Timelessness and Monumentality: Louis Kahn at the SDMA
The San Diego Museum of Art
On view through January 31st
Article by Cathy Breslaw
Louis Kahn is widely known as one of the most important American architects of the twentieth century. His personal story is as compelling as the work he created. His contemporaries and personal friends remember him as a brilliant architect and a visionary who led a nomadic life traveling the world. Spending most nights in his studio working alone, he is often described as an architect with an ‘artist’s sensibility’. Kahn’s personal life was complicated – he was married once, and had two additional major relationships where each bore one child.
His youngest child and only son Nathaniel Kahn, is a film-maker who created a documentary tracing his father’s life. In search of his own identity after losing his father at age eleven, the spirit of the film about his father’s life is present throughout the exhibition. The extensive and detailed timeline of Louis Kahn’s life is displayed at the entrance to the exhibition, providing viewers with a ‘map’ of the following rooms which focus on various time periods of Kahn’s architectural pursuits and buildings he created.
While simultaneously creating building plans and pursuing his architecture career, Kahn was a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania for many years. He urged his students to “honor the materials you use, to glorify, not short change it”. A residency in 1951 in Rome, Italy greatly influenced Kahn’s work as he pursued the creation of buildings that have the feel and presence of ancient ruins while also possessing a timelessness and monumentality. The influences of Roman architecture can be seen in his wooden models of buildings displayed as well as metal structural forms that evidence some of his ideas.
Kahn’s major accomplishments are the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, the Richards Medical Research Labs in Philadelphia, Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth Texas, Philips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire, Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art (both on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut), and the National Assembly building in Dhaka, Bangladesh completed in 1983 after his death. It is interesting to note that the building in Bangladesh took 23 years to build and was built almost entirely by hand.
Aside from these important buildings, there were many buildings that remain unrealized and the architectural models for these are displayed throughout the exhibition. Kahn also created a limited number of private residences whose photos, plans and models are also featured in the show. There are also a number of preliminary drawings and sketches of Kahn’s ideas about various building structures presented. Also included are a group of oil and watercolor paintings that Kahn created throughout his life which are on loan from the personal collection of family members.
Interspersed with photos, paintings, drawings, wooden architectural models and lots of textual explanations of Kahn’s work, are short video interviews with important architects influenced by Kahn’s work, videos of Kahn speaking in various locales and other details of his work life. Architect Frank Gehry commented that his own first works came out of a reverence for Louis Kahn.
From a man whose family immigrated to the United States from a small island off the coast of Estonia to Philadelphia in 1903, Kahn went on to captivate the world with his buildings that he hoped would influence and improve peoples’ lives. His buildings are described as possessing symmetry, order, geometric clarity and enormous weight. Separating himself from other architects of his time, Kahn wanted to elevate architecture from utilitarian forms to meaningful spaces with inspirational and transcendent qualities.