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Sheer Kahn: Revisiting the work of Louis Kahn at the Design Museum

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Alan Dunlop reports from the Design Museum’s retrospective exhibition on the life and work of Louis Kahn

Louis Isadore Kahn died of a heart attack in Penn Station, New York, in 1974, after returning from Ahmedabad in India. The most influential American architect of his generation had deleted his address from his passport and lay unrecognised in the mortuary for three days. He was 73, heavily in debt and exhausted from frequent work trips to India, Bangladesh and Israel.

Very few architects have left such a legacy of buildings and influenced so much of contemporary architecture, yet Kahn remains largely unknown outside of architecture circles. In the 20 years before his death he created six of the greatest buildings of the 20th century: the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (1959-67); the Kimbell Art Museum (1966-72); the Phillips Exeter Academy Library (1967-72); the Yale Centre for British Art (1968-74); the Indian Institute of Management (1962-74); and – arguably his finest work – the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh in Dhaka (1962-83).

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

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

The retrospective seeks to position Kahn as an architectural eminence

Exhibitions of Kahn’s work are rare, and Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture, currently at the Design Museum, was first presented at the Vitra Design Museum in 2013 and has now arrived in London via the Netherlands Architecture Institute. It is the first major retrospective of his work in two decades, although I recall an impressive retrospective in Glasgow’s Lighthouse in 1999. All of his major works are explored in great detail through bespoke models, with Kahn’s own original drawings and additional models from the University of Pennsylvania. The retrospective seeks to position Kahn as an architectural eminence and includes rarely seen projects, watercolours and pastel drawings from his trips to Europe in the 1950s, photographs and rare film. The exhibition proposes to raise Kahn’s public profile but makes the mistake of assuming that the visitor already knows his work. I watched a teacher forlornly herding a group of clearly uninterested senior pupils into the six ‘themed’ areas, which cover aspects of his early life, practice and teaching.

Kahn in his office c1960. Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Kahn in his office c1960. Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Kahn likened his proposals for Philadelphia to the creation of a walled city

The exhibition begins with a weighty biography, which includes his parental emigration from Estonia to Philadelphia, his birth in 1901, student years and early work. It moves forward into areas titled Science, Landscape, City, Community and Home. The best executed of these themes is City, which explores one of the greatest challenges of Kahn’s career – his failed masterplan to revitalise the city of Philadelphia in 1963. His home city was described as a ‘laboratory for the development of his urbanistic and architectural principles’ but his relationship with Edmund Bacon, executive director of the City Planning Commission was clearly fraught. Bacon had approached Kahn to do the work, then rejected his master strategy, which included the complete removal of the motor car from the downtown area. Kahn likened his proposals to the creation of a walled city, ‘protecting itself against its enemies’. For Kahn, who did not drive, Philadelphia’s enemy was the automobile and he envisaged a restructuring that ensured that new expressways would be exiled to the periphery, with access to monumental parking towers, leaving the centre free for pedestrians and major institutions. His ideas were anathema to Bacon, who then commissioned Vincent Kling, who kept most of William Penn’s original layout for the city intact and, importantly, ensured motorcar access.

Kahn worked in practice three days a week and taught for two, first at Yale and then at the University of Pennsylvania. In the exhibition it becomes clear that Anne Tyng made significant contributions to the development of his ideas. As his ‘geometrical strategist’, Tyng worked with him on the Jewish Community Centre in Trenton and on the project that became pivotal in the development of his ideas, the Trenton Bath House (1955).

Trenton Bath House (1955). Image: John Ebstel.

Trenton Bath House (1955). Image: John Ebstel.

The exhibition includes models of the bath house in development and Kahn’s exploration of ‘server and servant’ spaces, which would characterise his work over the following 20 years. The centrepiece is a complete model of the bath house, remarkable for its simplicity of form and striking in its flawless geometric precision. Although there are many impressive models displayed throughout the exhibition, including a 4m-high reproduction of Kahn and Tyng’s City Tower for Philadelphia, it is the bath house model that has the most profound impact.

Kahn’s most famous domestic projects, the Esherick (1961), Korman (1973), and Fisher (1967) houses are covered extensively and there is a full-scale reproduction of the corner seat and window from the Fisher House, set high on a platform so that – frustratingly – you cannot sit on it. His tentative, exploratory sketches for ideas and perspective drawings are present, too, together with metaphysical notes and writing.

While this exhibition succeeds in bringing together the expanse of Kahn’s work and showcases excellent new models, much of it will be familiar to many architects and fails to explain the singular power of Kahn’s architecture or why he was ‘the great master builder’.

Alan Dunlop is director of Alan Dunlop Architects


Louis Kahn:The Power of Architecture
Design Museum
Until 12 October



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