My Love Letters to Louis Kahn and Shigeru Ban
Our resident curmudgeon, Philip Nobel, offers up his second annual valentine to things he loves.
The time has come once again to bury hatchets and face the poverty of the world of architecture in a spirit of tolerance, even adoration, singling out those few things there that do not cause me pain. So, taking a break from cynicism—healthy cynicism, necessary cynicism—here, for the second year, I offer these tenderhearted words.
Am I the only one who cried watching My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn’s earnest and inventive documentary film, in which he searches for the real Louis Kahn, his father, in the imperfection of that man’s life and the perfection of his work? I know from casual surveys that I am not. But it was not so much the human touch that got me—though there is something gut-wrenching in the moment near the end when the young Kahn stands under the vaults of his father’s posthumous masterpiece, the Bangladesh capital complex in Dhaka, looks up (camera following) and says, “He never saw this.” Nor was it the lengthy, well-investigated retelling of Kahn’s pitiful death—suddenly in a bathroom at New York’s Penn Station (not even the grand Penn Station: the one we have now), followed by the indignity of lying unclaimed on a coroner’s slab. At the height of his fame, America’s greatest architect was a John Doe for days.
No, it wasn’t the bathos. It was the buildings: the frank, urbane museums at Yale, bookending Kahn’s life from opposite sides of Chapel Street; the Salk Institute, where he built a ruin in concrete and then reinhabited it in wood (and thank God Luis Barragan talked him out of planting trees in the middle)—and most of all, the lucid cube of the library at Phillips Exeter. It looked like the warehouses from Kahn’s old neighborhood in Philadelphia. The son narrates, “But no one was ready for what you did inside.” Here the camera pans down the height of the great circle-cut concrete frames of that building’s central void, and up to the deep beams that form a cross in shadow at the top. Had the camera then found its way to those little carrels that are built as if part of the facade, with a window at desk level, putting just the right amount of wood into the matrix of brick to balance it—squatters in the ruins, again—I might have been in real trouble.
Not to take anything away from the filmmaking, but I think my reaction—and those of others (its New York run last fall was more or less sold out)—was very much rooted in regret: for the state of things today, and the distance of architecture from whatever we should call the namelessness Kahn, mostly alone, was chasing. There was a time years ago when I would stare for hours at the drawings of the Richards Medical Center or Phillips Exeter, or even the wee community center bathhouse in Trenton that the film reveals in all its current squalor. How did they get to be so perfect? Certain Le Corbusier plans—La Tourette!—have the same transcendent mandala effect. Someone remind me: Why don’t we even try now to make beautiful, bracing buildings? What happened?
I haven’t actually seen any of Shigeru Ban’s buildings. But I know it would be love at first sight. Actually, I did see one structure: the open paper-tube vault that was installed a few years ago over the back garden (now also gone) of the Museum of Modern Art. It was so unabashedly material—in a place where the immaterial (Light Construction, anyone?) had found such a powerful home—that I went back a couple of times just to see how it was weathering. On one of these visits there was Ban, a biggish man, in something loose and black, shambling around from one anchorage to another, testing the tensioned cables that kept the structure true. In Paris I had once seen the spectacle of the acrobat-engineers who tune Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre. Trussed and harnessed, a pair of these specialists were spidering along the underside from joint to joint, inverted, wielding some arcane electronic gauge, listening to its report in their headphones—listening very close, before they dared to take their socket wrenches out of their holsters and apply them in an ever-so-ginger sixteenth-turn to the stainless-steel nuts.
There was something, well, heartless about the exercise. Not so Ban that day—was he really twanging the cables and cranking the turnbuckles by hand, as I remember? His body of work—houses, mostly; all fiercely inventive, passionately unpretentious—will someday soon put the lie to that canard of all blinding, shackling architectural canards: that architects, to cut it, you know, intellectually, must somehow stuff their buildings with stolen “ideas.” There are none in Ban’s work, except architecture’s own. It’s enough.