The Persistence of the Architectural Ideas of Louis I. Kahn

_ Victoria Z. Alexander

I. Introduction

Louis I. Kahn was one of the most important brakes on the International Style of modernism in the middle years of the twentieth century. Against this architecture of speed Kahn addressed the slower side of modernity and without him we might well have missed something vital. The intelligence of Kahn’s architecture, itself a treasure trove of historical forms, has survived into our posthistorical age of speed – which is now the age of the screen (Virilio). While architecture has pressed on into an era of new materials, forms, and seemingly unprecedented possibility, many architects have not forgotten the more significant architectural lessons of Kahn. I do not wish to imply that Kahn is the sole influence on the architects and buildings which follow, but he remains a vital one. Many buildings erected in recent years flow through a similar river of ideas as those which passed through Kahn and many of his buildings.

Gerry Coulter’s article “Louis I. Kahn – The Timeless Art of Light and Form” (Euro Art, Fall 2008) was posted when I had just finished reading Robert McCarter’s thorough analysis of Kahn’s oeuvre. While Coulter and McCarter admire Kahn’s work deeply, neither sufficiently examines the persistence of his ideas into the architecture of the present. In this paper I argue that the “timelessness” of Kahn extends into the present moment of architecture. 

  II. Four Key Ideas

Whether or not an awareness of a link to Kahn exists among all of the architects working with them – there have been a number of recently erected buildings which draw on the same formal qualities which inhabit the best of Kahn’s work. I will address four of the principle ideas from Kahn’s work which persist into the contemporary: the slit which allows natural light to illuminate interiors; seeking to understand “what the space wants to be”; the illumination of monumentality; and the presence of interiors which are surprising given the exterior of the building

image7  (Eastern Design. Slit House (Japan, 2005) Photograph: Yutaka Suzuki)

a) The Slit and the architecture of natural interior lighting

Two examples of deploying the slit include Eastern Design’s Slit House (Japan, 2005) and Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light (Japan, 1989). To build with the slit is to incise the design so that light and shadow fill the volume of the building in both a functional and artful manner. The resulting environment causes us to pause to appreciate the light which is made all the more precious for the precise design of it. Kahn borrowed this idea from Roman architecture and first used it in his Tribune Review Publishing Building (1958-1961). In the Tribune Building the slits allowed for increased light in the room as it could bounce off (or fall across) walls as in a painting by Vermeer (McCarter, 2005:140). Slits may also be deployed to control temperature and the necessity of shadows and coolness as in Kahn’s plan (unbuilt) for the U.S. Consulate in Luanda, Angola.

image9  (Tadao Ando. Church of the Light (Japan, 1989) Photograph: Tadao Ando)

image10 (Louis I. Kahn. Tribune Building (1961). Photographer Unknown)

Eastern Design (Anna Nakamura and Taiyo Jinno) excel in the architecture of light and shadow through the use of slits in a house which has so many that it bears the name. Like Kahn the architects cite ancient influences (the stream of light through the shoji in Japanese architecture and in ancient skylights). Ando’s use of a cruciform slit for a Christian church plays with the claim attributed to Christ to be “the way, the truth and the light”. [Kahn also planned a cruciform slit in the ceiling of his unbuilt Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem (see Larson, 2000:150)]. Kahn’s love of ancient austerity also persists in the way both buildings use bare concrete to emphasize the softness of shadows and the serene nature of their spaces. The use of bare polished concrete also continues Kahn’s non-aesthetic challenge to aesthetics which he elaborated in so many of his buildings (the Exeter Library, First Unitarian Church, Erdman Dormitory, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Salk Institute to name the more prominent) (see Coulter, 2008). Kahn also used the slit as his signature (the long linear fountain) in the centre of the central courtyard of the Salk institute and to mark the entry point of his Parliament building in Bangladesh (arguably his two greatest buildings).

Jesus Aparicio’s Riverside Retirement Home is Kahn-like in its use of materials, and the elaborated slit as a tool of the architecture of interior light. Indeed, one is reminded of Kahn’s Salk Institute (which also used the slit to control the bright light reflecting off of the central couzrt yard). Aparicio’s building also draws on Kahn’s use of the slit placed horizontally in (what were in Kahn’s time) unusual spaces (higs).

image13  (Louis I. Kahn. Office, Salk Institute (La Jolla, California)

Kahn used this element in his first major public building – the Radbill building and again at the Tribune building a decade later. The placement of the windows along the top and bottom of the same wall coincidentally produce a floating effect on the wall suggestive of Mark Rothko’s painted floating rectangles of the same period. As in Kahn’s use of this device, Aparicio uses them to focus on light but this time with a diagonal effect as one set of windows is high along one wall with another set of windows low along its opposite. Aparicio’s use of bare concrete walls [which Kahn did not use in Radbill but would use many times after] doubles the Kahnian reference in a way that is also pleasing to the eye given the mastery of light. The Riverside building participates in complimentary elements, both which came to the core of Kahn’s architecture, in a way which Kahn had yet to understand when he designed the Radbill building. By the time we reach his Salk Institute we find Kahn a master of bathing interiors with light even those which are sunken and surrounded by concrete.

image15 (Louis I. Kahn. Sunken Courts Along Central Courtyard, Salk Institute)

Byoung-Soo Cho architects have built a similar (Kahnian) “Listening Room” at the Camerata Music Studio. The room is designed to be illuminated by natural light which enters from above and beyond the ceiling. When architects carry forward idea’s which also appealed to Kahn concerning light and concrete, and if they do so as well as Soo-Cho have done, they also carry forward the effect of serenity from Kahn’s buildings. In Soo-Cho’s studio, as in Kahn’s sunken courts at the Salk Institute, concrete, properly used, becomes part of a soothing effect. We have all endured too many buildings where concrete only feels cold and irritating or smells of dampness. Cho is one of several contemporary architects who works against such buildings in a manner which Kahn well understood half a century ago. Through the use of slits and narrow passageways light and the movement of fresh air invigorate the building in unobtrusive but essential ways.

image17 (Byoung-Soo Cho. Camerata Music Studio (S. Korea, 2004). Photograph: J. Kim)                                  

b) What the space wants to be

One would be very hard pressed today to find a better example of the Kahnian idea of discovering “what the space wants to be” than Auer and Weber’s Hotel for the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The challenge here was to build an oasis into a natural depression in the surface of the earth in a very harsh climate. Each window of the ESO Hotel frames a view of the desert earth meeting the sky.  Rooms and common areas are bathed in soft reflected light – Kahn’s “wash of light” effect. It seems, due to successful architecture, that the space wanted to remain ethereal and it does so even while hosting a large (otherworldly) structure. It is one of the most delicate and appropriate, to the space it inhabits, of all large edifices currently standing on the face of the each. The interior lighting softly reflects the natural lighting through both large windows and Kahnian slits (some of the windows take us back to the Radbill Building). In a space which is not naturally suited for human life the building offers scientists a retreat which looks as if it has emerged from pages of science fiction. This is an architecture deeply indebted to the same principles as Kahn’s but no more so than its sensitivity to “what the space wanted to be” – in this case an oasis.

image20 (Fritz Auer and Carlo Weber. ESO Hotel (Chile, 2002). Photograph: Roland Halbe)

c) illuminating monumentality

There are few spaces so offensive to the movement of large numbers of people as the passageways of most 20th century sporting arenas. Many of these buildings resemble places better suited to the auction of cattle than spaces of human movement. A thoughtful solution to this problem has been put forward by Cruz and Ortiz in the spacious and naturally illuminated passageways of their Madrid Athletics Stadium. The design of the main passageways recalls Kahn’s unbuilt Palazzo dei Congressi for Venice, Italy and his Indian Institute of Management. Cruz and Ortiz possess a deft sensibility for the need to make the monumental on a human scale. The ramps leading to and from the main passageways allow light in a manner reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp. While the two are buildings otherwise incomparable, Cruz and Ortiz’s building points to a way of understanding monumental buildings that Kahn would also recognize. As speed takes us towards light the reverse is also the case – the presence of light slows us down and calls upon our powers of contemplation.

image24 (Louis I. Kahn. Palazzo dei Congressi (Venice, unbuilt) Computer Generated Image based on Kahn’s model: Kent Larson)

image25 (Louis I. Kahn. Indian Institute of Management)

How natural light falls (or does not fall) through a building affects the speed at which people walk through the interior. In the darker interiors of the United States people move about more quickly. In Europe, where building codes typically demand the presence of much more natural light in the interior, people tend to move in a slower manner. The architecture of light and space is very much the architecture of how we live. This is no easy trick to turn in large monuments and the management of light is a true art form there. In buildings of inhuman scale properly managed light returns us to ourselves. The appropriate illumination of monumentality also warms the heart as does Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management or his Parliament Building in Bangladesh.

d)The unexpected interior

image27 (Mansilla and Tunon, Leon Auditorium [exterior] (Spain, 2002). Photograph: Luis Asin)

Finally, Mansilla and Tunon (in their Leon auditorium) brilliantly pull off a Kahnian architectural move – making the interior and exterior into remarkably different forms. Mansilla and Tunon’s building is the best example of this in recent years and it reminds me of the remarkable difference between the exteriors and interiors of Kahn’s Exeter Library. As Coulter (2008) points out –

image29 (Leon Auditorium [interior] (Spain, 2002). Photograph: Luis Asin)

image30 (Louis I. Kahn. Phillips Exeter Academy Library, (Exterior, 1965-72)

Kahn was quite close to developments in contemporary theory and science – and was especially taken with the idea of contradiction. For me the exterior of Mansilla and Tunon’s building is also reminiscent of Ronchamp – the exterior, whereas the interior, especially the ceiling, takes me to the dark wooden interiors of some medieval Irish churches – which were also acoustic environments.

image32 (Phillips Exeter Academy Library, (Interior, 1965-72)

Interiors and exteriors which contradict (none moreso than Kahn’s Exeter Library) are artist representations of the widespread uncertainty which coincides with the end of dialectics. Two contradictory forms exist simultaneously without any attempt at synthesis. The inside and outside of the buildings are both intriguing, yet have absolutely nothing in common except a series of invisible mutual structural supports.

III. Conclusion

Louis I. Kahn knew the history of architecture as well as anyone and it allowed him to introduce (and reintroduce) timeless elements into the very heart of modernity. In doing so he slowed it down and he bridged the gap between the historical and the posthistorical. Today, in our posthistorical condition, more people learn about history from television than from historians.  Architects in training are as likely to study Derrida (not necessarily a bad thing), as they are architectural history. Inhabiting as he did, the time of the transition from the historical to the posthistorical, Kahn (while showing us how to work with old elements in new ways), remains one of the registers of the past in the minds of many architects of the posthistorical.

While attempting to either save us from modernism – or the International Style from itself – Kahn designed timeless neo-modern buildings. His ideas persist into the architecture of posthistorical (and postmodern) time because they were conceived with imagination and practiced with the most important human qualities of our environment in mind. “When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain of anything, about anything at all, not even about himself. …the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting” (Kundera, 1995:135). Modernity had a slower, more human, side and Kahn’s architecture points to it. The persistence of the ideas which flowed through his work into the present testifies to the continuation of the need for the human in the age of posthuman design.

The number of books devoted to Kahn and his oeuvre in recent years (see Larson, 2000; McCarter, 2005; Wiseman, 2007) is testimony to the collective fear we share today concerning the disappearance not only of the likes of Kahn but of the ideas and imagination that ran through his work. In his call to history to help with the management of light and space Kahn defied speed with timelessness. The continued presence of forms he worked with in recent architecture is a credit both to Kahn and the architects who continue to work with them. It speaks well to the persistence of slowness in architecture during a time in which design is moving toward the hyper-speed and artificiality of the computer program.


Gerry Coulter (2008). “Louis I. Kahn The Timeless Art of Light and Form”. Euro Art (On-line) Magazine, (Summer): =14&page=1&content=168

Robert Hughes (1991). The Shock of the New. Thames and Hudson.

Milan Kundera (1995). Slowness. New York: Harper.

Robert McCarter (2005). Louis I. Kahn. London: Phaidon.
Kent Larson (2000). Louis I. Kahn. Unbuilt Masterworks. New York: Monacelli.

Alexandra Tyng (1984). Beginnings: Louis I. Kahn’s Philosophy of Architecture. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Carter Wiseman (2007). Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style. New York: Norton.

Victoria Z. Alexander