The lyrical alliance between concrete and light by Louis Kahn and August Komendant

‘Miracles in Concrete’ at the Museum of Estonian Architecture honours the creative collaboration between architect Louis I. Kahn and structural engineer August Komendant.

by Jincy Iype Published on : Feb 20, 2020

Cold, bleak and grey – an adverse opinion that was once held about concrete as a building material, has now given way to a new narrative that redefines the material as an inextricable part of modern architecture. Concrete, today, converges seamlessly into the framework of modern building techniques. The lyrical alliance between concrete and light, for instance, infuses life and soul into structural forms.

An unforgettable architect and alchemist who practised this art, Louis Isadore Kahn (February 20, 1901 – March 17, 1974), greatly contributed to modern architecture with his incredible geometric structures rendered with concrete and accentuated by natural light. On his birthday, STIR celebrates Kahn and his collaboration with one of the most well-regarded structural engineers of the century, August Komendant (1906–1992).

Design crit at the University of Pennsylvania. (from the left) Norman Rice, Louis Kahn, Robert LeRicolais, August Komendant, autumn 1970 | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
Design crit at the University of Pennsylvania. (from the left) Norman Rice, Louis Kahn, Robert LeRicolais, August Komendant, autumn 1970 Image Credit: John Dorio Nicolais © The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania by the gift of Robert Nicolais and Drexel University

The Estonian-American engineer has worked extensively with concrete, devising skillful ways of building impressive structures. His illustrious career has also seen collaborations with architectural mavens such as Louis I. Kahn and Moshe Safdie. Miracles in Concrete: Structural Engineer August Komendant, the ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Estonian Architecture in Tallinn, celebrates these partnerships, paying homage to the much-debated building material – concrete.

The international retrospective presents original drawings and rare models by Louis Kahn, Moshe Safdie, Oscar Tenreiro, Elmar Lohk and Komendant himself. Curated by Carl-Dag Lige, the highlights of the show include 13 sketches by Kahn, 13 structural drawings by Komendant, more than 60 personal items that belonged to him, 20 unique structural and architectural models and more than 200 photographs.

  • Miracles in Concrete: Structrural Engineer August Komendant at the Museum of Estonian Architecture | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
    Miracles in Concrete: Structrural Engineer August Komendant at the Museum of Estonian Architecture Image Credit: Reio Avaste © Museum of Estonian Architecture
  • Miracles in Concrete includes 13 sketches by Kahn and 13 structural drawings by Komendant | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
    Miracles in Concrete includes 13 sketches by Kahn and 13 structural drawings by Komendant Image Credit: Marje Eelma © Marje Eelma/Tuumik Studio, Museum of Estonian Architecture

Miracles in Concrete closely follows Kahn’s 18-year relationship with Komendant, who was also born in Estonia. Komendant’s bestseller, 18 Years with Architect Louis I. Kahn, published in 1975, documents this partnership in detail. They collaborated on at least 15 architectural projects including the Richards Medical Research Laboratories (1957–1965), the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (1959–1965), the Kimbell Art Museum (1966–1972), the Olivetti-Underwood Factory (1966–1970), and the Palazzo dei Congressi in Venice, Italy (1968–1973, unbuilt).

  • Komendant’s bestseller, 18 Years with Architect Louis I. Kahn, published in 1975 | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
    Komendant’s bestseller, 18 Years with Architect Louis I. Kahn, published in 1975 Image Credit: Reio Avaste © Museum of Estonian Architecture
  • Miracles in Concrete: Structrural Engineer August Komendant at the Museum of Estonian Architecture | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
    Miracles in Concrete: Structrural Engineer August Komendant at the Museum of Estonian Architecture Image Credit: Marje Eelma © Marje Eelma/Tuumik Studio, Museum of Estonian Architecture

Considered the breakthrough in Kahn’s career, the Richards Medical Research Laboratories (University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) integrates Kahn’s distinctive style - clear and efficient building circulation, natural light as a design feature, and a practised combination of form, material and function. Kahn works with concrete again in the symmetric and unadorned monoliths of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (San Diego, California), accentuated by a single strip of running water that flows down the plaza’s centre.

  • Early site plan sketch by Louis Kahn - Richards Medical Research Building (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) - architect Louis Kahn, structural consultant August Komendant | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
    Early site plan sketch by Louis Kahn - Richards Medical Research Building (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) - architect Louis Kahn, structural consultant August Komendant Image Credit: Sketch by Louis Kahn, © The University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
  • Construction of the floor slab - Richards Medical Research Building (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) - architect Louis Kahn, structural consultant August Komendant | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
    Construction of the floor slab - Richards Medical Research Building (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) - architect Louis Kahn, structural consultant August Komendant Image Credit: © Family of Harald Laupa

The Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas) by Kahn and Komendant expresses refined teamwork and expertise in its construction. The structure brings together cycloid barrel vaults of concrete with light as its central theme of design. Kahn relied on the engineering expertise of Komendant for the construction of the Olivetti-Underwood Factory (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), which resulted in a brilliant structure formed by 72 prestressed concrete units locked together. The Palazzo dei Congressi in Venice, Italy, remained on paper, but continues to be one of the most stimulating samples of Kahn’s unbuilt architectural tales.

All of these buildings are remarkable examples of how natural light can bring alive concrete beings, examples of a creative and intelligent alliance between engineer and architect, focusing on aesthetic individuality and functionality of material.

  • Early sectional sketch of the cycloid shells by Louis Kahn - Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas, USA) - architect Louis Kahn, structural consultant August Komendant | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
    Early sectional sketch of the cycloid shells by Louis Kahn - Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas, USA) - architect Louis Kahn, structural consultant August Komendant Image Credit: Sketch by Louis Kahn, © The University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
  • Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas, USA) - architect Louis Kahn, structural consultant August Komendant | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
    Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas, USA) - architect Louis Kahn, structural consultant August Komendant Image Credit: Marshall D. Meyers © The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Kahn and Komendant’s collaboration has lent definitively to the innovative employment of reinforced concrete in Estonia and the world at large. Kahn’s works primarily focus on the potential of reinforced concrete as a structural and architectural material, especially at a time when it was deemed absurd. By the middle of the 20th century, concrete had taken over the existing building materials, paving way for a new era and style of construction popularised by the likes of Kahn and Le Corbusier. Komendant’s beliefs were based on “knowledge and complemented by a refined sense of aesthetic, which helped him understand even the most lyrical architect-artists, such as Louis I. Kahn,” explains the Museum of Estonian Architecture in a press statement.

Salk Institute for Biological Studies (La Jolla, California, USA) - architect Louis Kahn, structural consultant August Komendant | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
Salk Institute for Biological Studies (La Jolla, California, USA) - architect Louis Kahn, structural consultant August Komendant Image Credit: John Dorio Nicolais © The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania by the gift of Robert Nicolais and Drexel University

Kahn was an artist-architect, a teacher and above all, a daring dreamer. In his last years, he produced notable architectural works, such as the Phillips Exeter Academy Library (Exeter, New Hampshire), Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad, India), the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban (Dhaka, Bangladesh) and the Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, Connecticut). All his works are interlaced with his obsession of worshiping natural light in the built form. In Kahn's own words – 'Just think that man can claim a slice of the sun'.

  • The Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire, United States (1965-72) | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
    The Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire, United States (1965-72) Image Credit: Cemal Emden, Courtesy of Pera Museum
  • The Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India (1962-74) | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
    The Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India (1962-74) Image Credit: Cemal Emden, Courtesy of Pera Museum
  • The National Parliament of Bangladesh in Dhaka, Bangladesh (1962-83) | Miracles in Concrete | Louis I Kahn | STIRworld
    The National Parliament of Bangladesh in Dhaka, Bangladesh (1962-83) Image Credit: Cemal Emden, Courtesy of Pera Museum

‘Miracles in Concrete: Structural Engineer August Komendant’ is ongoing from January 10 to April 26, 2020, at the Museum of Estonian Architecture, Tallin, Estonia.

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About Author

Jincy Iype

Jincy Iype

Iype is a trained architect, who often indulges in writing and amateur photography. She was a cinephile and a melophile even before she knew what those words meant. She is inclined towards architecture journalism, and can usually be found curled up reading a book, or cooking for therapeutic relief.

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