There is a historical aspect to Kahn's concern for composition. Composition of elements was a preoccupation of the Beaux-Arts academic tradition at the turn of the century. Julien Guadet, the respected professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, wrote about it, and his famous pupil, Tony Garnier, may have set in motion forces and attitudes which, no matter how well disguised by subsequent events in architecture, may still be with us. This may explain the association which Kahn is supposed to have with the Beaux-Arts academic tradition. However, it was Auguste Choisy, a contemporary as well as an ideological antagonist of Guadet, who influenced Kahn more--not by his words and ideas (Kahn did not read French and was not a "reader" in the scholarly sense) but by the magnificent illustrations in his book Histoire de l'Architecture, which Kahn treasured. Choisy's main thesis might have been Universalist in that he believed technique and construction to be the raison d'être for form, but nothing could illustrate the most essential compositional elements of a building more clearly than his highly stylized illustrations. His words may have reinforced three generations of rationalist architecture, but, not having access to his words, Kahn "read" into his book an attitude that remained unverbalized. Thus, it is possible that Kahn succeeded in bridging the gap between the French academic and classical tradition on one side and 20th century rationalism on the other by defining a general frame of reference--order--within which both the aesthetic and the technical aspects of architecture could find validity.
Romaldo Giurgola and Jaimini Mehta, Louis I. Kahn (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1975), p. 184.
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's 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
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 1944 Kahn published an article entitled "Monumentality." During the following decade such themes were to proliferate, reiterating the need felt by a deprived generation for grander architectural expression. Significantly, Kahn's was among the first. In it he characteristically concentrated upon structural possibilities but was still involved in the International Style aesthetic of maximum lightness and so proposed structures of welded steel tubing. In attempting to deal with a mode fundamentally unsympathetic to him, he turned rather desperately back to Choisy and to the latter's drawings of Gothic architecture, for which he had not cared much in the twenties. His own drawings recall those of Le Corbusier, which he apparently often traced in these years, and which themselves owed more to Choisy than either those of the Beaux-Arts as a whole or Kahn's own earlier sketches had done. Kahn was thus making fresh contact with the most useful side of his education through the influence of the most potent modern architect, and he himself dates his deep personal interest in Choisy from this time. His eventual integration of the wiry linearity characteristic of Choisy and Le Corbusier alike with the massive shadows of his earlier style can be seen in a comparison between the drawings discussed earlier.
So, too, in the same sense, was the Yale Department of Architecture to which Kahn returned in 1951. Concentration upon the integrally jointed wooden frame--calling to mind Kahn's later use of pre-cast concrete components--played an increasing part in its doctrine during 1950-55, largely through the influence of Eugene Nile, then critic of firstyear design. In this he was supported by George Howe who, in part through the efforts of Kahn, had become Chairman in 1950 and remained such until 1954. His successor, Paul Schweikher, held similar ideas. Along with the frame went an insistence upon its structural definition of single or separate volumes of space rather than upon the earlier, spatially fluid, fundamentally non-structural type of International Style planning. Here, too, Kahn's later work is recalled, but he avoided the several anti-intellectualisms in which Yale's movement temporarily foundered, and must instead have been reminded anew of the traditional method of Choisy. At Yale Kahn was also in close contact with Philip Johnson and with that architect's then very fresh principles of classicizing order. More broadly, the debilitating hostility between architect and historian which had characterized some of the pedagogy of the Modern Movement was on the wane at Yale, despite periodic attempts to revive it, and Kahn was exposed there to free, as against what might be called court (late Beaux-Arts or Bauhaus) Art History in general. He often dropped in on lectures; San Gimignano, Hadrian's Villa, and the work of Brunelleschi were rather obsessive favorites at the time.
In the Community Center for Mill Creek, on the other hand, the size of the spans permitted a true brick pier and pre-cast concrete beam construction, so that the detailing of the exterior, with its projected massive piers dry-capped, is an integral expression of the order with which the units are fitted together. It should be noted that all pieces are separate and are laid up like masonry blocks or heavy wooden beams. Again, as always in structure as in space, Kahn prefers to avoid continuities, and one is referred once more to the drawings of Choisy.
So at Rochester the walls go deep back to give the windows glare-dimming reveals, and step out to provide window-seat spaces, lighted from the sides. The whole wall, inside and out, is plastic with light, with what a window "wants to be." At the same time, its expression is deeply structural, a buttressed mass. Above the exterior walls rise the four hoods pulled back above the corners of the central meeting space and scooping out its hollow with light. They took position there after many other schemes were tried, in all of which Kahn had attempted, as noted in other projects, to articulate the main span into several spatial units. Now four columns support two cross beams from which the ceiling slabs gently lift toward the voids formed by the hoods, placed where they are partly because they are more easily supported near the corners. Kahn's structural isometric here, done from below in bard lines, again recalls Choisy.
More directly, the shapes used by Kahn can be found not only in Choisy but also infinitely repeated in the composite photostat of Giovanni Battista Piranesi's maps of Rome, drawn by him for his book on the Campus Martius, probably of 1762, which now hangs in front of Kahn's desk.
all citations: Vincent Scully, Jr., Louis I. Kahn (New York: George Brazillier, 1962).