Exploring Modernism In Architecture: Louis Kahn
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Published: Mon, 30 Apr 2018
For my essay on Modernism in architecture I intend to explore an architect of the modernist period in order to establish the form, philosophy and social ideas behind modernism.
‘The term modern architecture is ambiguous. It can be understood to refer to all buildings of the modern period regardless of their ideological basis, or it can be understood more specifically as an architecture conscious of its own modernity and striving for change.’
Modern architecture is a category which usually complements buildings of the 20th and 21st century. It would include Bauhaus / International styles (sometimes used to describe Bauhaus architecture in United States) and also brutalism. Modernism was a reaction against eclecticism and the lavish stylistic excesses of the Art Deco, Art Nouveau and the Victorian ages. However, it is still a matter of taste.
Even though Bauhaus, a German design school (Operated from 1919-33 By founder Walter Gropius, then by Hans Mayer and Ludwig Mies der Van Rohe) which had profoundly influenced arts and architecture had been more concerned with social aspects of design; none the less, International style soon became a symbolism of Capitalism. Fig.2 shows an interesting and most famous example of this International style. This style of architecture was reserved mainly for office blocks, but was also seen in homes built for the rich and famous. Fig.2 shows another building widely known for its ‘functionalist aesthetic and a masterpiece of corporate modernism.’
There were many architects who attached their name to this modernistic era, some of the best known being Frank Lloyd Wright(fig.6), Walter Gropius(fig.5), Le Corbusier(fig.2) and Ludwig Mies der Van Rohe(fig.3).
6Fig.6 shows Falling water which was a truly iconic building for many. Wrights design which was for a residential home was above a waterfall. This building portrayed his view of organic architecture. Modern architecture was found to be challenging traditional teachings which were thought to be suitable for architectural design and structure. Modernist’s designers went on to argue that architects should design everything which is necessary for society. From every detail and furniture in the interior and exteriors of buildings and even led to architects designing the most humble of buildings. I have looked at the broader definition of modernism along with the pioneers who drove this style. Louis Kahn is the architect I have chosen to study in depth. His views of modernism are well known through the modern world of architecture.
Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky (February 20, 1901 or 1902 – March 17, 1974), or more commonly known in the world of architecture as Louis Kahn was an architect who was infused within the International style. Kahn graduated from the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Fine Arts in 1924. In the late 1930’s Kahn’s was working as a consultant to the Philadelphia Housing Authority. His affiliation with modern architecture grew as he worked with Europeans Stonorov and George Howe with whom Kahn designed many wartime housing projects which can be seen in fig.8. From these experiences it gave Kahn a sense of social responsibility which was later reflected in his philosophy. 1947 was a year where the Kahn started to emerge. His career had established to a point where he had started a teaching career at Yale University as the Chief Critic in Architectural Design and Professor of Architecture, until 1957. Then at the University of Pennsylvania as Cret Professor of Architecture until his death lonely death in a men’s room toilet in Pennsylvania Station in New York. Kahn died in deep debt despite his affluent career.
Louis Kahn was a critique of mainstream modernism; his work represented the New Monumentality movement which was also promoted by Siegfried Gieldion, Josep Llios Sert and Kahn’s mentor George Howe. Kahn’s buildings are incredibly precise in their construction of places for people. I found some pieces of Kahn’s work particularly interesting to study from a modernistic architectural view. From the list of his most important works I have selected a few which I believe to be particularly symbolic to this essay. From more than a dozen houses which had been designed by Kahn Esherick House was the most renowned. I found Esherick house to one of his most wonderful pieces of work which shows us the direction which he later followed in. A critique says:
‘The Esherick House is definitely one of Kahn’s most important works which defined lessons he’d go on to use in later projects.’
By this I believe he means that Kahn was finding his element which he had then go onto use in later projects. Kahn’s career comprises of a lot of interesting work, however, Esherick house stands as one of his most important pieces of work. In the making of the house the control of light had been the preoccupation since the start, and he truly had achieved harmony through natural light as well as distinct style through the transcendence and geometric detail. Kahn’s principles of light, materiality and geometry are clearly visible here. He starts to impose his future views of form in subtle characteristics of this house. At a glance it is simply concrete and wood which combine to create the facades and interior spaces. The house features a textured mortar finish, with keyhole window which are framed with natural Apilong wood placed at irregular intervals on the front façade. The floor plan is a refined design by Kahn. It is shown to contain two symmetrical rectangles which allow structural support and openness. This truly modernistic structure shows how Kahn’s work would unfold in later years. The Esherick house’s pure use of geometry and abstract form reflect his modernistic approach to architecture. Kahns work is much greater dipected in his later and much larger projects.
The Salk Laboratories which was developed by Dr Jonas Salk, the developer of polio vaccine had intended for a laboratory which was not just somewhere for biological research, but a place which you could ‘invite a man like Picasso.’13 The materials used for this vast project were concrete, wood, marble and he also used the element of water in his design which as the massive complex was juxtaposed against the Pacific Ocean was fitting. I found a very fitting description of The Salk laboratories:
Kahn’s use of order before form shows us how he depicted a building to be like a perfect organism with complexity of use inside as well as on the outside. I found a very interesting quote from Kahn about the Salk laboratories. His philosophy of design shows use the kind of man he was and intentions he perused:
“I did not follow the dictates of the scientists, who said that they are so dedicated to what they are doing that when lunchtime comes all they do is clear away the test tubes from the benches and eat their lunch on these benches. I asked them: was it not a strain with all these noises? And they answered: the noises of the refrigerators are terrible; the noises of
centrifuges are terrible; the trickling of the water is terrible. Everything was terrible including the noises of the air-conditioning system. So I would not listen to them as to what should be done. And I realised that there should be a clean air and stainless steel area, and a rug and oak table area. From this realisation form became. I separated the studies from the laboratory and placed them over gardens. The garden became outdoor spaces where one can talk. Now one need not spend all the time in the laboratories. When one knows what to do, there is only little time one needs for doing it. It is only when one does not know what to do that it takes so much time. And to know what to do is the secret of it all.”
I deduce from this extract Kahn’s knowledge and confidence. I see how Kahn believed in a new modern form of architecture. He says it as if he already has the thoughts and ideas to transform buildings into styled and ordered space. Kahn’s interpretations were seemingly much clearer; he wanted a modern architecture less concerned with aesthetics and what the building looks like. He was more intrigued by the spaces of the building and how the spaces were being used, and what order this would create for them. He wanted to make spaces which would affect the experiences of those who inhabited those spaces. Salk laboratory shows us a design which had predominantly established the foundational significance; order of space an then the geometries. He used this structure of thought for his designs of all institutions such as Salk laboratories.
‘The final version of the Salk laboratories brought him to accept a solution in which services were as ‘repressed’ or concealed as in any office building by Mies Van der Rohe’
From this large project he moved onto a next, however, this one remaining unbuilt whilst he was still living. Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban in Dhaka, Bangladesh is regarded to be on this is great monuments of international modernism. This building was considered as his masterpiece of his lifetime. Construction of this building had stated by 1961 however due to its vast enormity didn’t finish construction until nine years after his death in 1983 which means it took around 20 years to build.
The national assembly building was Kahn’s most important piece of work. The space was very grand. The interior area for the Assembly building was spilt into 3 sections. The zone in the centre provides circulation. The main area or central zone is for the main assembly. The exterior zone is where the offices and lounges are, also this is where the entrance to the main mosque is. In the design we can see how natural light is a very important element in this building. The building seems as if it is solely for religious purposes and has a heavy spiritual flair.
“In the assembly I have introduced a light-giving element to the interior of the plan. If you see a series of columns you can say that the choice of columns is a choice in light. The columns as solids frame the spaces of light. Now think of it just in reverse and think that the columns are hollow and much bigger and that their walls can themselves give light, then the voids are rooms, and the column is the maker of light and can take on complex shapes and be the supporter of spaces and give light to spaces. I am working to develop the element to such an extent that it becomes a poetic entity which has its own beauty outside of its place in the composition. In this way it becomes analogous to the solid column I mentioned above as a giver of light.”
Here Kahn talks about the Bangladesh project. He reiterates the importance of light in the space and his poetic entity which he adds to every design to create a great sense of beauty.
In the designing of these three projects we can see how Kahn has used his knowledge to help create spaces which execute both form and function desirably to the client. Kahn talks about how his greater understanding of what is needed helps him complete his task easily.
Kahn talks about beauty as the great philosopher St Thomas Aquinas did. Aquinas believed that beauty consisted of four ingredients: Integrity, wholeness, symmetry, and radiance. By integrity he meant that something is complete on its own without any being dependant on anything outside it. By wholeness he means every part has a reason and can’t be taken away without destroying the whole beauty of it. Symmetry referring to balance, something can’t just change without a corresponding result. This was similar the constants which had appeared in Kahn’s work. The sense of composition, the integrity of a building reverence for material, sense of ‘room’, light as the maker of the structure and architecture of connection
Kahn tried to apply these models into all of his projects. One even described him as:
“a philosopher among architects”.
This is from his every expressing philosophy on his work. Essentially Kahn saw architecture as being a spiritual form of communication. He grew a strong relation with each project by applying a strong hierarchy with order being the most important.
Kahn was famous for being a critique of modernism. He found many influential architects of the time to have been misjudging the order of their designs. Kahns critue started with him rejecting a ‘free plan’; a concept which Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier had attached themselves to, along with modernism. Kahn believed that separating these two concepts of form from the structure, would mean the free plan as previously interpreted by Van de Rohe and Le Corbusier had ‘ opened up a void that could only be filled with subjective intuition.’
Essentially Kahn’s work did seem consistent with that of the broader view of architecture however, his view of modern architecture was something which was unpredictable and had no rules to follow or principles to ad ear to. He found that the international style of modern architecture at the time which was being used by many architects in America and Europe had been too concerned with the form and not the function.
‘Kahn was concerned with the things man has been looking for since the beginning – and in this he was a fundamentalist – was not interested in the realization, of something which had already occurred, but in the possibility that something will occur within the walls’
This tells us that Kahn was more of Prophet than simply a preacher. He wanted to change the views on architecture and introduce what he believed to be the necessary condition for the presence of architecture.
‘Mies’s sensitivites react to imposed structural order with little inspiration, Le Corbusier passes through order impatiently and hurries to form.’
Kahn talked about Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier imperfection in structural order, and their rush of order leads to an imperfection in form. Kahns order derived from nature and this is reflected in his projects.
‘In the nature of space is the spirit and the will to exist in a certain way. Design must closely follow that will.’
The pure order, form and geometry is why Louis Kahn still influence the world today. His work directly impacts and inspires forms of architecture today such as post modernism and neo rationalist. More than this Louis Kahn redefined modernism. He has thrilled onlookers with his vast philosophy; however his patrons only appeared in his later years. Kahn adapted architecture and had an input as to what we see when we analyse today. He showed us in his vast texts, to every detail the visions he had, and how he intended to erect these visions. Predominately we can see that he was drifting away from modernism, however, I have studied how Kahn’s vision set modernism into track somewhere that it wouldn’t have been without his influence.
“It was not belief, not design, not pattern, but the essence from which an institution could emerge…”
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