Thursday, July 10, 2008

What Makes a Louis I. Kahn Building an Icon?

Eeek! It has been a month since my last posting. How time does fly during the summer. There is nothing "lazy" about my summer days! Work has been intense (but exciting) this past month as I have been keeping up with Construction Administration duties on our Eighth Avenue Place project in Calgary and have also been working on a team to develop several concepts for a office building in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.

In the spirit of a relaxing summer, however, Tuesday evening past, Kim and I went to a lovely summer evening cookout hosted by some of our good friends from church. Over dinner, I was asked by a friend about Louis Kahn. My friend, who is not an architect, was a student at Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire when he was younger. Exeter Academy's Library is one of Kahn's most well-known buildings, and my friend remembers many architects and architecture lovers coming to Exeter to see the building. "But," he asked me, "what's so special about Louis Kahn?"

Kahn is clearly an important figure in Modern architecture, but it took even me a while to start to appreciate his work. (Check out this post.) Talking to a non-architect, it was hard to speak about Kahn without architect-y words like "Modern," "mass," "light," "details," "space," and "geometry."

I think the thing I appreciate most about Kahn is his care for detail. Visiting a Kahn-designed building, it becomes clear that the hand of the architect was present in every detail. On the exterior of the Exeter library, for instance, I really love the way Kahn uses the flat arches on the exterior as a natural and elegant transition point to narrow the brick piers from ground to sky. And I gained a greater appreciate of Kahn's design precision while working for Gray Organschi Architecture here in New Haven one summer as a student. I measured and drew an existing storefront space in the British Art Center that was going to be renovated and used as a temporary store for the Yale Art Gallery while its own Kahn building was under renovation! I seem to recall needing to use very few fractions on my measuring tape.

But what do you think about Kahn? Is he really all he is cracked up to be by architects? To my architect readers, what do you love or loathe about Kahn? To my New Havenite friends, what do you think of the Yale Art Gallery or the British Art Center, the first and last museum buildings of Kahn's career? If you have visited any of Kahn's buildings, I would love to hear your thoughts!


Brent said...

Well funny you ask that James, I was JUST at both art galleries on Sunday!

I can't really speak to the Yale art gallery as I didn't really have any impressions about the building (except for the ancient art exhibit which I'm pretty sure is pre-Kahn, or a completely different building altogether0. But I did enjoy the British Art museum, especially this area on the 3rd floor right by the elevator where you look out and see gigantic paintings on the way. They have to be viewed from the 2nd floor I believe as there is no floor below them, but the whole circular wall and the desire I had to go out there (perhaps there is a catwalk) was interesting. I'm kind of an "old-school" girl, so the modern buildings don't evoke a lot of emotion in me. I can't believe I'm actually commenting on Architecture.. I clearly don't know anything about the topic :)Thanks for humoring me James!

The Beholder said...

I'm really happy to hear your comments! Architects make really big deals about things that are often not big deals to most people, so I actually am really excited to hear what my "non-architect" friends think, too. As far as the British Art Center goes, the circular concrete stairwell is really a forceful statement and a great design feature. (You can actually enter the large living room-like gallery you saw from the 2nd floor, I believe.) I've actually seen a sketch where the stair tower was a square, but I think the cylinder is more powerful in the square room. It's so big but so delicate--it pushes you out to the edges of the room almost! I also love the top floor under the skylights, especially when they have the J.M.W. Turner paintings on display!