Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Spiritual Monumentality of Architecture: Louis Kahn Revisited

Revered by a few (mostly within the realm of architecture) but ignored by most (regardless of professional background and across continents), Louis Khan was an architect whose small number of realised buildings defied the modernist architectural canon by delicately incorporating powerful manifestations of deep spirituality. Often described as a visionary master, Kahn created dramatic buildings where form, materiality and light were adroitly crafted to the benefit of the senses; and yet, not many people are familiar with his name and his work. The exhibition ‘Louis Khan: The Power of Architecture’ at London’s Design Museum intends to redress this lack of knowledge by revealing Kahn’s work and legacy through architectural models, original drawings, travel sketches, photographs and films.

Born in 1901 on the island of Osel (now Saaremaa) off the coast of Estonia to Leopold and Bertha Kahn, Louis Isadore Khan grew up in Philadelphia, USA, from the age of 5. Following a successful academic career rewarded with numerous achievement prizes, Khan struggled to find work as an architect other than in modest local housing projects, and it wasn’t until after he was in his late 50s that buildings such as the Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania, the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, the Capital Complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh (completed after his death), and the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, Texas, that Khan’s talent revealed his creative potential to the world.

Known for designing the most suitable spaces to highlight the best features of an art object and of architecture itself, Khan was inspired by antiquity (rather than modernity) to conceive a sense of architecture that fused historical and aesthetic influences. His quest for an architecture that grows out of a sense of place while mindful of its social responsibility and influenced by established architectural mores was best described by himself as a process of ‘wrapping ruins around buildings.’

Organised by the Vitra Design Museum in cooperation with the Netherlands Architecture Institute and the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, ‘Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture’ illustrates the enduring symbiotic relationship between space and time in Kahn’s work by structuring the display in six broad themes: City (looking at Khan’s relationship with Philadelphia), Science (demonstrating his use of engineering and geometric structures), Landscape (showing the importance of nature in his work), House (taking in his residential commissions), Eternal Present (placing him in the context of architectural history), and Community (examining his commitment to public buildings and shared spaces).

As a narrative of tales of defiance against dominant architectural styles, this is an exhibition not to be missed. As an education on the life and career of Louis Khan a master architect and his restraint and respect for space, light, materiality and humanity, this is most certainly a lesson to learn and not to be forgotten.
Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture’ is open to the public at the Design Museum in London between 9 July and 12 October 2014.

All photographs © João Paulo Nunes / The Style Examiner

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