The Poetic Louis I. Kahn

Much has already been written about Louis Kahn, and therefore it is difficult to find new aspects in his creative work. However, I would like to try and analyze it as an Estonian architect and artist representing the older generation, from the perspectives in the third decade of the 21st century.[1]

Louis Kahn’s works reached us, young architects at the beginning of the 1970ies. It was the time of the chronical lack of information and suffocating conditions of the Soviet occupation which ignored famous creators of Estonian origin.[2] Kahn’s architecture and its sources were hard to understand because we didn’t know his background. At that time it was impossible to visit Egypt and Italy, not to mention those places where his works were located in the USA.

We could learn classical architecture from books, yet without experiencing the most important – the influence of architecture in space. Reproductions of the painting may convey more original material than architectural photos, because showing the surface cannot convey architecture as a space art. On site only it is truly possible to experience and understand the architecture and develop the spatial thinking.                                                                                                         

Of course, in a communist country that was denying the spiritual life, we didn’t have a clue about the meaning of historical architecture, its philosophy, spirituality and symbols. Nor were we taught the basics of structure in architecture. Even the dominating idea of the modernist machine-house was vulgarized “in the socialist camp” and seemed innovative in the background of primitive element-architecture. Any kind of spiritual aspirations were unthinkable, even forbidden in the “working class country” (actually in the work camp of communist bureaucrats).[3] Architecture was declined at the level of a common utilitarian building.

Louis Kahn’s architecture is a spiritual creation – form expresses the relation of both the architect and its future user to the space, directed by the well-thought-out structure of the building. In his buildings the spiritual and rational components are creatively intertwined. This is also thanks to the collaboration with August E. Komendant, an outstanding creative engineer from Estonia without whom Kahn would probably not have succeeded in materializing his innovative spatial ideas.

Although the first third of the 20th century was full of new architectural ideas, only a few (K.Melnikov, Le Corbusier) were able to implement them in buildings, leaving the realization of innovative architecture to future generations in the end of the century or a whole new century. The production of houses became more important than architecture itself due to the large cash flow and wealthier middle-class in the 20th century.[4]

Kahn’s ingenious creations were reflected in large buildings and particularly in building-complexes. He loved bold lines and passionate realization of architecture even under the limited normative conditions. For example, in the Yale Art Gallery at Yale University (New Haven,1951-53), where the regular city planning and the surrounding modernism require a simple rectangular as a house, the architect has been able to bring aesthetic vitality to the interior with the triangular structure of the ceilings and the central spiral staircase. In the darkness the fascinating lighted ceiling also affects the street views through the glass walls.

Influenced by the experience of historical architecture, he has brought forth pyramid-shaped roofs, which bring life to symmetrical general plan in the centre of the local Jewish community (the Trenton Bath House, 1954-58). He was the first Western modernist architect to boldly use empty space between enclosed spaces. This technique is characteristic of all Kahn’s subsequent creative work. I would also like to confirm that the two most important materials in architecture are emptiness and light, and Kahn  mastered both of them perfectly.

When we analyze Louis Kahn’s architecture, we can see that already at the beginning of his creative road he was fascinated by the structure – it is the very beginning of a realization of any architectonic idea. Whatever fantastic architectural imaginations we may have, it is never easy to find a suitable structure for them, as architectural history has demonstrated. Today, “architectural ideas” without a readable structure remind theatrical decorations at most, without spatial fascination.

The high-sounding slogan of modernism – form follows function – does not mean that there is no creativity. However, in many cases, the completed building is only an unambiguous feature, the facades of which can be made in any style. Kahn did not use examples of earlier architectural styles in his work, and in his opinion the form should not follow the function. Because architecture is art, it contains beauty and harmony and the “impractical” space that embodies them.

We can speak about the necessary and inexplicable quality in art – depth. Almost all the original functions of the buildings change over time and history, sometimes dynamically, and therefore, it is important that the dynamics of the room expresses the universal purpose. In his book, August Komendant describes long disputes he had with Louis Kahn over what should be the first – form or function. The engineer said that he began to understand the architect’s preference only after a couple of small glasses of vodka.

Functionalist planning doesn’t always have a readable structure. In comparision with previous “clear” architecture they are just well-balanced, elegant and abstract compositions in the work of the best masters – like structures of good machines and abstract paintings (Mondrian, Rietveld).

Kahn did not store the ordinary daily consumption into the definition of form. The building had to serve the man’s desire for beauty and fascinating space. As the architect-philosopher himself has said, the most important things in buildings are their form and pattern. Komendant considered Kahn foremost a poet, rather than a usual master builder and as a creative engineer he contributed in every way, helping to realize Kahn’s “crazy” ideas at that time.

For example, “towers” of the Richards Medical Laboratories (Philadelphia, 1957-65) are not created just for functionalist purposes. Instead, they emphasize the nature of new medicine, aspiring for heights, and the basic plan of the building is more symbolistic than modernist – with a festive staircase and an inner terrace.[5] At the same time, reference books present the building as a perfect example of America’s functionalist modernism – the grand spatial composition deceives the viewer.

One of Louis Kahn’s highest achievements in the modernist paradigm was the building complex at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (La Jolla,1959-65). This monumental and elegant ensemble, located on high cliffs on the Pacific coasts, has been compared to Acropolis of Athens, which Kahn admirably painted on his trip to Greece. The central meeting house with its symmetrical core and empty courtyard, is surrounded by relatively free but balanced volume.

Some of them have arched and circular plans. These are the motives that we can see in almost all of architect’s work. I do believe that his attachment to the circle and arch is archetypal, because historically the circle symbolizes heaven, the Universe, having a countervailing effect, yet at the same time it brings a new dimension into the structures with square and rectangle forms (which symbolize the earth). The circle adds a cosmic dimension into his buildings – from the earth you were born, but into heaven you may ascend!

When studying Kahn’s creative work, the symmetry that can be found in almost all of his projects cannot be ignored. When we look at the project plans of Kahn’s houses, then they may lack a perfect symmetry in details, because the nature’s “secret” inner symmetrical structures may create free forms in substance perceptible to us. This kind of nature – “distorted symmetry” – has been used in historical architecture by many great masters, especially on a large scale, where the layout of buildings is influenced by the surrounding landscape.

At the same time, Kahn applies natural freedom in his planning structures, balancing intentional freedom with a single central core or multiple symmetric cores interacting with each other. Chaos and order are connected and transferred from the earthly life to the universe. 

 In the architectural work at Salk Institute the core of the meeting house is an empty square courtyard, opening into the sky and an empty terrace with a water channel joining the building, opened towards the endless Pacific. As I have noted before, emptiness is a crucial material in good architecture, which brings forth an architectural substance of the form. Emptiness is form and form is emptiness, as stated in Far Eastern philosophy.

Concrete plays a special role in this ensemble. August Komendant has used his excellent engineering skills here, because the building is located in a seismically active area, in the barren desert. This is  why the authors have considered the texture and colour of the concrete surface casting to be important in building structures, paying a special attention to the details, which together with the sky and the ocean should have replaced the missing “living” nature with a new, man-made nature. In my opinion, experiences of the artistic stones in the architecture of Salk have influenced the later constructions of concrete architecture and aesthetics in the whole world.

Besides the Salk ensemble, Kahn’s works in the Far East have been the most published in the international architectural publications: government buildings in Ahmedabad, India (1962 – 1974) and the government building complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh (1962 -1974). These works differ significantly from the common Western architecture at that time.

They show quite clearly the architect’s ability to adapt to the spirit of the place, i.e. the genius loci, which requires a thorough study of the local cultural heritage. I think that the architect discovered that the classical Western architecture was mentally exhausted and would have been inappropriate in those countries, and the special tradition of Far Eastern architecture was attractive and challenging.

At first we can notice the mandala structure, characteristic of Far Eastern tradition.[6] Thanks to this experience, Kahn’s planning is much more complicated than in the classical architecture of Europe,  – for example in the Baroque, with which his works have been attempted to connect – fitting the far more spectacular scales of the great peoples of the Far East.

We can see it in old temple ensembles in India or Thailand. Yet Kahn does not copy the ancient forms, as it is common to the eastern architecture nowadays, and his clean geometry is totally independent, freeing his work from superficial decorations.

The inner connection to Far Eastern cultural tradition manifests itself in Dhaka’s ensemble, where he applied five basic elements familiar from the ancient teachings of yin-yang which are the basis of material existence. These are: air, earth, water, fire, metal – they are all used in these buildings (fire is a part of the burnt brick and steel in reinforced concrete).

Komendant started working with the architect also in Dhaka, but he left the project because he did not understand Kahn’s new architectural approach. Obviously, Far Eastern tradition was unacceptable to him and instead of the beautiful masterpiece he saw nothing but incoherent forms, inaccurate enigneering and ultimately, the whole ensemble reminded him of ruins.

In the background of a later postmodernism, Dhaka is symbolist and stands out as a pioneering example of decorative architecture, but not superficially fascinating as characteristic of a new architectural direction. Kahn has created it in depth, learning the importance of a spiritual functions from Far Eastern architecture that need not be expressed alone in temples, or in our churches, but which, however, can also materialize in laboratories, study buildings or even in houses where people spend the most of their time.

I have enjoyed immensely the opportunity to rediscover and write about Louis I. Kahn, especially because in his architectural mind lived the poet, a great visionary who considered architecture primarily art. It is a good thing to note, especially after being taught as a young student and architect by “invited and set” occupation authorities that architecture was a commodity.

However, I was fortunate to have many other professors (E.J. Kuusik) who held a different opinion and they directed me, as well as the other students who shared my views (i.e. Tallinn School) and thereby encouraged our creativity. In fact, we were the last to keep the spirit of Estonia’s pre-war architecture and carry it through the horrors of socialism into a new era of our regained independence.

It has been important to follow the inspiring examples of Western spiritual architects, including Louis I. Kahn. And finally, it is a pleasure to note that the roots of one of the greatest architects are in Estonia. Nevertheless, we should not forget August E. Komendant, an Estonian who has made a significant contribution into practical building and architecture.

Estonians are a creative nation of architecture, aren’t they!?[7]

Prof.emer. Leonhard Lapin

mai, 2021


[1] Louis Kahn is a significant name in our architecture. He has become a topical issue in recent decades because he was born in Saaremaa, Estonia. Kahn spent a few months in Saaremaa visiting his grandmother in 1928. At that time he could get to know the Kuressaare Castle. By the way, V. Künnapu has noticed the effect of the castle on Kahn. It is also noteworthy that Kahn started a collaboration with celebrated Estonian engineer August E. Komendant in 1956. Komendant has recalled a conversation in which Lou Kahn said: “I have at least 25% of good Estonian blood.”(August E. Komendant. “18 Years with Arhitect Louis I. Kahn.” Aloray, 1975.)

[2] I remember that my classmate Vilen Künnapu used an hexagonal structure in his work completed in the 1970ies and added Kahn’s quote to the drawings. Kahn’s spirit also influenced Künnapü’s graduation thesis created for the Rakvere town hill in 1972. Kahn’s influence to later Estonian architecture, in which officials denied the creative art of architecture, was not very big. Kahn’s influence is most noticeable in the postmodern building of Tallinn City Hall.

[3] The functionalist and postmodern ideas and projects of Tallinn School were condemned both by the officials and “architectural critics” who were under their authority, and referred to as “bourgeois nationalism” (I was labelled as a “bourgeois nationalist” during the KGB’s interrogation.) It was counterbalanced with “a good average architecture”, which in reality meant expressionless and gray environment. I also remember “a good average” mold bread, which was fed to animals.

[4] August Komendant confirms it in his aforementioned book, saying that there is less good architecture in the prosperous USA than in poor Venezuela. Kahn’s architectural work in Ahmenabad and Dhaka are vivid examples of this. My first personal experience with the relationship between money and construction dates from a 1994 visit to Sao Paolo, Brazil. That’s when I noticed that in a huge and rich city with many high-rises, there was much less good architecture than in our small Tallinn.

[5] The fact that I haven’t been to the USA and seen Kahn’s buildings on the spot may somewhat minimize the depth of my analysis, which is based mainly on a thorough book of Robert McCarter. (Robert McCarter. Louis I Kahn. Phaidon, New York, 2005.) Because of that I am trying to focus more to the architect’s work’s structural and spiritual part than experiential side. A few years ago it was possible to get the only Kahn’s work to Europe: the concert vessel with a cost of one million dollars (Additionally, Kahn’s son Nathaniel was ready to finance the purchase with a fair amount.) However, Estonian authorities were not interested in this “tourist magnet”.

[6] Mandala is a widespread symbol-diagram in Hinduism and Buddhism, usually with a circular cross-sectional plan used in both ritual works of art and architecture to symbolize the universe. Yet mandala is not just a circle. There are many circle modifications in the history of art in the Far East, combined with triangles and squares. They are used in holy images and temple plans, but with a predominant circular structure as in cross-sectional plans that Kahn designed. Kahn applies mandala also in his other major works of that period: the Phillips Exeter Academy Library (New Hampshire, 1965 – 1972); Fort Wayne’s Arts United Centre (1966 – 1973); the Kimbell’s Art Museum, (Texas,1966 – 1972); Mikveh Israel Synagogue (Philadelphia, 1961 – 1972); the Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs (New York City, 1966 – 1972). It reflects the immense influence of Far Eastern culture on Kahn. I disagree with those who are eager to link these works to the Baroque, which used substantially “simpler” plans.

[7] At the Maritime Museum’s Viking exhibition, I saw a little boat used to navigate at the Baltic Sea. Admiring this, I realized the architectural tradition from which we should begin to teach architecture – the experience of extremely polished form of material and construction, and the resulting function in resisting strong sea waves. It is one of the most powerful construction experiences from ancient times, which probably runs in our blood as an archetype, but which should be opened in the teaching process.