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House Plan: Simon Hudspith on Kahn's Dominican Motherhouse

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In the latest in the AJ’s ongoing series looking at influential housing plans, Simon Hudspith choses Louis Kahn’s unbuilt Dominican Motherhouse of St Catherine de Ricci in Pennsylvania

As a rather naïve masters student arriving at the University of Pennsylvania in 1982, I found myself consumed by the ghost of Louis Kahn.

He seemed to be everywhere; conversations, lectures, teachers, exhibitions and of course the buildings, were woven together by this blanket of reverence for the great man.

The geometric, systematic and repetitive plans of Kimbel, Exeter and Salk were the exemplars for the design process and the ‘only route’ to creating true meaning in modern architecture.

And then, by accident I stumbled across a very different drawing, ‘a mother house plan’ or to be more precise The Dominican Motherhouse of St Catherine de Ricci’ 1966:  and was shocked by how different it was from every thing I had experienced up to that point.

It was like lifting the lid on any number of medieval cities, where buildings emerge from within defined boundaries to create a rich and complex group of beautiful places.

The dormitories provided the perimeter while the assembly buildings jostled, vying for prominence.

The refectory, library and chapel were all there; though rebelled against the axial monumental geometry, so prevalent in Kahn’s other projects at that time. An exquisite sequence of accidental places linked through the corners of the touching buildings, though each having its own uniqueness.

It was almost as if this was his release, his opportunity to experiment, break the Beaux Arts rules and celebrate the mismatch and accidents that make our medieval cities so engaging and enriching.

This drawing softened the ghost, showed a much more human side and gave me the optimism that breaking rules can be just as important as following them.

Sadly Kahn’s proposal was twice the Sisters’ budget so the vision was never realised. However, for those who are interested, our very own James Stirling employed almost exactly the same plan for a competition in Berlin in 1979 and it is now built.

Wissenschaftszentrum - worth a look (see below).

Simon Hudspith is a founding partner at Panter Hudspith architects


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Readers' comments (1)

  • These are fantastic Simon. Made me think of Henley Halebrown Rorrison's recent take on communal housing in Stoke Newington. Its the unexpected asymmetry contained by order that is so intriguing - an inner world. Interesting how work, education and living are all moving towards this sort of model.

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