The Philadelphia School, deterritorialized

history   in Vincent Scully, Jr., Louis I. Kahn (New York: George Brazilier. 1962).


p. 9
In my Modern Architecture and elsewhere I have attempted to state Kahn's position in relation to the history of architecture as a whole. Such general considerations are not absent here, but they are not normally in the foreground. The attempt is to focus directly upon Kahn himself, which it is a privilege to be able to do. Interpretation, as noted above, is necessary, but the facts are more essential still, because no book has hitherto been written about Kahn and the numerous articles that exist are fragmentary and often inaccurate, through no fault of their authors, because of previous lack of data. Extensive chronological lists of biographical events and buildings have therefore been appended, as well as a substantially complete bibliography. Errors and omissions may still be found in them, but they have made use of Kahn's records and personal recollections as well as of all other available sources. They have taken shape largely through the efforts of individuals other than myself. Much material for them was gathered by Thomas R. Vreeland, Jr., of Philadelphia, a graduate of Yale, who was employed in Kahn's office for a number of years, and they have been completed and rearranged under my direction by Robert A. M. Stern, a graduate student at Yale, whose developing study of the life and times of George Howe, a close associate of Kahn's, has aided me immeasurably in this book. I am also indebted for much help to Marshall Meyers of Kahn's staff, a former editor of Perspecta, to Miss Helen Chillman of the Yale Art Library, and to Richard Wurman and various other members of Kahn's office and of his Master's Class at the University of Pennsylvania. To the students of architecture at Yale, who have since 1952 been faithfully publishing Kahn's work in their journal, Perspecta, goes my heartfelt appreciation, as will, I think, posterity's. I am most of all grateful to Kahn, as they are, for the years I have known him, for what he has taught me about the inexhaustibility of man, and for the questions his work has forced me to pose.

p. 10
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 ╔cole 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.

p. 12-3
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 ╔cole 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.

p. 17-8
In 1950-51 other decisive events occurred. This academic year was spent by Kahn at the American Academy in Rome. That institution had been the proudest jewel of the American Beaux-Arts in its salad days. It had been founded in 1896, largely through the efforts of Charles Follen McKim, who was eventually able to elicit the financial support of J. P. Morgan for the project. To it had come several generations of Prix de Rome winners; and architects, painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, classicists, archaeologists, and art historians had all dined in varying degrees of hostility around its single long refectory table. In its early years the Academy had clearly encouraged the kind of picturesquely archaeological design which had eventually squeezed out Sullivan and Wright and against which the Modern Movement as a whole had so firmly reacted. It therefore was, with some justice, a favorite whipping boy for that movement's historians. By 1950, under the directorship of Laurance Roberts, the climate had changed. Its artists were all creatively modern artists, and its resident archaeologist, Frank E. Brown, had a wide knowledge of all architectural history and welcomed nothing so much as a fresh idea or work of art. Antiquity so came alive for those members of the Academy who had the wit to see it, and for Kahn it must have been as if a rather baggy mistress, abandoned in the bread lines, had walked youthful into the room. His sketches around the Mediterranean show the great masses of Egypt looming, the columns of Karnak, the quarries at Aswan. The buttressed wall of the Athenian Acropolis rises, and the tholos at Marmaria lies before Apollo's throne. Most of all, though no adequate drawing remains, the columns still stood at Paestum, and Kahn saw them once again. Arcuated Praeneste, the foliating Palatine, and, especially, the miraculous spaces of Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli were all seen anew with an intensity of vision the Beaux-Arts had never been able to summon up.

p. 19
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 first-year 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.

p. 23-5
It is therefore apparent that Kahn, by 1955, had worked himself back to a point where he could begin to design architecture afresh, literally from the ground up, accepting no preconceptions, fashions, or habits of design without questioning them profoundly. That "great event," so rare and precious in human history, when things were about to begin anew almost as if no things had ever been before, was on the way. On the other hand, memory would eventually play an important part in the process, most richly and intensely for Kahn; but it would come only when the first major steps to liberate the mind for it had been taken. First would come a na´vetÚ of vision which most men can never achieve and only the most intelligent can imagine to be possible. Nothing would be taken for granted. (Even though Kahn was to say to the editor of Perspecta, 7, "I have the usual artful fainting spells, you know.") Every question would be asked: What is a space, a wall, a window, a drain? How does a building begin? How end? Every expedient dodge and avoidance well known to the dullest student in second-year design was henceforward normally to be impossible for Kahn. He was beginning where almost nobody ever gets to be: at the beginning.

It is possible that in modern architectural history before Kahn only Frank Lloyd Wright ever began so wholly at the beginning. Elsewhere I have tried to show that an extremely close parallel exists between Wright's works of 1902-6 and Kahn's of 1955-60. I shall therefore refer to but not stress that relationship here. It should only be pointed out that anything of the kind has been wholly unconscious on Kahn's part. He has said that he was never consciously influenced by Wright, and I do believe him in this. Again, such makes the parallel all the more significant; perhaps it indicates a general pattern that occurs when the problem of architecture is studied afresh by a mind which intends to know the whole. Secondly, Wright and Kahn have occupied rather similar historical moments and have functioned in the same way in them. Both, that is, began their invention--Wright early in life, Kahn late--at a moment when the general architectural movement was toward clear geometric order: in the forties and fifties late Mies and Johnson, in the eighties and nineties Richardson, Sullivan, Burnham, and McKim. In the nineties most architects soon came to conceive of such order in the usual Picturesque-Eclectic terms, and the movement as a whole turned into neo-Baroque formalism, overtly eclectic, overtly decorative. Wright conceived of order in intrinsic terms and rebuilt architecture from the ground up with it. In the fifties-after Mies--some of Johnson's work, almost all of Stone's, Yamasaki's, and others has followed the first course, the neoBaroque, decorative one. Kahn has followed the second: Wright's course. The first course heralded, in the nineties, the end of something; in the late fifties it would seem to have been doing the same. The impression becomes inescapable that in Kahn, as once in Wright, architecture began anew.

p. 38
Again a parallel with Wright comes to mind, in which Kahn has compressed two or three decades of Wright's career into a few years. That is, Wright's work from 1902 to 1906, despite the formative influences upon it from the Shingle Style, Japan, and so on, was almost pure invention in terms of reintegration, thus a true beginning. So also Kahn's from 1955 to 1959. From 1914 onward, Wright seems to have welcomed memory more and more and to have incorporated its shapes more obviously in his work: Mayan in the teens and twenties, finally, by the late thirties, Rome and its antecedents. So now Kahn in 1962. It is probably no accident that both turned to Hadrian, since that haunted Emperor was perhaps one of the first, certainly one of the most conspicuous, men in Western history for whom--all ways having opened, which more true than another?--conscious, selective memory was a major determinant of life.

p. 39
Kahn would thus seem to have found a way to accomplish what neither the architects of the Beaux-Arts nor the more impatient formalists of this decade had been able to do: to make the past and the present--the continuum of life--one, in terms of reason no less than wonder. Past and present do now play as one in his art. To watch him struggle with a problem is to see this. The dormitories for Bryn Mawr, now under study, show it. At present they are close to pure Form: three cubes touching at the corners, advanced and recessed walls creating side lights, a general rigid symmetry. He has only begun. Now he wants to know how the use of each space can show him how to Design it; he harasses his assistants to study each functional requirement to that end. Unlike most architects, he will henceforward hang breathless upon specific client demands, the more specific the better. Any one of them may cause him to redesign the building as a whole, which he will do if, in his phrase, "the Form does not hold." To help him he also has by his desk an unlikely 19th-century history of Scottish castles, in which a thick wall honeycombed with spaces of every conceivable shape caught his eye. Circles and triangles, evidences of specific use, fragments of Form.



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