Louis Isadore Kahn was born on February 20, 1901 on the Island of Saaremaa, Estonia to Leopold and Bertha Mendelsohn. Upon emmigrating to the state of Philadelphia in the U.S, the early part of the family’s life was marked by extreme poverty as Kahn’s father suffered a terrible back injury which forced the family to lean heavily on the knitted clothing samples produced by Kahn’s mother for financial stability. In his younger years Kahn had suffered severe burns to his face because he got too close to a collection of burning coals; when asked about why he defied his senses, Kahn said that he was attracted by the beautiful colours of the embers. This tragic accident suggests that Kahn experienced much curiosity from a very young age, for materials and their means, hence why he got so close to the burning coals.
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It is believed that Kahn’s first architectural masterpiece was the Yale University Art Gallery (1951-1953). This contribution complemented Kahn’s modernistic approach because it presented how he interpreted the environment which surrounded that particular area where the Gallery was built. For instance, the interior spaces seemed to evoke an entirely different world from the brash mass-produced outside environment. Kahn achieved this by using standardized panels, suspended ceilings, subtle effects of light falling over the triangulated web of the concrete ceiling and by the direct use of materials, evident in the bare yet elegant concrete piers.
Kahn’s method of design was influenced by his schooling under the Beaux-Arts system at Philadelphia lead by Paul Cret. In Kahn’s education great emphasis was placed upon the discovery of a central and appropriate generating idea for a building which was to be captured in a sketch, rather like an ideogram. This approach to teaching was supposed to educate young architects with old lessons. This influence appears evident in Kahn’s work due to the appreciation he presents for the materials. It was supposed that Kahn would talk to the materials being used in his designs.
Kahn’s immersion in the artistic realm was shaped by two individuals, both of whom were products of Thomas Eakins’ “Romantic Realism” teaching method, J. Liberty Tadd and William Gray. J. Liberty Tadd, teacher at the Public Industrial Art School, worked directly under Eakins and crafted his teaching style closely to Eakins’ methodology. Tadd pushed students to ?nd their own means of expression rather than teach through regulated norms. Central High School teacher William Gray studied under Eakins-disciple Thomas P. Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1889-1891.
Furthermore Kahn developed a structural-Rationalist emphasis on construction, and in later life several of his strongest ideas relied upon poetic interpretations of basic structural ideas. Kahn had learned much from Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture and learned much from Sullivan and Wright and later from Mies van der Rohe.
Kahn had the ability to avoid some of the shortfalls experienced by other major U.S architects; he was capable of handling problems of a large size without degenerating into either an ‘additive’ approach or an overdone grandiosity. For instance, he knew how to fuse together modern constructional means with traditional methods. Ultimately, this demonstrates Kahn’s modernistic outlook between the juxtaposing materials and the impression they had on that particular building whilst maintaing the buildings principle function.
The Fisher House is an example whereby Louis Kahn demonstrates his modernistic influences yet traditional means of design; this is a prime example where Kahn uses his progressive style of teaching which is expanded on above.
Kahn was said to have treated his housing projects as experiments and the Fisher House was no exception. The Fisher family would at times grow tiresome of Kahn’s constant need to find fault with his design then proceed to start from scratch once again. However, this gave him opportunities to explore many of the unique ideas which he himself had formed.
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The Fisher House was located on a site which sloped gently down from a main road to a small stream. It consists of three cubes, two large ones connected together and a small, seperate one. These cubes, together with the existing trees, form two inter-connected outdoor spaces: an entrance court and a kitchen court. This idea shows how Kahn utilises the old with the new, for instance the aged trees and new cubic shaped rooms whilst maintaining the use of the rooms. Furthermore two large cubes, connected diagonally, contain two distinct groups of activities. The first cube contains an entrance and the master bedroom suite with dressing room and bathroom on the first floor and two smaller bedrooms on the second floor. The second cube is connected by a large opening to the entrance lobby. The two-story-high first floor contains the kitchen and the living areas seperated by a free-standing stone fireplace.
This image supports the abstract above, whereby the cubic rooms are designed for particular activities that the Fisher family partake in. The particular design of the building creates a fluidity throughout because each room is lay out in a particular order, which has been carefully thought out by Kahn yet, appears effortless when walking through the house. It shows that Kahn was particularly talented in imagining the final house and how its occupants would use it.
The preservation of architecturally significant structures has begun to experience a shift in both style and future use. The tide has shifted towards structures that were both disdained and revered during their time. Modernist structures, while simplistic in form and function, contain a high degree of embedded meaning and significance for the materials used. Kahn’s use of traditional forms, augmented by the precision of modern technology throughout his work represents his multifaceted approach to design, attempting to appeal to both the psyche and the materials, themselves, in order to maintain their ‘trueness to Form’. Kahn was not merely recycling traditionalism, but rather retranslating ‘known’ forms – in both assembly and aesthetics – in order to convey a certain aura. To conclude, it could be suggested that Louis Kahn was a significant architect because he was ahead of his time. This was due to to his appreciation for new technology in a changing world, yet upholding the importance of the materials themselves which was a classical portrayal of design.
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