Louis Kahn: the brick whisperer
April 1, 2013 1:58 PM   Subscribe

"Inspired by ruins, DNA and primary geometry, Louis Kahn was one of the 20th century's most influential architects. Why isn't he more famous? Oliver Wainwright on the life and legacy of a man who died bankrupt" ~ The Guardian
posted by infini (17 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Everybody takes the same photo of the Salk Institute but I never see one with people in it. I think it's because you'd need to find identical twins to stand on each side of the fountain thing.
posted by theodolite at 2:08 PM on April 1, 2013

Interesting that you mention his inspirations including DNA. One of Kahn's buildings on Penn campus is Goddard Labs, used by the School of Medicine and Biology department. It has a very beautiful design from the outside, but inside it was not very utilitarian, as far as modern life sciences research goes. The floor layout was not flexible and was constrained in ways that made setting up modern labs quite difficult. Various floors often had leaks and heating/cooling problems, if I remember rightly. Again, a beautiful work of architecture but probably did not, perhaps, end up as useful for biological research as he'd have probably liked.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:14 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The documentary My Architect is about Louis Kahn.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 2:33 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's unfortunate that he died in 1974 because his masterpiece, the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, suggests that he would have made a fantastic Quake II level designer.
posted by theodolite at 2:42 PM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

The documentary My Architect is about Louis Kahn.

I saw that and was never able to shake the pity I felt for the mother of Louis Kahn's son. She and countless other women were doormats for Louis Kahn---a guy who died alone pitifully and anonymously in a public bathroom at a train station despite being a talented and internationally revered architect. Pretty horrifying.
posted by discopolo at 2:52 PM on April 1, 2013

Though I'm not sure why the writer is asking why a renown architect died in debt and in such a lonely way. It's pretty obvious he didn't want the responsibility of attachment to a family unit for whatever reason. Three children by three different women, probably wih all wives and kids knowing that they are never to expect much from dad? In my unprofessional and purely judgmental opinion, this guy was definitely headed to a lonely death.
posted by discopolo at 3:05 PM on April 1, 2013

Why isn't he more famous? Because he couldn't get many commissions, because his buildings didn't work for people. Where he saw "spiritual" and "monumental" the rest of us saw intimidating, sinister, depressing, alienating on the outside and leaky and dysfunctional on the inside. Great for architecture theory, perhaps, but the sooner that theory is relegated to the history books, the better. Yes, the pyramids were beautiful, but they were tombs, for storing dead bodies and standing visible in the desert for miles around for eternity. Not something to base your administration building on. May be a cruel and philistine thing to say but there are few cases where the liberal arts (of which I am a grad) do actual damage to humanity and this school of architecture is one of them.
posted by bleep at 3:58 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

My college campus had Erdman Hall, a Kahn building that brought architecture students and tourists from miles around. What it didn't bring was any joy or excitement to the room selection process. Almost nobody wanted to live in Erdman. It was in fact built like a Doom mod, all sharp angled halls and windowless despair. Plus, it had a lot of serious leakage and heating problems in my time. Although Kahn is not really responsible for that, having been dead for decades at that point, it's not the only chronic maintenance problem I've heard about in brutalist showpiece buildings. You'd think they'd be strong because they're made of The Future, and of form following function and all that, but no.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:46 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Haaaa. I suspect the Salk Institute does better surrounded by the warm light of California, but Erdman, outside of Philly, is a scary nightmare dorm of broken angles and blank, depressing hallways at night. I think he actually intended it to be a disruption of the cozy dorm hallways elsewhere on campus. Thanks, dude.
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:06 PM on April 1, 2013

jetlagaddict: I heard a rumor that the Erdman hallways were devised to riot-proof the place, so that there couldn't be a Sixties-style uprising in there. Don't know what you'd riot in Erdman for, though, unless you were seizing the downstairs dining hall to demand more vegan options. In any case, I have also heard that in the context of some other unrelated college dorm, so it may just be one of those things college students say about ugly dorms from the period.

(I do have a friend who loved Erdman and went for it every year. She posts here, in fact, and may be along to defend it, in which case: hello! *wave*)
posted by Countess Elena at 5:16 PM on April 1, 2013

More on Erdman:
"However, by turning the Erdman Hall Dormitories in on itself, shutting off the view of the exterior world, and lighting the interiors of the three blocks mainly through light shafts, the student's rooms are deprived of sufficient daylight, while Kahn (1960: 118) full well realized as early as 1960 that: "Each space must be defined by its structure and the character of its natural light."
But also:
"Convinced that "women must not live in a barracks," Kahn equipped Erdman with a variety of intimate spaces of domesticity. He created a single grand living room in contrast to the many small living rooms in Bryn Mawr's other dorms. "In typical '60s fashion, Kahn thought in terms of the collective and the communal rather than the separate and the particular," Lewis said. A member of the Class of 1969 commented that "coming to Erdman was like coming into light and air" after living in pre-gothic, dark and enclosed dorms like Radnor, with their long, lonely corridors.

Erdman was, however, an experimental building, and "some experiments went wrong," Lewis said. Alumnae agreed, remembering the moisture problem, the noise that carries easily through the walls, and the flat roof that requires frequent maintenance. (More than 2,000 slate panels that face the outside of the building were removed and re-anchored last year, and the roof was replaced.) In Erdman, Lewis said, we see "the failures of a man reaching as high as he can for something just out of reach."
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:37 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

We had two types of centerpieces for the eight tables at my wedding: four were small cakes of different flavors, generally based on girl scout cookies; the other four were architectural models that I made of buildings I liked (and that were easy to build models of). One of those models was the Exeter Academy Library, which is just about everything I've ever wanted in a building. (the others were the Farnsworth House, Koshino House, and Puente Alamillo)
posted by LionIndex at 6:02 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Countess, that's not entirely true; I had a ridiculously high room draw number my senior year and Erdman is a beautiful modernist wonder with really egalitarian rooms; that is, there are no especially better rooms. The best you can do is be on an upper floor with no architecture students right outside your window. The cafeteria leak that required me to relocate one spring was obviously a problem caused by objects brought in post-design.

The common areas were 1960s wonders. Being in an individual room was, well, whatever. You couldn't blue-tack the walls, and normal curtains did not hide the architecture students well (I went for a shower curtain one year.) But being in the entry way, with the light coming down perfectly and your friend playing piano in the main room was so fantastic. Plus, there's a conversation pit in the basement and abstracts on the walls (mostly IKEA carpets but whatever.) I am ruined from living there, because I don't think my life will be complete without a conversation pit in my future house.

Also the ceiling looks like a waffle iron.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:52 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

In my experience a lot of buildings that are architectural showpieces are really crappy to maintain or don't function well even if they were designed for a specific purpose. I don't know if Kahn's buildings are worse than usual, but things like leaks, poor lighting, weird angles, or oddball stuff like too few electrical outlets seem to be par for the course when you have a big name architect.
posted by PussKillian at 6:53 PM on April 1, 2013

I haven't quite made it to his buildings yet, and he seems like a bit of a pill, but the small houses he did in Pennslvaynia are some of the smartest and most intimate discussions about what public space and private space means in a domestic setting. I find them intimate, and quite still from photographs, and the plans are gorgeous--but in this discussion of monumenatality--it must be remembered at how well he seemed to do at the opposite. Esherick house. here is the norman fisher house
posted by PinkMoose at 7:01 PM on April 1, 2013

When I was a kid my parents would take me to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth at least once every few months. I feel like I grew up there. Aside from the museum's excellent collection and visiting shows, the space of the building itself came to intimately define much of what I think is beautiful. I know modernist architecture has a long history of horror stories, situations where modernist ideology created spaces that were pretty to look at but terrible to live and work in, but damn I love this building. Going there has been one of the great joys of my life.
posted by no mind at 7:44 PM on April 1, 2013

I saw that and was never able to shake the pity I felt for the mother of Louis Kahn's son.

Harriet Pattison. I was moved after the movie to start a Wikipedia entry for her, but the mods dumped it due to insufficient notability. I loved particularly when she described herself as a "romantic fatalist".
posted by seemoreglass at 10:32 AM on April 2, 2013

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