Review of “Louis Kahn – The Importance of a Drawing” Edited by Michael Merrill

Lars Müller Publishers produce books about architecture, design, and contemporary art that are works of art themselves. They have published a number of books on Louis Kahn, pointing out “Louis Kahn is one of the most renowned practitioners of international modernism, on a par with Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe in the extent of his influence on subsequent generations of architects.”

This latest book from Lars Müller focuses on Kahn’s architectural sketches and drawings, and the relationship between the evolution of his designs and the finished buildings. There are approximately 40,000 drawings in Louis Kahn’s archives, most of them being floor plans. Michael Merrill, the editor, as well as other architect-contributors, had a rich repository of material on which to base their reflections about Kahn’s work and add their own understanding about it. A number of direct quotes by Kahn are also included and discussed.

The book is divided into eight sections, and includes such topics as composition, influences, recurring themes, and the redrawing process. Comparisons between early sketches at a site and finished drawings are particularly revealing – what was important to him when he began the project? What perspectives did he emphasize? What conditions did he overlook?

One architect in the book opined that Kahn’s work represents “a rapprochement between ourselves, what we build, and nature.” His drawings, we learn, are “grounded in the natural geometry of the human body in relationship to earth, cosmos, and to others.”

Louis Kahn. Ayub Central Hospital, Dhaka by Louis Kahn

Many of the buildings he created consisted of a series of segments, of methodical succession of spaces, that indicated, according to another observer in the book, “relationships between an immediate, human-scaled action-space, a next-larger communal space, and an even larger spatial field. . . . This composite view of space [revealed] a fluid, human ‘experience-space’. . . shifting its point of reference back and forth between the two. . . .”

As part of this emphasis, Kahn always endeavored to make outside light an integral part of his designs, while also utilizing repetition of line and shape and geometric precision. He was particularly fond of the square, and how its use could lend itself to architectural creativity. He called use of the square a “non-choice.”

Salk Institute, designed by Louis Kahn

Of course, there are those, like Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the Austrian architect, who countered that the straight line and the square don’t reflect nature or the human body at all, saying:

“Any modern architecture in which the straight line or the geometric circle have been employed for only a second – and were it only in spirit – must be rejected. Not to mention the design, drawing-board and model-building work which has become not only pathologically sterile, but absurd. The straight line is godless and immoral. The straight line is not a creative line, it is a duplicating line, an imitating line. In it, God and the human spirit are less at home than the comfort-craving brainless intoxicated and unformed masses.”

KunstHaus Wien Museum in Vienna, Austria housing the work of artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser & reflecting his architectural philosophy

Similarly, the renown Iraqi female architect Zaha Hadid, who tried to replicate the decidedly non-straight lines of natural landscapes in her work, wrote, “The world is not a rectangle. You don’t go into a park and say: ‘My God, we don’t have any corners.’”

Cultural Center in Baku, Azerbaijan designed by Zaha Hadid

Even Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work, like Kahn’s, is full of geometric architectural elements and who also endeavored to marry the work with the site it would occupy, transformed his buildings – both the exteriors and interiors – into works of art by emphasizing the artistic, rather than mathematical, aspects of such spaces. This is quite a contrast to the brutalist style for which Kahn is known, in which revelation of the materials, weight, and assembly of his buildings are part of the overall effect.

Since mainstream architecture has been and continues to be more influenced by architects like Kahn, it is illuminating to understand the process by which he worked out his ideas. Kahn, at the time of his death in 1974, was lauded as one of the most important architects of the twentieth century. He was awarded the AIA Gold Medal and the RIBA Gold Medal.

This book, as the introduction avers, affords us insights both into Kahn’s built and theoretical work, showing how a project would change over time, offering many useful lessons for current students of architecture. Kahn was often quoted as saying “A building is a struggle, not a miracle.” The material in this latest exploration of Kahn’s work helps us understand what he meant.

Louis Kahn via The Cultural Critic

Discussion: Kahn’s background is so interesting. He was born in 1901 into a poor Jewish family in the Russian Empire, and was originally named Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky. At age 3, he was badly burned on his face, and he carried the scars with him for the rest of his life. One of his biographers, Carter Wiseman, writes that his father thought he would have been better-off had he died from the accident.

The family emigrated to the United States in 1906, so the father could avoid forced conscription into the military. Living in Philadelphia’s Jewish ghetto, they remained poor throughout Lewis’s childhood, and at times the family barely had enough food. In 1915, his father arranged for their names to be Americanized, and Itze-Leib became Louis Kahn.

I have often wondered whether the circumstances of Kahn’s early life increased the appeal for him of order and predictability. He favored basic geometrical shapes, which are historically considered to be indicators of perfection and not subject to the vicissitudes of human existence. He would progress from the square (his “non-choice,” as indicated above) and other simple geometric forms to the addition of an authentic material, and on to a succession of spaces employing those elements, softened and reflected by natural light. But always, the underlying certainty afforded by his geometric building blocks remained evident.

The National Assembly in Dhaka, Bangladesh designed by Louis Kahn

Additionally, as Wiseman points out, Kahn purposely left scratches and flaws on his finished buildings. Perhaps this was his way of validating his own appearance and value in spite of his scars. The visual language of his art and architecture is fascinating.

There is so much to learn from books on architecture. After all, our living spaces define us as much as we define them. As Jane Jacobs and other “city sociologists” have pointed out, cities are integrated systems, the arrangements of which contribute to the culture, sensibilities, and time management of those who inhabit them. How a building’s form and function are made to fit with one another, and the linkages between indoor and outdoor areas – both important considerations to Kahn – contribute to one’s weltanschauung just as much as the fields encompassing a farm and the mountains and valleys surrounding hamlets. It matters, and understanding just how it does enriches our appreciation of our environment.

Evaluation: This book is not only visually beautiful, but has a trove of insights into the creative process of design. It would make a lovely coffee table book to peruse at leisure, or a source of insights into “the thoughtful making of spaces.”

Rating: 4/5

Published by Lars Müller, 2021

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