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A partial view of Kahn

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Louis Kahn's Situated Modernism By Sarah Williams Goldhagen. Yale University Press, 2001. 277pp. £35 Louis Kahn died 28 years ago but his catchphrases - 'silence and light', 'what the building wants to be', 'served and servant spaces', 'the house within a house' - live on in the language of architectural discourse, and are repeated endlessly like religious tropes whenever the faithful are gathered together. Perhaps this is why there is a tendency to interpret Kahn's architecture in mystical terms, as if his buildings were pure prophetic utterances rather than the products of a struggle to find an architecture appropriate to the social institutions of post-war America.

Sarah Williams Goldhagen sets out to correct the mystical tendency by emphasising the social and intellectual context of Kahn's work - the influence of artists such as Josef Albers and Willem de Kooning at Yale, where Kahn taught; the reinterpretation of Modernism by Team X; the 'techno-organicism' of his friend Buckminster Fuller; and the renewed interest in monumentality that dominated American architectural debate in the 1950s.

This book is, to use the author's phrase, 'archivally grounded'. Its conclusions are backed up by extensive original research, fully footnoted, and we are obliged to take them seriously. Architectural historians will be grateful to Goldhagen for the care she has taken and the rigour of her analyses. In detailed studies of buildings such as the First Unitarian Church of Rochester and the National Assembly in Dhaka, she questions all the conventional readings of Kahn, refining some, rejecting others and formulating a few of her own.

What emerges, as the title suggests, is a 'situated' view of Kahn's Modernism - a Modernism that balanced the abstract with the representational, and the individual with the collective, renouncing the symbolism of mass production and exploiting monumentality to social ends.

But there are some disappointing omissions. For one thing, we learn very little about Kahn the man, his upbringing and education, his working methods, his daily routines, his friendships and collaborations.

Even the longstanding relationship with Anne Tyng, who was interviewed by the author, remains curiously hazy. Without a portrait of the man, we feel that we are not getting the full picture.

For example, Kahn's professional slovenliness over matters such as budgets and deadlines is mentioned in passing but not investigated thoroughly. We never find out what it was actually like to work in Kahn's office, to be one of his students, or one of his clients.

The absence of anecdote and biographical detail is justified in the introduction by an appeal to the methodology of the sociologist Pierre Bordieu, who dismissed biography as a legitimate form of inquiry.

But this will not wash in a book that puts its subject's name on the front cover. It is as if Kahn had been placed centre stage only for the spotlight to be left off.

The buildings also seem slightly out of focus. There are many illustrations in the book, including 16 pages of colour plates, but the buildings are not presented systematically, with plans and sections. This is a minor criticism - after all, there are lavish monographs available - but the verbal descriptions and analyses are also rather tentative, failing to get to grips with the complexities of the design process.

A more fundamental weakness is the very limited range of examples that Goldhagen uses to support her arguments.Many of the most important Kahn buildings are virtually ignored. How can Kahn's architecture be fully assessed without looking in detail at buildings such as the Salk Institute, the Exeter Library, or the Kimbell Art Museum? Even the Richards Medical Centre in Philadelphia, by Goldhagen's own admission the building that established Kahn's international reputation, is dismissed in a couple of sentences.

Perhaps, with its intricate precast concrete structure and its innovative treatment of mechanical services, it could not easily be made to fit an interpretation that emphasises Kahn's rejection of modern technology.

Archivally grounded they may be, but Goldhagen's conclusions are undermined by her reluctance simply to look at the buildings.

Colin Davies is professor at the University of North London

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