Vincent Scully

Louis I. Kahn

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No one can sum up Louis I. Kahn. He is growing rapidly and his present projects are subject to change without notice. He has his limitations; his inherited reluctance to employ light steel trusses and frames may be among them. But next year he may have conceived the "meaningful order" of those as well. Despite his growing use of arched forms, he has so far fundamentally been an architect of separate structural components, of the column and lintel and the point load; thus heprefers concrete pre-cast rather than poured, assembled piece by piece and lovingly jointed. His buildings, despite their Roman connotations, are hard and normally without covering finishes; they are exactly what they seem: not for the fainthearted, which is as it should be. Kahn therefore requires wise and courageous clients who are willing to forego the gloss of superficial perfection in order to take part in a sustained and demanding process of which they may one day be proud. His schemes do not always come off; they can be uniquely awkward. There can be little doubt that this tendency is a necessary concomitant to their primal strength.

Historically, Kahn has already fulfilled his role. He has shown, as Wright did earlier, that Order goes deep, is integral, and can create inexhaustibly anew. He has done so according to important mid-20th-century premises, imagining both a total "order of being" and a tragic dignity in the environments men construct. In this he is the perfect modern complement to Le Corbusier, who has concentrated in his most monumental buildings upon a sculptural embodiment of the human act itself. Kahn's humanism, his "symmetry," is not Hellenic like Le Corbusier's, but, in the persistent American manner, rather Italic, concerned primarily with interior space and its construction in terms of perceptible law. His buildings therefore make "being" determinate--which is why he insists upon both the "measurable" and the "immeasurable"--by passionately uniting the rational preoccupations of science with the non-rational assertions of art and so convincing us emotionally that they visibly embody the power of the facts: the nature of things as they are. In the decade of what I have elsewhere referred to as the Late Baroque of the International Style--in which Wright's late work was in its own way involved Kahn has thus refound the beginning for himself and has shown what may be a general Way. Of that way he holds himself to be a primitive, as CÚzanne did, but it links him with some of the broadest and soundest traditions of the architecture of the past, leading out from Rome, as CÚzanne's did from Poussin. Perhaps most of all, Kahn has shown how to put to creative use what the mind can know, and has understood and written about that process of formulation more directly and humanely than any other contemporary architect.

As a teacher of the Master's Class at Pennsylvania, Kahn hopes to lead his students to define the problem for themselves, as he had learned to do. He can be maddeningly evasive as he tries to force them to think for themselves and to help him think. He offers no easy choices, there being in his view none such available in fact in human life, but only possibilities for action if they can determine where the critical fields of action lie. "The right thing done badly," he says, "is always greater than the wrong thing well done." Hence he earnestly seeks the good question, "better than the most brilliant answer," and learns from everyone. He does not pretend to be a master and wants no apprentices. People work for him like men in a grubby office on a busy corner in the heart of Philadelphia.

Kahn's architecture is par excellence the product of intelligence; it is fortunate for us all, not least for his city, that he has finally been able to link it with the things he loves. Yet a study of Kahn cannot help but show that his city is more than Philadelphia; he belongs to his profession as few men have done. Those American architects who revere him form a roster of diversity and distinction. The beginning of a special comradeship can be sensed among them, not, I think, a local school, but a more general movement, magnetized by Kahn. One recognizes a man. Kahn also tends to bridge the gap between the architect as artist and the architect as practitioner as no other seems able to do--just as he has been healing the breach between the present and the near no less than the distant past.

But how slow the growth of this tree, like an olive, bearing for the generations to come.




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