…a dreamer @ Louis Khan exhibition at the Design Museum


Megalithic, minimal architecture is most definitely not my cup of tea. Yet weirdly the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmenabad by Louis Khan is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen in my life. Kahn stated that the concept behind it was to wrap the building with ruins in order to generate passive climate control. This is how genius he was, he created poetry by the use of absolute, strict logic. How many other architects or artists were ever able to do that? The way that I am moved by Kahn’s architecture can only be compared to the feeling I get when I look at images of Gordon Matta-Clark’s art. A delightful tightness in the stomach is how I would describe it. Vertigo but of a pleasurable kind, similar to that one feels facing natural grandeur like looking down from the top of a cliff.  I always thought that Matta-Clark was inspired by Khan and this exhibition in the Design Museum does not fail to mention there was a connection between the two.

Top picture : Indian Institute of Management, Ahmenabad / Bottom pictures: Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical intersect

Top picture : Indian Institute of Management, Ahmenabad / Bottom pictures: Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical intersect

Khan was brilliant and apparently more dedicated to his work than most of his peers. However he died by heart attack in a train station’s toilet with a debt of half a million dollars. Apparently he was too much of a dreamer. A true artist who never even considered to balance cost and quality in his art. He went to all lengths, he slept on the floor of his office working at all hours, calling his colleagues to complain about something at 4 in the morning and expected the same degree of dedication from everyone. He developed schemes for projects without knowing if he would ever get the commission. He continued to ameliorate finished projects when the clients have long stopped paying him. Hence the debt. Money was not important, ever. Architecture was important.

Left: Louis Khan's notebook / Right: Down town Philadelphia study (not built)

Left: Louis Khan’s notebook / Right: Down town Philadelphia study (not built)

Often his non-negotiable views on architecture though were to cost him grand commissions like that of designing the centre of Philadelphia. Even though he was invited to produce a scheme, his concepts were never materialized because they were considered too utopian. This failure of his is documented at the beginning of Design Museum’s exhibition and the public is therefore warned about the architect’s seemingly unrealistic intentions.

In one of the videos screened in the exhibit, Mario Botta says that “Lou” was not only fascinated with the outcome of his work, the built product, but with the process of creating it as well. Regardless of how obsessed he might have been with the artistic process, science and construction were still extremely important aspects of his work. Kahn among other thing is known for his invention of servant and served spaces.

Yale Art Museum. Tetrahedral ceiling 'servant' space

Yale University Art Gallery. Tetrahedral ceiling ‘servant’ space

An example is the tetrahedral ceiling grid for Yale University’s Art Gallery, the geometry of which is revisited at the Philadelphia City Tower project, a massive model of which can be found in this exhibition.

Philadelphia Tower project. (Was not built)

Philadelphia Tower project. (Not built)

In general I enjoyed the models I saw at the Design Museum a lot. Some of the most fascinating ones are naturally the original work models that his office produced for the capital of Bangladesh in Dhaka. Those rough cardboard jewels look like geometric puzzles that one is challenged to solve and they materialize perfectly their creator’s complex dream for space.

The Capital of Bangladesh in Dhaka. Building and original models

The Capital of Bangladesh in Dhaka. Building and original models

All of Kahn’s values which were ultimately ingrained in his architecture are highlighted in this exhibition: science, community, landscape, timelessness. This is achieved with simple but eloquent texts, videos and photographs but most importantly with original hand drawings, sketches and models. This is why this exhibition is not to be missed, because it displays masterpieces that once were only humble traces of an architect’s mind. Rough doodles on a piece of paper meant to instigate a conversation with an employee or client.

Top: Exeter Academy Library / Bottom: Kimbell Art Museum

Top: Exeter Academy Library / Bottom: Kimbell Art Museum

Many of his buildings did not look very impressive from the outside. The exteriors of Exeter Library and the Kimbell Art Museum for example resemble factories. Upon entrance however they unfold miraculously proving that the experience of the person who uses them was what really mattered to Khan.

Similarly the few houses he built show his intentions of designing them to become homes to their owners and not self-absorbed works of art. In general the “quality and not quantity” aphorism is very appropriate for Louis Kahn’s architecture.

Original drawings sketches of Louis Kahn's house designs. Model: Vitra reproduction

Original drawings sketches of Louis Kahn’s house designs. Model: Vitra reproduction

After visiting this exhibition I remembered watching Nathaniel Khan’s documentary about his father entitled My Architect, back in 2003 and decided I needed to watch it again. I remembered liking the film the first time I saw it and I did again now. Regardless of the fact that Nathaniel Kahn is on a very personal journey to settle his unresolved issues of abandonment with his father and too much personal information is revealed in the process of doing that.

Salk Institute of Biological Studies

Salk Institute of Biological Studies

Naturally I was surprised and at times appalled by how horribly selfish and insensitive Kahn appeared to be with his three parallel families. Nonetheless as Roland Barthes has stated (in his Death of the Author essay), the creator’s personal story is not and should not be considered while evaluating his/her work. Louis Kahn was an architectural genius who inspired and motivated hundreds of students during his years of teaching and later on thousands of architects who were acquainted with his work. Not to mention the effect he had on the lives of the users of his buildings.

Capital of Bangladesh Dhaka

Capital of Bangladesh Dhaka

Ultimately there is no doubt that Kahn was an exceptionally inspired idealist of an architect. His legacy could not be described more eloquently than by the words of his friend and colleague B.V Doshi who Kahn had his last dinner with the night before he died.

Matter in spiritual terms was what mattered to him. Silence mattered to him. The enigma of life mattered to him. Those are not normal discourses but this is what he liked to talk about. When someone can understand those things he cannot be a normal person. He must be a highly cultivated soul.”

The exhibition will be on until the 12th of October. Visit Design Museum’s website page for it here

Watch Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary “My Architect. A son’s journey” here

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