only to the deprivation of culture, but inevitably to an intellectualization of amusement.’’ Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, New York: Continuum Publishing, 1972, p. 143. For a discussion of mass society in America and the dissolution of the classic, eighteenth century concept of ‘‘public’’ into ‘‘mass,’’ see C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, New York: Oxford University Press, 1956, pp. 298-324. This last reference is cited in Ksiazek, ‘‘Architectural Culture in the Fifties.’’

  • 36 Choay, Invention of the Historic Monument, p. 147.

  • 37 Robert Venturi, Denise S. Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972, p. 50.

  • 38 Leslie, Louis I. Kahn, p. 32.

  • 39 Robert McCarter goes further, suggesting that at the age of fifty, Kahn was perhaps unable ‘‘to engage light structural materials effectively.’’ Robert McCarter, Louis I. Kahn, New York: Phaidon, 2005, p. 62.

  • 40 For a close account of the academic environment at Yale University when Kahn started to teach architecture, see Carter Wiseman, Louis I. Kahn, Beyond Time and Style, New York: W. W. Nortorn, 2007, pp. 54-81.

  • 41 Leslie, Louis I. Kahn, p. 70. Leslie provides a detailed discussion of issues of diverse nature involved in the design of the Yale University Art Gallery.

  • 42 Kahn was also influenced by Ann Tyng’s research with the structural potentialities present in geometry and nature, discussed by D’Arcy Thompson. See D’Arcy Thompson, On Growth and Form, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

  • 43 On this subject, see Mitchell Schwarzer, German Architectural Theory and the Search for Modern Identity, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 167-214.

  • 44 Kenneth Frampton has given a new twist to these analogies and discusses Kahn’s tubular structure in reference to the tectonic of Gothic cathedrals. See Kenneth Frampton, ‘‘Louis Kahn: Modernization and the New Monumentality’’, in Studies in Tectonic Culture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995, p. 211.


ATR 13:1/08

Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015

  • 45 Kahn, ‘‘Monumentality,’’ pp. 49-51.

  • 46 On this subject see Gevork Hartoonian, ‘‘Mies van der Rohe: The Genealogy of Column and Wall,’’ Ontology of Construction, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 68-80.

  • 47 Frampton, Modern Architecture, pp. 231-237.

  • 48 Louis I. Kahn, Louis I. Kahn, Complete Works, 1935-1974, Colorado: Westview Press, 1977, p. 74.

  • 49 Kahn, Complete Works, p. 73. His vision of ‘tower’ extends to expressing some reservation on Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building. While praising the building as a ‘‘really beautiful building of the world today’’, Kahn nevertheless does not like the way Mies ends his tower, and does not count on the factor of wind for the final form. See Latour, Louis I. Kahn Writings, pp. 95-96.

  • 50 Leslie, Louis I. Kahn, p. 58.

  • 51 Kenneth Frampton, ‘‘Louis Kahn and the French Connection,’’ Oppositions, 22 (Fall 1980): pp. 21-53.

  • 52 Scully, Louis I. Kahn, pp. 17, 23.

  • 53 Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture, p. 231.

  • 54 Wiseman, Louis I. Kahn, p. 68.

  • 55 McCarter, Louis I. Kahn, p. 77.

  • 56 Latour, Louis I Kahn, pp. 63-64.

  • 57 Goldhagen, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism, p. 208.

  • 58 Goldhagen, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism, p. 212.

  • 59 Michael Cadwell, Strange Details, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007, p. 142.

  • 60 Latour, Louis I Kahn, pp. 63-64.

  • 61 Latour, Louis I Kahn, p. 156.

Also see

my discussion of the subject in

architecture in Ontology of Construction, pp. 68-80.

reference to Mies van



  • 62 On this subject, see Gevork Hartoonian, Modernity and its Other.

  • 63 Quoted in Gevork Hartoonian, Modernity and its Other, p. 99.

  • 64 According to Louis Kahn, ‘‘the realm of architecture is a realm within which all other things are. In the realm of architecture there is sculpture, there is painting, there is physics, there is nursing—everything is in it. But the emphasis is on architecture. Architecture is the king of this realm.’’ Latour, Louis I Kahn, p. 93.

  • 65 Gottfried Semper, The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings, Harry F. Malgrave & Wolfgang Herrmann (trans.), Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 255.

  • 66 In his An Essay on Architecture, Marc-Antoine Laugier presents an understanding of architecture the thematic of which is devoid of values rooted in the metaphysics of Christianity or nature, as was the case with Renaissance architecture. Perceived in the middle of a natural setting, Laugier’s wooden hut underlines the importance of column, the roof and the space marked by these constructive elements. See Laugier, An Essay on Architecture, W. Hermann (trans.), Los Angeles: Ingalls, 1977.

  • 67 Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and Labyrinth, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987, p. 295.

  • 68 For a discussion of hybridization that involves the notion of contamination, see Farshid Moussavi, ‘‘Hybrid Identities: Mutating Type,’’ Log, 10 (Summer/Fall, 2007): pp. 81-87. According to Mousavi, the architectural potential of contamination is suggestive of ‘‘a practice that is the coming together of the two reactions to


Downloaded by [York University Libraries] at 09:37 27 May 2015


globalization: a practice that intersects with the specificities of given projects and a growth of new identities that are unique to a situation, while benefiting and evolving from the expertise and knowledge gained in other domains.’’ p. 82.

  • 69 On this subject see, Gevork Hartoonian, ‘‘Notes on Critical Practice,’’ Architectural Theory Review, 7, 1 (2002): pp. 1-14.

  • 70 This subject is discussed in Gevork Hartoonian, Crisis of the Object; the architecture of theatricality, London: Routledge, 2006.

  • 71 I am thinking of the contribution of the following authors: Joseph Rykwert (2002), Robert McCarter (2005), Thomas Leslie (2005), Carter Wiseman (2007), and Michael Cadwell, with his intelligent remarks on The Yale Center for British Art (2007).