Between Noise and Light

Let’s play a game. Free association: I say “Louis Kahn” and you think…what? Do you see expanses of well-proportioned concrete? Apertures in deep shadow? Does the phrase “Ask a brick what it wants to be” come to mind? (You know it says “arch.”) Or do you recall the always mind-boggling fact (more so in this star-fucking age) that a great architect could die in a public restroom and go unidentified for days? Since the release of the film My Architect, more than a few of us might first think “cad,” “heartbreaker,” or even “unlikely rake,” though a woman who met him assures me that Kahn was quite alluring despite his burns.

Before knowledge of his off-the-books families were brought to a wider public by his son Nathaniel’s 2003 documentary, the most common Kahn cliché was the architect as dreamy seer: the teacher who, searching for meaning beyond the Modern, rediscovered the muscular power of Roman building and brought it back fully synthesized to Yale, Penn, and elsewhere, where he would woo students into the night with his riffing mysteries about Space and Light and What Is.

That’s the Kahn I grew up with: the tragic guru of the American Late Modern moment. Coming to his plans with that character in mind, I felt it natural to pore over them as if they were sand-drawn mandalas, sure that they did in fact keep dying secrets. The floor plans of the Richards Medical Center were a particular fascination, but I also gave the Salk Institute and the Trenton Bath House their due. Dhaka overwhelmed me, and for years I avoided looking at drawings of its fuguing multicelled logic, the attached mosque on the perimeter cranked achingly from the axis to align with Mecca. It seemed impossible that delineations of such beauty, and the constructions that followed, were not also bearers of high truth. But I did not come to them without knowledge of their maker, and the master narrative had long before made Kahn a master of truth and beauty.

In his life, through his teaching and later his example, the mystical Kahn had a beneficial effect on the practice of architecture, reminding an age tending to sterility that this art was capable of hitting darker notes. Though you find few outward manifestations of his influence in subsequent work—there are no Kahnians—his words and principles are often lodged in the minds of architects trained in the 1960s and 1970s as hidden ballast: keep it simple, but go deep. The night I first saw his son’s film, with delightful company at the sold-out New York run, I was ecstatic: just the thing, I thought, to remind architects (and clients) of our own age, so frequently tending to its own overwrought but sterile mistakes, that there is a depth to the act of building, that surfaces are just that.

Too soon, it seemed, the Kahn mania of that media moment passed, the meme I had hoped to see resurgent lost completely beneath snickering about this triple-threat family man. There’s an irresistible Page Six delight in seeing that those capable of such surpassingly delicate thought might also complicate their personal lives to such an impressive degree; nothing satisfies in quick hits like our contemporary cultural candy, the frisson where high meets low. But there’s a more lasting satisfaction in being reminded that works of architecture realized in honest concert with gravity—at the Kim­bell, say, where the added depth of the longer-spanning beams is so carefully expressed—cannot be matched by any Disney Hall.

If there had not been a Louis Kahn, I would have had to invent him. And had I invented him now, I would edit out all the deep-think opacity of his lecturing and writing, the quasi-rabbinical zenisms of the mountaintop sage that were collected posthumously in John Lobell’s ubiquitous Between Silence and Light (published in 1979 by, tellingly, Shambhala). “You felt that knowledge was not as important as your sense of Wonder, which was a great feeling without reservation, without obligation, without accounting for yourself,” Kahn writes there. “Wonder is the closest intouchness with your intuitive.”

True enough. But we can all get that high on our own and we do, on our own terms, our own time, and in our own words. Institutionalized veneration of such maundering has only served to obscure—in much the same way as his private life has—Kahn’s discoveries: as an architect for architects.

What we need him for now is more obvious, more primal. I was reminded of this recently when I visited the renovated Yale University Art Gallery, Kahn’s first major work and first masterpiece. It was completed in 1953, neglected, and restored to glory last year by Polshek Partnership with a very subtle new lobby by Joel Sanders. The gallery is early Kahn, granted, closer to his Modern roots; it is easier to approach the expected High Kahn sublime in the Yale Center for British Art across the street, one of the last buildings he worked on before his gruesome death. There, behind the perfect urbanity of the concrete, glass, and zinc facade, are moments that will easily put the typical reader of Shambhala texts into his transcendent comfort zone. The lessons of the older building are for architects—and most of them are hidden in the ceiling.

The blank string-course brick street wall abutting the older faux-Gothic galleries is the preferred exterior view. The main stairway—a concrete cylinder through which climbs a stair, three runs per floor, inscribing a triangular spiral that rises to a monumental skylight—is the preferred money shot of the interior. But it is the ceiling, a concrete waffle with triangular pores—a tetrahedral space frame for purists—that holds within it a simple wisdom that architects too often forget. It also holds within its depth a flexible system for lighting the art, a plenum for ventilation, and all the strength necessary to span column-free between the gallery’s outside walls. If one must look to Kahn for Oneness, it is this oneness one should see: a single architectural move that resolves the multiple demands put on it by building systems, structure, and use. That the integrated ceiling also sets an appropriate mood, fitting for all the art that hangs under it, and that it is also beautiful, is no small thing. But—and here I might be falling again under the sway of another, less practical Kahn—I can’t imagine that it would be so beautiful if it were not so functionally complete.

The day after the opening festivities for the gallery in November 1953, the school paper included in its coverage a short story with Kahn’s thoughts about the building, “The Architect Speaks.” The headline is a suggestion of how, even at that early date, Kahn was being marked, I would say marginalized, as a keeper of mysteries, an enigma. But what he said there, in contrast to so much of his later gnostic commentary, was dead-on clear. Take away the martial metaphor but hold fast to the gist: “Everything here marches together for the solution.”

Find out more facts about this subject on the Reference Page: October 2007

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