Louis Kahn – another look

Although admittedly not everyone’s cup of architectural tea, and possibly irrelevant to others, Louis Kahn’s work never fails to reach me on some level.

His work, including his ideas, speak volumes, providing much for me to chew on even though my own work is necessarily different. Just as his architecture was a kind of self-portrait – as is and will be the case regardless of where one applies ones creative efforts, so too is mine. Nevertheless, there’s so much there in the way of ideas and inspiration to draw on.

Physically, in real time and place, his built work presents an alternate experience of the built environment and its relationship to time, place, and us.

I just came across a video of an exhibit of his work, “Louis Kahn – The Power of Architecture, presented recently by the Netherlands Architecture Institute. For those of you drawn to the power of architecture it’s worth a look. Bear with the opening credits,  park your preferences at the door and you may be rewarded. It includes interviews with his son Nathaniel (My Architect) and his two sisters. (For those of you haven’t yet seen it, “My Architect” offers a remarkable look at Kahn from up close and personal. It’s one of my favorite films.)

See also, my post:Louis Kahn

Enjoy.

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Louisd Kahn, Indian Management Institute

Louis Kahn, Indian Management Institute

Louis Kahn, Indian Management Institute

Louis Kahn, Indian Management Institute

Louis Kahn, Indian Management Institute

Louis Kahn, Parliament, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, Parliament, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, National Capital, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, National Capital, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, Fisher House

Louis Kahn, Korman  House

Louis Kahn, Korman House

Louis Kahn, Korman House

Louis Kahn, Fisher House, Hatboro, Pa

Louis Kahn, Fisher House, Hatboro, Pa

Louis Kahn, Fisher House, Hatboro, Pa

Louis Kahn, Fisher House, Hatboro, Pa

Louis Kahn,Exeter Library

Louis Kahn,Exeter Library

Louis Kahn, First Unitarian Church, Rochester

Louis Kahn, First Unitarian Church, Rochester

Louis Kahn, First Unitarian Church, Rochester

Louis Kahn, First Unitarian Church, Rochester

Louis Kahn,Yale Center For British Art

Louis Kahn,Yale Center For British Art

Louis Kahn, Hurva Synagogue

Louis Kahn, Hurva Synagogue

Louis Kahn, Hurva Synagogue

Louis Kahn, Hurva Synagogue

Louis Kahn at the Kimball Museum, Ft. Worth

Louis Kahn at the Kimball Museum, Ft. Worth

Louis in action

Louis in action

Louis Kahn, model of Richards Medical Research Building

Louis Kahn, model of Richards Medical Research Building

Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn

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Tuning Out, Tuning In

There’s a lot going on.

Simple, revealing little, concealing much, I thought I would use this seemingly vapid comment as a kind of trail marker hinting at something more pithy ahead, an observation that I think is worthy of your attention.

First, let me explain what I mean by a lot going on. As we are well aware of from time to time, at any given moment there can be an overload of sensory traffic buzzing around and through us. This in itself is not news. But the thing I want to draw your attention to is how easily it sidetracks us.  That buzz, that sensory overload, easily obscures awareness of what matters to us most.

From the moment when the mind flickers awake in the morning to when it eventually fades out at night, it’s subject to an encyclopedic range of input, often just plain noise, much of it actual sound, often just the hum of brain chatter.

So much so that, when something really important and worthy of close attention sneaks into our field of awareness, it often slips by unnoticed, if not altogether ignored. Or it gets glossed over, downplayed, maybe even dismissed as a distraction. Usually we’re just too busy to bother with it.

Perhaps it’s unavoidable, but nonetheless, this state of affairs has its consequences.

Which brings me to my purpose in writing this. By underscoring what might seem to be an unavoidable and unchangeable part of life today, I’m also underscoring what I think is one of the outcomes: it’s effect on architecture, my second love in life. It’s a reason, I think, why architecture occupies a much too obscure niche in the set of personal priorities of so many people; why so many of our buildings fail to raise our sights, lift us emotionally, add to our inventory of inspired legacies, and in general, succeed only in leaving us indifferent.

But, venting on this issue is not my purpose. What  interests me here is making an effort, as minor as it may be, to do something about it by bringing attention to it; to give it a nudge, light a fire under it. Is this situation really changeable? I don’t know, but why not try?

There’s an abundance of legitimate reasons related to personal circumstance for excluding architecture as part of ones reality, for simply not caring about it. I know that for many, if not most of us, it’s beyond reach and may always be. Nonetheless, there’s no escaping the impact that our immediate surroundings exerts on our quality of life.

This simple but often repeated fact has by now become a cliche. But not to be so easily dismissed is the nugget of truth lying at its core: we are all, fundamentally, experiential, spiritual, and thinking beings, by which I mean that our health requires nurturing in all those areas. Unless we’re comatose, we respond unavoidably on many levels and in potentially profound ways to the messages from beyond our skin received by our senses, all the time.

Yes, of course, few people are in a position financially or otherwise to acquire architecture for themselves. That significant accomplishment is left to a very small segment of the population. And yet, it’s those few who have the greatest power to impact the quality of the built environments of the world, most notably their own.

And so, the question is begged: why do those possessing the ability to improve on the state of the natural world, one of our greatest sources of pleasure and enrichment, often let that opportunity slip away? Why do most of our buildings induce yawns of boredom at best and, at worst, apathetic resignation to what seems impossible to change? Why do so few of those with the ability to get good architecture end up with with less?

I wonder. Is it an opportunity that goes unrecognized? Is it sensory overload that obscures what’s most important?

Everyone sees a building’s potential differently. My views on the untapped possibilities of architecture and its failure, in general, to realize them may not be shared by many. Are there explanations then, other than the ones I’ve suggested above, for why our built environments turn out the way they do?  There are, you can be sure. But while it’s tempting to look for them here, it’s not really where I want to go right now.

Instead, I prefer to aim in a different direction, not at changing a set of circumstances that’s mostly beyond my reach. As many architects have done before, myself included, it’s more appealing to suggest an option, a different way of seeing and thinking about the structures we build and where they come from.

For now with respect to readers who have more to do than slog through a long post, I’ll narrow down that focus to just one possibility. There may be many more, perhaps,but one in particular is dear to me

All buildings are connected to their surroundings, to nature above all – nature out there, as well as our internal nature as humans. It’s a continuous dialogue and relationship that can be quite intimate. 

By nature, in this case the earth, I mean the place that all of us, consciously or not, are an extension of, where we can turn to reconnect on a deeper level with what’s most important.

As such, nature is here, now, real. It has the power to bring us into the present, to settle us down. Unlike the overload of sensory stimulation that is often part of that strata of existence common to most life as it currently is experienced, especially in urban areas, nature has the power to ground us, to return us to ourselves.

Nature as a primary point of reference in the built environment has been addressed in various ways by many  architects, high on my list of which are Wright, of course, Louis Kahn, Carlo Scarpa, Peter Bohlin, James Cutler, John Lautner, Will Bruder, Kengo Kuma and not so well known, Jack Hilmer, to name but a few. I know I’m leaving out dozens more who’ve had much to offer in connecting us to the natural world through their architecture as well as their written words. But this is a good start. Their work represents a wide range of different possibilities, but share a common message.

Following are a few notable examples of how nature, in the sense I refer to above, can influence our built world.

FLW, Reisley House

FLW, Palmer House

FLW, Melvyn Maxwell Smith House

FLW, Rose Pauson Residence, Ship Rock, after fire

FLW, Aisaku Hayashi House, Tokyo – 1917

Frank Lloyd Wright, Millard House wall detail

FLW, Owen Young House, Chandler – 1928

FLW, Doheney Ranch Development – 1923

FLW, Darwin Martin House

Wright:

How many understand that Nature is the essential character of whatever is. It’s something you’ll find by looking not at, but in, always in. It’s always inside the thing, and it makes the outside.”

Building becomes architecture only when the mind of man consciously takes it and tries with all his resources to make it beautiful, to put concordance, sympathy with nature, and all that into it.”

“study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

Louis Kahn, National Assembly, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, National Assembly, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn, India Institute of Management

Louis Kahn, India Institute of Management

Louis Kahn, Yale Center for British Art

Louis Kahn, Fisher House

Louis Kahn:

“And when you want to give something presence, you have to consult nature. And there is where Design comes in. And if you think of Brick, for instance, and you say to Brick, “What do you want Brick?” and Brick says to you,

“I like an Arch.”  And if you say to Brick “Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lentil over you. What do you think of that, brick?”

Brick says: “… I like an Arch”

Carlo Scarpa

Carlo Scarpa. Brion-Vega Cemetery

Carlo Scarpa, Brion-Vega Cemetery

Carlo Scarpa:

If the architecture is any good, a person who looks and listens will feel its good effects without noticing. The environment educates in a critical fashion. As for the critic, he discovers the truth of things…”

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Ridge House

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Ridge House

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Port Townsend Residence

Peter Bohlin/ Bohlin Cywinski Jackson:

“We believe in an architecture that springs from the nature of circumstance.

…the nature of place, whether natural or man-made – the tilt and warp of the land, the sun and wind, rain and snow, its attitude, its spirit, the marks of man on a place, a dense urban world or a landscape that reveals its geological past and vestiges of man’s hand.

…the nature of man – our senses, how we move, how we touch, our intellect and our emotions, our dreams, our memories, our past, our institutions,

…the nature of making, of materials – stone, wood, concrete, steel, aluminum, glass, plastic, fabric – each has its particular qualities.

…All materials have a kind of will – we are fascinated by the connection between the nature of materials, the places they quite naturally make and our use of these particular places. from “Arcadian Architecture, 12 Houses”, by Oscar Riera Ojeda

Cutler Anderson Architects, Bodega Residence

Cutler Anderson Architects, Bodega Residence

James Cutler, Medina Residence Guest House

James Cutler, Medina Residence Guest House

James Cutler/ Cutler Anderson

John Lautner, Mauer Residence

John Lautner’s Wolff House

Rawlins Residence, John Lautner with Warren Lawson

John Lautner, Segel Residence with Warren Lawson as project architect

John Lautner:

As far as structure is concerned I think we should continually experiment and discover every new material and method and use it.”

Will Bruder, Pond House

Will Bruder, Pond House

Will Bruder, Byrne-Residence

Will Bruder

Will Bruder:

“…celebrate the materials and how they go together”

“…You’re getting paid to open the possibilities of what architecture is about” And the goal of architecture, he says, “is to build a better world to live in, to build armatures for memory. And memory is what people value more than any physical thing.”  from Residential Architect, October 18, 2011 post

Kengo Kuma, Yusuhara Wooden Bridge

Kengo Kuma, Momofuku Ando Center

Kengo Kuma:

Sushi is a good metaphor for my architecture. The importance in sushi is to choose the best material from the place, in season. ‘If the journey of the ingredients is too long, the taste of the sushi is compromised. That is a problem that can’t be solved by modern technology, and that programme of using local material in season is the secret of good taste, and the secret of my style.” 

Jack Hilmer, Kentfield House

Jack Hilmer, Kentfield House

Louis Kahn

Not a household name to non-architects, Louis Kahn dug deep into the very core of architecture, discovering the deeper reality of what architecture is and could be. His famous question asked of a brick or other material, “what does it want to be?” resonates to this day. Not everyones cup of tea, strange to many, but for me his sometimes haunting work is an inspiration in the way it captures the primal and timeless material essence of a building. It took me a while in the beginning to let him in, but it was worth the wait. See if you can step back, not dismiss him too quickly, and let yourself discover a new experience of what is possible in our built environment.
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