Louis Kahn at 120: A tribute to the master of solids, voids, and the light between

On Kahn’s 120th birthday, STIR pays tribute to the stalwart while celebrating the launch of facsimile edition of The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I Kahn by Designers and Books.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Feb 19, 2021

“You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ And brick says to you, ‘I like an arch’. And you say to brick, ‘Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel’. And then you say: 'What do you think of that, brick?' Brick says: ‘I like an arch’.” Of the many pearls of wisdom Louis Isadore Kahn strung together as words that often ended up becoming talismans for us as students of architecture, as sacred as the texts we read and the lines we drew, this one particularly stood out for me, despite not being as quotable by sheer virtue of its length.

  • Louis Kahn, architect, artist, and dreamer | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    Louis Kahn, architect, artist, and dreamer Image: The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, David Rothstein Collection, © Beverly Pabst, Courtesy of Pera Museum
  • The distinctly circular voids of the Exeter Library by Louis Kahn | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    The distinctly circular voids of the Exeter Library by Louis Kahn Image: Courtesy of Flickr
  • The iconic IIM Ahmedabad dorms recently came under threat of demolition | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    The iconic IIM Ahmedabad dorms recently came under threat of demolition Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Most of us have been introduced to the solidity of his work, punctured by geometrical volumes, much later in our lives: partly because it’s also impossible to miss the master’s works when you academically pursue what he mastered. It is definitive now, but remained part of a tryst, a pursuit when it was constructed in the 20th century. When looked at within the larger worldview of an architecture returning to the man from the machine, armed with the advances of the industrial revolution, but also a renewed sensitivity for the user, one begins forming a faint picture of that pursuit, and of the impact his work has had on global architecture. Despite being an American architect in a period when architecture in the country had moved on from the Prairie house to the skyscraper, Kahn’s works formed the framework of a developing “global identity” in the late years of modernism. In a time of shrinking habitats and assembly line construction, he built monuments.

  • 1951 Delphi from Marmaria, Greece, crayon in notebook | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    1951 Delphi from Marmaria, Greece, crayon in notebook Image: Courtesy of Designers and Books
  • 1951 Luxor, Egypt, crayon in notebook | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    1951 Luxor, Egypt, crayon in notebook Image: Courtesy of Designers and Books

And it is perhaps the kind of perseverance; I am also tempted to say tenacity, of Kahn and of the brick, for the latter to say and the former to listen, that has resulted in buildings where time stands still, yet transcended. Even while Copernicus restored the sun as the centre of the living universe, the “brick whispering” architect imbued it, surely lyrically, with the singular purpose of lighting up a room, its greatness untapped until it graced the side of a building. Through the synchronously inevitable nature of light and shadow, and their shaping in his architecture, Kahn told the world of his pedagogy, and an inimitable pedigree, that while one may not exist without the other, they could be fashioned into something transcendental. Kahn achieved that with elemental geometric shapes; “a philosopher among architects,” cited Isamu Noguchi.

1950 Doges’ [Doge’s] Palace, Venice, Italy, crayon in notebook | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
1950 Doges’ [Doge’s] Palace, Venice, Italy, crayon in notebook Image: Courtesy of Designers and Books

His last completed work under his eye would turn 50 in a matter of a few years, and yet his name derives the kind of fond mention today a creator can only hope for, even posthumously. Especially now, more than ever, as one among his most iconic works in India, the dorms of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, were threatened by demolition, the question of Kahn’s works as living, modern heritage sprung back into the spotlight. Do we revere and move on? Do we transform them into dynamic edifices, continually evolving with time, suited to the current need? Or do we retain Kahn’s “monuments” as remnants of an architectural ideology that birthed many in turn? An answer may be in Kahn’s academic repertoire.

  • The covers of the facsimile edition and the Reader’s Guide by Designers and Books | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    The covers of the facsimile edition and the Reader’s Guide by Designers and Books Image: Courtesy of Designers and Books
  • Golden inscription of Kahn’s stylised trees on the cover of the facsimile project | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    Golden inscription of Kahn’s stylised trees on the cover of the facsimile project Image: Courtesy of Designers and Books

On the occasion of his 120th birth anniversary this year, Designers and Books, an artisanal design publication, is bringing back a facsimile edition of The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn, originally published in 1962. The book by Richard Saul Wurman, a former student and employee of Kahn, among the first information architects, and the founder of TED conference, conceived the book in its original form in 1962, along with printer Eugene Feldman. Among the massive publications on the celebrated architect, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn holds a distinction of being one of the first public acknowledgements of the genius of his work.

  • 1956 studies for center city Philadelphia, ink on tracing paper | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    1956 studies for centre city Philadelphia, ink on tracing paper Image: Courtesy of Designers and Books
  • 1956 study for center city Philadelphia, ink on tracing paper, detailed sketches | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    1956 study for center city Philadelphia, ink on tracing paper, detailed sketches Image: Courtesy of Designers and Books

“I didn’t choose what were considered his best, most finished drawings,” Wurman notes about his curation in the book. “I chose those that spoke to me, much in the same way that Louis would say you had a conversation with the building: the drawings that told me what they were trying to be”.  Kahn’s inspiration in medieval European monuments is succinctly reflected in the book through sensitively reproduced travel sketches by him from the 1950s, depicting sites in Greece, Egypt, Italy, and France. A section of early drawings and renderings for some of his most well-known projects, including the sculpture court of the Yale University Art Gallery, the AN Richards Medical Research Building Laboratory, the General Motors Exhibition Building for the 1964 New York World's Fair, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, California, is a special standout.

I didn’t choose what were considered his best, most finished drawings. I chose those that spoke to me, much in the same way that Louis would say you had a conversation with the building: the drawings that told me what they were trying to be. – Richard Saul Wurman

Steven W Kroeter, editor-in-chief for Designers and Books, mentions in an exclusive conversation with STIR what he thought about Kahn, his work, and his continued impact through the facsimile project on the current generation of architects. “Kahn THOUGHT about what he was doing. He thought about it and then he thought about it again. From every angle. Searching. Being willing to start over. Looking, constantly looking. Trying to understand ‘What does a brick want to be?’ This isn’t the way necessarily to a profitable architectural practice. But it can result in buildings that make lists of those passing the test of time,” states Kroeter. On the book’s value in the current world scenario, and Wurman’s inspiration from Kahn, Kroeter elucidates that “He (Wurman) tried to make a book not about Kahn, but of Kahn. He wanted to show the process of Kahn’s thinking. The putting down of something, erasing it, and putting down something new, better, and evolved. He wanted to show how Kahn valued questions more than answers. And there’s the idea of continually going back looking for the source. Not to ‘Volume One’ but to ‘Volume Zero’. I think these are the things that Wurman found in Kahn that he felt would have enduring value”.

  • 1957 A.N. Richards Medical Research Building, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, definitive study, pencil on tracing paper | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    1957 A.N. Richards Medical Research Building, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, definitive study, pencil on tracing paper Image: Courtesy of Designers and Books
  • 1961 Salk Institute for Biological Studies, San Diego, California, Meeting House concept study, pencil on yellow tracing paper | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    1961 Salk Institute for Biological Studies, San Diego, California, Meeting House concept study, pencil on yellow tracing paper Image: Courtesy of Designers and Books
Kahn THOUGHT about what he was doing. He thought about it and then he thought about it again. From every angle. Searching. Being willing to start over. Looking, constantly looking. Trying to understand ‘What does a brick want to be?’ This isn’t the way necessarily to a profitable architectural practice. But it can result in buildings that make lists of those passing the test of time. – Steven W Kroeter

The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn will be accompanied by a specially developed ‘Reader’s Guide’ that includes unpublished text and photographs from Kahn’s archives, essays by Wurman, Kahn’s three children, the critic Paul Goldberger (who wrote Kahn’s front-page obituary for the New York Times), and tributes from contemporary architects who admire Kahn, including Norman FosterFrank Gehry, David Adjaye, and many others. “Wurman didn’t agree to the idea of a facsimile of Notebooks and Drawings until we explained to him that the reader’s guide was part of the concept. His idea is after you do something, you don’t do it again; you do the next thing,” informs Kroeter on the process of having Wurman on board to bring the facsimile version to life.

  • 1962 Graham Foundation studies for center city Philadelphia, plan diagram, ink | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    1962 Graham Foundation studies for center city Philadelphia, plan diagram, ink Image: Courtesy of Designers and Books
  • Mikveh Israel Synagogue, Independence Hall Mall, Philadelphia, concept studies, ink in notebook | Louis Kahn Tribute, The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn | Louis Kahn, Designers and Books| STIRworld
    Mikveh Israel Synagogue, Independence Hall Mall, Philadelphia, concept studies, ink in notebook Image: Courtesy of Designers and Books

It is also notably one of Kahn’s favourite books about himself as stated by him, involving his hand, and features an insightful, sensitive foreword authored by him. A masterful tapestry of words, unadorned and extremely personal, the foreword, apart from talking about the book itself, sheds light on his personal experiences, and what it meant for him to be an architect. Read the full foreword below.

One day, as a small boy, I was copying the portrait of Napoleon. His left eye was giving me trouble. Already I had erased the drawing of it several times. My father leaned over and lovingly corrected my work. I threw the paper and pencil across the room, saying “now it is your drawing, not mine”. Two cannot make a single drawing. I am sure the most skillful imitation can be detected by the originator. The sheer delight in the act of drawing has its way in the drawing and that also is a quality that the imitator can’t imitate. The personal abstraction, the rapport between subject and the thought also are unimitatable.

In the presence of Albi, I felt the belief in the choice of its architectural elements, and what exhilaration and patience were combined to begin it and work towards its completion. I drew Albi from the bottom up as though I were building it. I felt the exhilaration. The patience it took to build, one didn’t need, for I drew it without bothering about corrections or correct proportions. I wanted only to capture the excitement in the mind of an architect.
As notations in music reveal structure and composition for hearing, the plan is the sore that reveals the structure and the composition of spaces in natural light.

The plan expresses the limits of form. Form, then, as a harmony of systems, is the generator of the chosen design. The plan is the revelation of the Form.

To an architect the whole world exists in his realm of architecture...when he passes a tree he does not see it as a botanist but relates it to his realm. He would draw this tree as he imagined it grew because he thinks of constructing. All the activities of man are in his realm, relating themselves to his own activity.

A few years ago I visited Carcassonne. From the moment I entered the gates, I began to write with drawing, the images which I learned about now presenting themselves to me like realized dreams. I began studiously to memorize in line the proportions and the living details of these great buildings. I spent the whole day in the courts, on the ramparts, and in the towers, diminishing my care about the proper proportions and exact details. At the close of the day I was inventing shapes and placing buildings in different relationships than they were.

The editors chose several sketches of mood and development of a few projects rather than isolated drawings of a greater number of projects.

Such a decision appeals to the architect who starts, like the writer and the painter, with a blank piece of paper upon which he imprints the gradual steps in the development of something he wants to make exist. The sketch book of painter, sculptor or architect should differ. The painter sketches to paint, the sculptor draws to carve, and the architect draws to build.

Louis I Khan | August 26, 1962

(The book’s second edition was released in 1973. It has been out of print ever since. The Facsimile project and Reader’s guide are produced with the approval and cooperation of Richard Saul Wurman, Nathaniel Kahn, and the Louis I Kahn Collection at the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania. The Kickstarter campaign to support publication of the two books by Designers and Books is now live, running from February 17 through March 31, 2021.)

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