It has seemed proper for this preliminary study to concentrate upon Kahn's buildings and projects and to treat his architectural theory as it interprets those works or can itself be interpreted through them. Kahn is therefore allowed to speak for himself at the rear of the book, where two of his major statements of principle and method, one of 1955, the other of 1960, appear in full.
Ten years ago Louis I. Kahn, then over fifty, had built almost nothing and was known to few people other than his associates in Philadelphia and his students at Yale. None of them would at that time have called him great, although his students generally felt, with some uneasiness, that he should have been, even might have been, so. But within ten years the "might have-been" has turned to "is," and Kahn's achievement of a single decade now places him unquestionably first in professional importance among living American architects. His theory, like his practice, has been acclaimed as the most creative, no less than the most deeply felt, of any architect's today. He is the one architect whom almost all others admire, and his reputation is international. European critics have even insisted--so claiming Kahn as once they claimed Wright-that he has been seriously underrated at home.
To begin to understand Kahn requires a major intellectual effort, and indeed it ultimately involves the rewriting of contemporary architectural history. A generation brought up on Hitchcock and Johnson International Style, of 1932, or even Giedion Space, Time and Architecture, of 1941, could hardly hope to perceive Kahn's quality at once. Nor could he, more importantly, have been able to find himself easily in it. From this observation, one of the major factors contributing to Kahn's lack of significant production during the thirties and forties comes to light. Kahn was, in large part, a part of that academic education, centered upon the French École des Beaux-Arts and called in America, generically, Beaux-Arts, whose later phases many historians of modern architecture, including myself, had so long regarded as bankrupt of ideas. In a formal, symbolic, and sociological sense the Beaux-Arts probably was bankrupt by the early 20th century, not least in the 1920's in America. But the researches of Banham and, more recently, of Stern, now force us to recognize the tenacious solidity of much of its academic theory, as distilled from Viollet-le-Duc and others by Choisy, Guadet, and Moore. That theory insisted upon a masonry architecture of palpable mass and weight wherein clearly defined and ordered spaces were to be formed and characterized by the structural solids themselves. One of the earliest extant drawings by Kahn, a student project of 1924, shows that he learned that lesson well--apparently better, as a comparison could demonstrate, than the other students of his time. Kahn's characteristic difficulty with the skin of his building, with, that is, the element which seemed to him neither structure nor space, is equally apparent in a comparison with other contemporary projects as, for example, with that by William Wurster, published at the same time. Kahn was also trained in the Beaux-Arts manner to regard the buildings of the past as friends rather than as enemies, friends from whom one was expected, perhaps with more intimacy than understanding, to borrow freely.
So trained, Kahn emerged during the late twenties into an architectural world where his lessons were not valued, neither by most Beaux-Arts designers (by whom, especially in America, the structural rather than the eclectic side of the theory was normally honored in the breach) nor by the livelier, more creative, and apparently iconoclastic architects of the Modern Movement. Soon called "The International Style," the new architecture of the twenties and thirties generally concentrated upon lightness, maximum thinness in the solids, and fluid spaces, usually defined not by the structural skeleton but by non-structural planes and skins of wall. In this world Kahn was never at home, and two decades of his life were given over to a not entirely successful attempt to find a place within it. So his few buildings and his drawings of the thirties and most of the forties often hardly seem to be from his hand, whereas his European sketches of 1928 and his perspective of the Richards Medical Research Building, of 1958-60, are clearly by the same man, one who can again create the forms to which he is instinctively drawn, his pencil constructing the two in an obviously related way. The later drawing is tauter and more articulate as to parts. It is that of a practiced constructor and a modern architect, but it also shows that Kahn could now use what he had originally been trained to see and to do. He had come into his inheritance.
The road back, and forward, began to open out for Kahn about 1950-52. That renewal also owed much to the pervasive influence of Le Corbusier and to a new direction taken by the Modern Movement as a whole during those years. But in the end the richness of theory and practice which Kahn has since poured forth stems intrinsically from the character of his own genius and from the life he has lived.
In 1920, however, the Architecture School of the University of Pennsylvania was conceded to be the most successful Beaux-Arts institution in the country. Its guiding light was Paul P. Cret, who had trained at the French École and settled in Philadelphia in 1905. Kahn has always regarded Cret as his master. "I had good teachers," he has said, and, like Cret, the young Kahn did not regard himself as a revolutionary. As a dutiful student he traced and adapted forms from the archetypal academic books: Letarouilly, D'Espouy, Guadet. Underneath such direct eclecticism, the history and theory of architecture were taught more or less after the method of Choisy. The general effect upon Kahn has already been described. The spaces of his student drawing are symmetrically made by solid structure and distinguished as to type by changes in the structural scale. Some of the rigidity of plan concomitant to that attitude (which was parallel to, though not the same as, the Beaux-Arts predilection for classicizing symmetry) has also tended to remain constant in Kahn's design. Kahn has since said that he was less affected at the time by Choisy Histoire, since he could not read it, than he was by the flashier plates in some of the books noted above. Yet the plan types drawn by Choisy for Rome reappear in Kahn's mature work, while his structural axonometrics of Greek temples look forward to the piece by piece pre-cast concrete construction of Kahn's greatest buildings. But for that mature synthesis to occur in Kahn's work, other experiences had to intervene.
In 1928 Oscar Stonorov arrived in Philadelphia. Through that modern architect Kahn first became aware of the Modern Movement as such and of Le Corbusier's writing, which, he says, he loved from the start. But when he visited Europe in 1928 (on money saved from overtime work on the Sesquicentennial), he saw none of that architect's work, though he did visit his classmate, Norman N. Rice, then working for Le Corbusier and apparently the first American to do so. Edward Stone and Louis Skidmore were in Europe at the same time. Kahn himself was drawn to Greek and Roman antiquity, especially to Paestum, where the Temple of Athena challenges the Italian hills and the two temples of Hera weigh heavily upon the plain. In the fifties Kahn was to say: "Consider the great event in architecture when the walls parted and columns became," but his early drawings of Paestum cannot now be found. He loved the Italian Romanesque as well, and his sketches of Siena and San Gimignano have been preserved, both constructed from the bottom up of strong flat strokes with the side of a carpenter's pencil. So broad are the horizontal bands at San Gimignano, not present in the building itself (nor in Louis Skidmore's drawing done at the same time), that Kahn's tower curiously prefigures that of the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, built in 1930-32 by George Howe and William Lescaze. Kahn was to meet Howe himself in 1930, and their friendship lasted until Howe's death in 1955. In 1931 some of Kahn's sketches were published in an article on drawing he wrote for T-Square Club Journal, an architectural magazine supported by Howe. This is Kahn's first published statement, and some of his theory of the specificity of things, to be developed in the fifties, is already apparent in it. "We must learn how a steamboat is to be given its character," he writes, "or how a New York business building is seen with an absolute detachment and devotion equal to that awakened by a cathedral."
In 1957 Kahn was already settled at Pennsylvania. There he became closely associated with two remarkable engineers: one, Robert Le Ricolais, a uniquely poetic visionary and theorist; the other, August E. Komendant, an outstanding practitioner and authority on pre-cast, pre-stressed concrete. Le Ricolais had lectured on "topology" earlier at Yale, and following his topological vocabulary Kahn now began to substitute the word Form for his earlier word Order, so giving rise to certain terminological ambiguities that can best be explored later. Kahn could not have found two more sympathetic engineers, one for theory, the other for practice, and Dr. Komendant, who after this was employed as a teacher by the University, was his structural consultant for the Richards Medical Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania. Their structure was to affect for good the techniques of the whole concrete pre-casting industry from the factory to the site. Design began in 1957 and construction was complete in 1961. The adjacent Biology Building was designed at the same time and is now being built. The Medical Laboratories have been extensively published and were the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which produced an excellent Bulletin devoted to them.