Notes on Kahn

Louis Kahn portrait.jpg

"A transcendental strain is detectable in Kahn's thought... a mode of beholding in which he appears to have become preoccupied with the latent order of nature as this had been revealed through scientific research. This is partly what he has in mind when he writes in 1944 of the purity of engineering form which has "no resistance to the laws of beauty having its own aesthetic life" or in 1952 of forms that "come from a closer knowledge of nature" "

Louis Kahn: Modernization and the New Monumentality, 1944 - 72, Kenneth Frampton

Kahn's work, profoundly original and deeply western, eludes us in its genealogy - playing with the line that separates esoteric from the avant-garde critical practice. Kahn comes to a realization early on, personal to him, that there was something implicit amongst the cultures of the world, something that made all dwell under some divine and supernatural experience. 


Platonic forms obsessively resolved, both in concept and structure, created a unique niche for his work amongst the modernist practices of his time. His buildings were assimilated institutions, in a certain sense, where the belief that only the physical can invoke the transcendental, was put to test. Whatever was created, was in itself sufficient and potent to bring about on the site something extra-human. Considered as a series of the rooms, the institution could function as an abstract plaza, where everything is open, accessible and dignified - nothing out of the ordinary is used to generate such forms, but the resultant scale and the solidity generated the profundity. In Kahn's thinking the engineering was part of the material, reliant on its inherent capacity to guide the physical form.   


IIM - Ahmedabad ( 1974 ) , Louis Kahn

The modernism that Kahn put forward was not about the zeitgeist. It couldn't be farther - he doesn't follow classicism, neither does he completely succumb to the austerity or the 'spirit of the epoch'. His buildings are ancient, they are here and always were. Even with a building like IIM Ahmedabad, where post-independence pressure could cave any architect into proposing low cost measures - the use of brick isn't vernacular but nudging itself closer and closer to being a precursor to ruin : only Kahn and time may humble it. Qualities of silence, reverence, experience after all are luxuries of a developed culture of which India has forgotten a lot about. 

The thickness of the wall is inversely related to the fastidiousness of time in the building. Le Corbusier's Chandigarh parliament is a polemic; a building that is not impervious to time, fulfilling its purpose of being in the 20th century, helping India in becoming a country able to cope, or atleast appear as if. Dhaka assembly on the other hand, is more internal, more symbolic and timeless. The thickness of the appearance and the girth of the poche makes no potent broadcasts of its image to the world, but wants to concretize itself as an institution of democratic will, safe and consistent. 

Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research

Basswood model of Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research Building

1957-65, Louis Kahn

Dominican motherhouse floor plan.jpg

Kahn's sketch shows a very interesting merging of already consistent individual forms inside a delimited space of  rooms. 

Sketch plan of Dominican Motherhouse ( around 1967 ) , Louis Kahn

Frampton describing the garden entry to the Kimbell Art museum writes, 

"Once upon this axis, one finds oneself in a green labyrinth, where the gravel underfoot is destabilizing and where the corresponding sound of one's footfall is overlaid by the continual rush of the water. In such a setting. perhaps more fitting for a temple than a museum, we find ourselves returned to the tactility of the tectonic in all its aspects; to a meeting between the essence of things and the existence of beings, to that pre-Socratic moment, lying outside time, that is at once both modern and antique"

Louis Kahn: Modernization and the New Monumentality, 1944 - 72, Kenneth Frampton

A proto-mechanical interest insofar as the engine of the service rooms is separated from the functional interior of the vehicle is evident in Kahn's work. This separation of the servant and served space, seen predominantly in the Scottish castles (capsule of staircases were hidden inside deep poche spaces, separated on the fringes of the plan away from usable spaces) that Kahn was so interested in, allowed his architecture to inhabit different and distinct light treatment in the interior. The more pragmatic genealogy of the detached service blocks or volumes in Kahn's work would be that the services can be housed together neatly so as to not continually encounter in the promenade of a building, the inaccessible and negative spaces. It was of importance to Kahn that the spaces be tucked away in discrete individual entities that made aware the person inside the building whether he was traversing a served space or transitioning through a serving space. The argument for one given more importance to the other would not be fair as well, as Kahn wanted both of them to be highlighted by his closely held belief that light was what made an enclosure, architecture. 

National Assembly Building - Dhaka 1982