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Design Museum curator on ‘radical iconoclast’ Louis Kahn

Alex Newson, curator at the Design Museum, has spoken of how Louis Kahn’s ‘radical’ architectural legacy distinguishes him from other contemporary Modernists

Newson, who curated the Design Museum’s current exhibition on the work of Louis Kahn entitled ‘The Power of Architecture’ said: ‘One of the things that makes Kahn so great and unique is his difference; the difference in his work and that of his near contemporaries practicing at the time.’

He added: ‘It was a time of high Modernism and architects were seeking to create buildings that were as light as they could possibly be – using curtain wall glazing and steel – buildings that could almost be blown away. Whereas Louis Kahn showed you could create Modernist buildings in a different way, and that element of the iconoclast is what made him stand out from his near contemporaries.’

Salk Institute in La Jolla California. Louis Kahn 1959-65. The Architectural Archives University of Pennsylvania. Photo: John Nicolais

Salk Institute in La Jolla California. Louis Kahn 1959-65. The Architectural Archives University of Pennsylvania. Photo: John Nicolais

Newson also spoke of how Kahn’s ideas were too ‘radical’ for his hometown of Philadelphia, which meant that many of the American architect’s projects for the city were never built.

‘He had a fractious relationship with the head of city planning Edmund Bacon, and they clashed regularly on quite a few of Kahn’s ideas,’ said Newson. ‘Kahn was just too radical for them. He had ideas that included making everybody park their cars outside the city and coming into the city as pedestrians – for America at the time this was an incredibly radical thing to suggest.’

However, according to Newson, Kahn’s ability to ‘strip architecture back to its bare essentials’ was matched with the talent to excel in a number of typologies.

‘Kahn was a perfector of building typologies – he built the best laboratory [the Salk Institute] that many scientists say they have ever worked in,’ he said. ‘Similarly with some of his art galleries, such as the Kimbell Art Museum and the Yale Art Gallery – the directors and artists exhibiting there say they are among the best spaces they have ever worked in, and the Philip Exeter Academy is another example of him taking a building typology and making it the best it can be.’

He added: ‘For an architect to arguably perfect those three very varied building typologies is a wonderful thing.’

Interview: Alex Newson, curator, Design Museum

Alex Newson, curator, Design Museum

What typifies Kahn’s building projects?

Kahn’s buildings use very different materials, they are about the ‘stuff’ of architecture, about brick, and concrete, and space, and light, and they have this connection with the landscape and a sense of place that many Modernist buildings lack. It’s a really interesting time to re-engage with Kahn’s work as many people noted that the Venice Biennale is almost about the lack of architecture; reducing it down to the servicing elements of a building, while Kahn’s work is about the stuff of architecture, it’s about doorways, it’s about light, it’s about volumes; it is really about the primary aspects of architecture.

What can today’s architects learn from Kahn’s legacy?

Kahn is often described as the architects’ architect. He was very principled in the way he went about doing things, sometimes to his detriment. It is quite enlightening that when he died he was bankrupt and owed a lot of money. That was partly because he wasn’t prepared to compromise the way he felt buildings should be made in order to save money here and there. But when clients went to Louis Kahn, they knew they were getting a Louis Kahn building.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, New York. Lois Kahn, 1973-2012. Photo:

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, New York. Lois Kahn, 1973-2012. Photo:

What is the role of landscaping in Kahn’s projects?

Kahn had a big influence on many landscape architects during his career and you can see how he worked with them very closely and intensely. The use of landscaping and water do give this sense of buildings being from and of the earth, they almost grow out of the earth. It comes from his phrase: ‘wrapping ruins around buildings’, this idea that buildings could be conceived as things of antiquity or of nature.

The Salk Institute has a wonderful location on a cliff edge overlooking the ocean. It’s quite a profound space. The scientists who work there say it’s a wonderful space and one of the best laboratories they have ever worked in. There is a real spiritual nature to it, which is a nice contrast to the pursuit of science that takes place inside the building.

What did Kahn bring to civic buildings that stood out?

The community was important to Louis Kahn; he was quoted as saying that architecture was the place where community took place. The culmination of this is the National Assembly Building in Dhaka. It was commissioned before Bangladesh existed as an individual country, when it was still part of Pakistan, but it was a sovereign nation when finally completed. Many Bangladeshis think of the building as an icon of their fledgling democracy. The building has been elevated from basic architecture to something bigger.

National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Louis Kahn 1962-83. Photo: Raymond Meier

National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Louis Kahn 1962-83. Photo: Raymond Meier

Can you see any trends in Britain which relate to the works of Louis Kahn?

You could say the whole New Materialist movement a few years ago, seen in the works of Caruso St John. Kahn is an architect that many cite as an inspiration and one they look up to, so his legacy does cast a long shadow over contemporary architecture.

Exhibition: Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture until 12 October 2014 at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1.



Readers' comments (1)

  • chris Dyson

    This is a wonderful exhibition. The power of this form of architecture has an enduring potency as can be seen in the recent completion of the Franklin D Roosevelt, Four Freedoms park in New York.

    His domestic work remains for me some his most ingenious and beguiling, my favourite the norman and Doris Fisher house, Pennsylvania 1960-67. Note that time frame, quite a long time to make a house, and presumably worth the wait!

    Kahn was a master whose reductive approach to design eschews fashionable gestures and aims for the heart and soul of a design idea crystallised in an elegant understanding for high quality materials and craftsmanship.

    Go see this while you can.

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