Louis I. Kahn

Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research Building and Biology Building


The new approach to layering was an extension of Louis Kahn's continued search for "the problem within the problem." Jean Labatut had emphasized to his Princeton students that the image of a building is different at each dimension and scale: first only a dot on the landscape, then a building, then sublayers of increasing detail--"interweaving planes" as he called them. Kahn's theory of the architectural hierarchy, of served versus servant spaces--another view of layering--captured the attention of architects when it was put to work in his Richards Medical Research Building laboratories (1957-1960) at the University of Pennsylvania, where massive vertical towers of brick powerfully express air-intake and venting systems as well as other mechanical systems that support the laboratory spaces. These were vertical interstices showing clarity of separation. His double-walled embassy project for Angola (1959-1953) explored a similar kind of layering.

Interest in the spaces between things is a corollary to layering that is also seen in the development of interstitial floors in hospitals and laboratories--those floors reserved for mechanical systems to make the floors for people more adaptable to future change. Kahn's Salk Institute laboratories (1959-1965) in Torrey Pines, California, contain the most lavish and renowned intermediate mechanical floors, and hospital after hospital in the 1960s adopted this horizontal layering as insurance against rebuilding for future requirements and to accommodate adaptability to change.
C. Ray Smith, Supermannerism: New Attitudes in Post-Modern Architecture (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977), p. 235.

5. Venturi reenactment at Princeton -- In taking pictures at Princeton yesterday, I saw a real contextual disparity between Wu Hall and the other Wu Hall like building next to the late-modern library. Should Venturi have reenacted the "white" formalist aesthetic of the library rather than easily (facile-ly?) repeat Wu Hall and the collegiate Gothic motifs? Regarding the two lab buildings, does the new lab reenact the older lab? Anyway, all the Venturi labs are variations on a theme.
6. reenactments at Uof P -- I see the Mitchell/Giurgola parking garage reenacting Kahn's Richard's Medical Towers, and the large clerstory at the new Venturi lab reenacting the large (upper) clerstory of the Furness Library tower.
9. infinite collection -- manipulating the new images of the Venturi Best Products Showroom, I again saw a clear example of how I could exploit Quondam's collection in terms of digital "infinitude".
10. hypermural -- I particularly like relating the hypermural to the opening day curtain/stage-set at the Schauspielhaus.

history of hypersurface architecture in Philadelphia
...plus maybe a "history of hypersurface architecture" in Philadelphia, e.g., the force-field of St. Francis de Sales Church; Institute for Scientific Information; Franklin Court; Welcome Park; and also the work of Kahn: Congregation Ahavath Israel, Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research Building and Biology Building, City Tower; [and also Giurgola's United Fund Headquarters;] and perhaps the best hypersurface of Philadelphia architecture, the work of Frank Furness, particularly the half castle bank facade (and this leads to Sullivan as a tangent).

More Tedious Stuff (Design Process Type)
Paul states:
This is where the "function" enters the genesis of the parti. Kahn spoke of "served" and "servant" spaces, of course. The secondary spaces are not "celebrated," but become embedded in "conceptual poché," which the parti diagrams as solid, leaving only the celebrated, or publicly experienced, spaces as "spatial figure." The figure-ground gestalt is fundamental to this basic design strategy, applied to urban design by Colin Rowe and his school, but derived from Beaux Arts practice.
Steve replies:
I don't see Paul's capsulation of Kahn's notion of "served" and "servant" spaces as altogether correct. Rather, it is more of a (convenient) pedagogical interpolation based on a hybridization of "served and servant" (Kahn) with "figure/ground" (Rowe). Two of Kahn's buildings that most manifest the "served" and "servant" notions are the Richards Medical Research Building (Philadelphia, 1957-60) and the Salk Institute (La Jolla, 1959-65). In both designs the "served" and the "servant" are each clearly articulated, and one could go so far as to say that it is more the articulation of the "servant" spaces that manifest the "served" spaces. Neither of these two buildings employs what might be described as poché.
I now wonder whether Paul's interpolation exemplifies a wider ranging interpolation throughout architectural academia since Kahn's practice, hence a not necessarily true interpretation /proliferation of Kahn's message /meaning vis-à-vis "served" and "servant". The notions of "served" and servant" are first to be applied to the program, i.e., the building program is divided into those spaces that serve and those spaces that are served. The form of the building then arises out of the articulation of both the "served" and the "servant", and the ultimate design is the integration and/or inter-relation of the two types of "spaces".
Perhaps the only slanted aspect of Kahn's notion of "served" and "servant" spaces is the underlying notion that some spaces are privileged while the other spaces are not privileged. And perhaps this is precisely where the misinterpretation of "served" and "servant" actually comes from. In reality, however, Kahn somehow managed to "privilege" virtually all the spaces of his buildings. [And perhaps it can be said that Kahn was therefore very good at working the mediocre.]
Just now I'm wondering whether the grammatical terms of "active" and "passive" might be an interesting extension of the served and servant notions, i.e., with served being the passive and the servant being the active. It might be interesting to sometimes analyze buildings by identifying those parts/spaces that are active (doing the acting) and those parts that are passive (being acted upon). This point of view might help alleviate the "privilege" factor.

2002.08.09 15:20
Re: Congregation or Synagogue ?
I/Quondam already have a cad model of Hurva Synagogue, and indeed there is reason to believe that Kent Larson got the idea to construct computer models from me--I had submitted a grant proposal to the Graham Foundation in 1991 involving the building of computer models of unbuilt designs. I did not receive the grant, but Kent Larson did receive a grant from the Graham foundation the following year for the same type of proposal. Beyond that, also in 1991, I published slides and drawings of Le Corbusier's Palais des Congres (unbuilt 1964) and offered them for sale to academic architecture libraries. Harvard, U of Oregon, Berkeley and Miami U, Ohio bought the slides, and Harvard also bought the drawings. Is it just coincidence that www.greatbuildings.com began out of U. of Oregon?
I revisited Ahavath Israel today, and sadly the facade has been changed, I was told circa 2000. The whole portion of the facade above the recessed entry is no longer brick, but now a salmon colored, textured CMU. This is yet another building to have changed since I last took pictures of it. The curse of Quondam I guess.
It dawned on me last night that both Wright's Beth Sholom and Kahn's Adath Jeshurun are hugely triangular in plan. Wright mailed the preliminary drawings to Rabbi Mortimer Cohen on 15 March 1954. Kahn's design is dated 1954-55. Since Beth Sholom and Adath Jeshurun are (next-door) neighboring congregations, it wouldn't surprise me at all if architectural rivalry between the congregations was going on, and that Kahn even saw the Wright plans before he came up with his design. Has anyone heard of this possible connection before?
I've been doing a lot of Kahn building photographing this week. I've never seen that Trenton Bath House before, and it was just wonderful to see it. Today I was at Bryn Mawn College to photograph the Kahn dormitory exterior. The building is in the final stages of a full overhaul/restoration. The place was/is crawling with workmen, so I went in and found my way up to the roof. and what a great Kahnscape that is. Mill Creek Housing Project, Philadelphia is now completely abandoned and boarded up. Richards Medical Buildings, U of P, still looks good, but is hard to photograph because of tight quarters and lots of surrounding vegetation.

2006.03.10 12:03
Thesis Semester [blog] 25 years ago
Hal told R, on the subway on the way to a Giurgola(?) lecture at Penn, "It's [my mid-term design] a bit too facile." Hal told me it wasn't Philadelphian enough. Thus, for part of Spring Break I'm going to go around and look at notable Philadelphia buildings. I think Hal was also saying my design was a little too much something other than Philadelphian. I distinctly remember going to see the Richard's Medical Buildings, and for some reason the Merchant Exchange impressed me the most.
Did I also visit Franklin Court? Since I remember Hal and I talking about it--it is mostly an underground museum after all--I guess I did go there. I especially remember how much Hal admired the "Franklin - Man of Infinite Dimension" room and how the reverse lettered neon was then correctly read in the mirrors. I took pictures of just that phenomenon 21 November 1998, for sure thinking of Hal while I did so.

2012.07.24 17:21
The Philadelphia School, deterritorialized
Excerpts from the interview with historian David Brownlee:
DB: In any case, what happens in the late '50's is a more palpable historical reference. There is the peculiarity of what I call the Philadelphia corner--the plan form that is sucked in at the corner--the diagonal across the corner (refers to Kahn's Goldenberg house and Venturi's beach house). They are both '59. Now I have to say, on the face of it, this (Goldenberg) is a lot more sophisticated looking design. But that element of design is seen in Mitchell Giurgola's work, and in Vreeland's work. That's a vocabulary that has gone around--it pops up in Kahn's work at this time--Kahn's dorm at Bryn Mawr, and the Richards Medical Building has it sort of implicitly--you enter off the diagonal of a corner…
SR: You see this corner treatment as something specifically about the Philadelphia School?
DB: I do. It all appears about the same time?
SR: Do you think anyone can be identified as being responsible for it? Does Venturi have a hand in it?
DB: I don't know. One of the things I would venture is to say that a more established architect like Kahn--with a formal vocabulary already established--may not be the place where you look for such provocative innovation. It certainly happens--but it is a teasing sort of thing. And another formal trait I see coming in at this time are, what I call another Philadelphia School trait, the big chimneys. They pop up out of the skyline in everybody's work about this time. Those would be places I would look for anything you can in terms of concretely dating 'who does what first.' I have found nothing written that acknowledges or even suggests that kind of influence between the two, having worked through the papers of both. There is not much to go on--Kahn, I think, writes a letter of recommendation for Rome. But that's about it. It has always been said that after the '60s Kahn expressed verbally his respect for Venturi, but said he was unwilling to 'go that far.' He did not follow Venturi's interest into Pop culture. Or, you know, large graphics. Or into the vocabulary of commerce and the strip. And fundamentally, I think, continued to believe in abstraction. He did not believe that buildings required words or intelligible historical references in order to be meaningful. At one point, he said that he 'liked ruins because in ruins the architectural forms had been detached from associated use." They had no denotative meaning left with them anymore, and in that sense continued to be an abstractionist, a modernist of that kind. The things that I see that I can plausibly say are the contributions are some of those stylistic--I won't call them quirks, but they are stylish bits and pieces--and within that, the broader acceptance of things that people could call 'historical' in his work. Now mind you, he was almost always hostile to the notion that anything he did had specific historical references. His willingness to talk about his fondness for history generally, and to speak admiringly of medieval and ancient buildings, never allowed you to draw a connection (that was pretty obvious) between these historical precedents and his work. Whereas Venturi, of course, was underlining that connection wherever possible. Certainly, the younger man's rhetorical style, in using those forms, did not rub off on Kahn at all. But I think the case is plausible that in the period of '54 to '58, as the Philadelphia School was coming together, that some of the distinctive features of it were created by people other than Louis Kahn--although Kahn gets to be their Guru.
DB: I find it hard to think of Kahn as a mannerist. But I… Maybe the Goldenberg house, which is almost unique; right where you expect the corner to be, there is nothing. [The corner deterritorialized!?]
And from the interview with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown:
SR: Dr. Brownlee was talking about a couple of things he thinks of as being characteristic of the 'Philadelphia School.' One: big chimneys. The other: what he calls the 'Philadelphia corner.' The latter, I think he may have written about--how various architectural historical approaches 'solve the corner problem.' Is that ringing any bells for you?
RV: What does he mean by the corner? Big chimney--actually I think I may have possibly been influenced by Kahn to some extent, but I don't think he ever had a chimney like that. My beach house project, with its big high chimney--never built---horrified Vince Scully. But then also fascinated him at the same time.
DSB: You know, the diagonal was very much Philadelphia School.
RV: Yes. The diagonal. That's right, that diagonal. That, I got from Louis Kahn.
DSB: Well, I know where Lou Kahn got it. He got it from Team Ten. You know, in Europe, there was a lot of thinking about diagonals at that point. Lou had more influence from Team Ten earlier than has been generally recognized. I think I discovered how that happened, too. But that's another story. You know, the conference in Amsterdam in '59 he met Blag Valenca and Aldo Van Eyck. That's how Aldo Van Eyck eventually wound up coming to Penn. [The diagonal reterritorialized!?]




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