The Philadelphia School, deterritorialized
Maria Bottero

Zodiac 17   September 1967
Organic and Rational Morphology in Louis Kahn

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The foundations of American organic philosophy

"How monstrous, how fluent, how vagrant and timorous, how alert are the living things we call words. They are the giants and the fairies, the hob-goblins and the sprites; the warrior and the priest, the lowly and the high; the watch-dog and the sheep; the tyrant and the slave, -- of that wonder-world we call speech. How like hammers they strike. How like aspens they quiver. How like a crystal pool, a rivulet there from, becomes a river moving sinuously between the hills, growing stronger, broader as its affluents pour in their tributary power; and now looms the estuary, and the Ocean of Life. Words are the most malignant, the most treacherous possession of mankind. They are saturated with the sorrow of all time. They hold in most unstable equilibrium the vast heritage of manís folly, his despair, his wrestling with the angel whose name is Fate; his vanity, his pride before a fall, his ever-resurrecting hope--arising as a winged spirit from the grave of disaster, to flit in the sunshine for a while, to return to the dust and arise again as his civilizations, so laboriously built up have crumbled one by one. And yet all the beauty, all the joy, all the love that man has known, all his kindness, all his yearnings, all his dreams for better things; his passionate desire for peace and an anchorage within a universe that has filled him with fear and mystery and adoration; his daily round of toil, and common-places; his assumption of things as they are; his lofty and sublime contemplations, his gorgeous imageries; his valor, his dogged will, his patience in long suffering, his ecstasies, his sacrifices small and great--even to the casting aside of his life for a thought, a compassion, an ambition--all these are held bound up in words; hence words are dangerous when let loose. They may mean manís destruction, they may signify a way out of the dark. For Light is a word, Courage is a word, and Vision is another. Therefore, it is wise to handle words with caution. Their content is so complex and explosive; and in combinations they may work beautiful or dreadful things."

These reflections of Louis Sullivanís, founder of organic philosophy and Wrightís Lieber Meister, are quoted from his Autobiography of an Idea and spring from a consideration of the meaning of the word Personal- ity. What is the Personality of Man? What does Personality really mean? Sullivan poses this question, more or less explicitly, in the course of the hook, until one night, while studying his history books between two candles in the rented room he has been living in for some time in Paris, as a student at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the problem of the definition of Man returns once more to compel his attention.

"Thus became vaguely outlined an image of Man as a vast Personality, within which were gathered all the powers, all the thoughts of the races, all vicissitudes of the civilizations--a presence which seemed to move steadily, silently, across the depths, onward into the modern day, indistinct but real, following the turn of each leaf of the Calendar. This strange presence he had evoked Louis could not banish, it seemed to be immense and to stir immediately behind the veil of appearances. He would some day locate this phantasm, he said, and meet it as real; for in it, he said, was that secret men call truth."

Clearly stated as this intention is, it is as yet at an embrionic stage; it will mature together with the person of Louis Sullivan, and later be grafted on to the Lieber Meisterís organic philosophy; this too, in its turn, to come to florescence through the slow process of continuous elaboration, and in its season identify with extraordinary coherency with the autobiography of the author. It is no coincidence that this is at one and the same time 'the autobiography of an idea'.

I think it would be hard to find a document more adherently expressive, indeed mimetic of the formative process of an idea; a process, in itself, singularly structured in accordance with the ideal guide-lines of this idea.

In his autobiography Wright will later develop, most acutely, and entirely in keeping with his own personality, certain features of the organic philosophy of architecture: but he will not repeat--in the autobiography--this ingenious and plastic or rather organic, identification of the concrete and the abstract, the empirical and the logical, the contingent-daily happening and the transcendant-informing, the experimental and the formal.

Louis Sullivanís reflections on the Personality of Man lead him to the following conclusions: Man is rich in Power; he is full of Needs and these multiply in continuation, but together with them, the Power that confronts them increases: the Power of means of investigation and discovery and therefore of action.

In architecture, this confrontation of Power and Needs appears in the binomial Form-Function. The architect wishing to practise his own profession finds himself, first and foremost, confronted by the traditional codification of Styles, the five orders, etc; but he also has to affront a number of Needs. Corresponding to the traditional codifications of Styles, is a traditional idea of Man and of his institutions: this idea is based on an established intellectual, moral, and politicai leadership; on a notion of history founded on a succession of official recorded facts or salient events. But Louis made a fundamental discovery: these events, these peaks, pointers to the historical course of humanity, sink their roots obscurely in the Ocean of Life, and branch out in depth to cover such a vast and uncontrollable area, that any effort to comprehend their meaning might seem in vain, were it not but this: that they are founded on the most humble everyday needs of an obscure mass, obscurely active over the centuries and throughout the diverse civilizations: a mass out of which the phantasm of the Personality of Man should have eventually taken on shape as something as real and effective as the truth on which the new architecture is based.

The new Man then, is not the authoritative depository of established truth and codified institutions; instead, more humbly, he is the Man of Needs. But he is also the Man of redeeming Power, able to channel and mould these Needs in an organic fashion, not to suppress their urgency as functions, but to give them full articulation, since as Louis says: Form follows Function or even better: The Function creates or organizes his Form.

In other words, Life itself exerts its Power through the creation of forms which are adequate and functional to its expression. The notion of vital power, the power of Man to decide and create is therefore connected to the actual knowledge of Man, whose true essence or Personality is " unknown quantity and his existence unexpected", but, who "is none other but ourselves divested of our wrappings" of prejudice and habit.

Wright, will no longer concern himself with the problem of the essence and power of Man, a problem painfully worked over and brought into focus by Louis Sullivan, an attentive reader of French positivists (Taine) and of authors like Darwin, Spencer, Huxley and Tyndall. He will fully accept the conclusions of Sullivanís organic philosophy, which will give him unswerving faith in the individuai power of discovery and invention outside of any established pattern.

What, on the contrary is to be of special concern for Wright, is the development and advancement of the principles of organic morphology, which he takes up with originality and complete absence of restraint.

From a philosophical viewpoint alone, Wright has moved a long way from his Master: the consonance between Man and Nature, the feeling for the seasons, che consciousness of the eternai ebb and flow of the birth-death cycles, are, it is true, Sullivan, as too, the pioneering faith in unrestrained individuai creativity as opposed to the academic architecture of the Styles and a Symbol of the new American democracy; finally, Sullivan too, that unceasing amazement aroused by vital phenomena and the laws of Nature, and the attentive examination of them. Here though, beyond the similarity, it is the disparity of their attitudes which one feels: Sullivan observes Nature with a scientific mind, he is interested in botany and mineralogy, he studies the evolutionary laws of organisms in the same way that he interests himself in the structures of language and grammar; people, for example, arouse his curiosity in that they are individuai morphological types or units. But at the same time, the singularity and uniqueness of these physiognomies blur and dissolve into an all-transcending design, just as in the tables that constitute Sullivan's treatise A System of Architectural Ornament, the elementary outlines of very simple leaves pass through successive combinations and metamorphoses in the rich entanglements of vegetation which engulf them.

An example of Sullivanís sensitiveness to the contradictory aspects of reality appears in the following story from Autobiography of an Idea: a fourteen year-old boy he travels with his grandfather across the United States. In New York, his grandfather's memories are stirred and he tries to tell the boy of his experiences when he arrived in America as an immigranti the boy's indifference to these unfamiliar events impresses his grandfather, and the boy, in turn, comes to realize that his grandfather needed to tell him these stories, because "he knew that the key to the mystery of human destiny and fate lay wrapped and lost within these lived but unrecorded stories."

The incessant rhythm of growth and decay in organisms, ends therefore, in the understanding of the Infinite to which the individuai surrenders. Thus Inspiration, a short poem published by Sullivan in 1866, is divided into three parts: 1) "Growths: A Spring Song"; 2) "Decadence: An Autumn Reverie"; 3) "The Infinite: A Song of the Sea".

The short poem ends in a tragic appeal in which the poet invokes an answer from the sea: "Deny me not, Oh sea! for indeed I am come / to thee as one aweary with long journeying / returns expectant to his native land. / Deny me not that I should garner now among / the drifted jetsam on this storm-wash shore, / a fragmentary token of serenity divine. / For I have been, long wistful, here beside / thee, my one desire floating afar on meditation deep, as the helpless drift-wood floats, / and is borne by thee to the land".

Only surrender to the infinite can bring one back to the secure lands of the finite: in Sullivan, therefore, the enthusiasm for knowledge and discovery, and the curiosity of the scholar-scientist, is always accompanied by the dramatic perception of the horizon limiting our cognitive space and the need for laborious and obscure work, to penetrate the contingent facts.

In Wright, the finite-infinite and conscious-unconscious dichotomy is, instead, resolved in the individual's confident harmony with Nature; Nature is governed by a System of laws, she represents an order where every building, every achievement of art must find a place; Beauty is none other than the expression of this Order, in which Life discloses herself: we too are Life and "...within us all there is at work a divine principle of growth to some good end". Death, says Wright, quoting Goethe, is nothing but one of Nature's wiles to have more Life; and just as Life always begins anew, so the young architect has to begin his work from the beginning, radically, and to reject the paths trodden by others.

This final clause holds good only in part also with regard to Wrightís own work: which as we know, not only finds its principles in the morphology of the Lieber Meister, but moreover, with the Prairie Houses, grafts onto a trend of traditional American architecture, and later is to take up suggestions from Japanese architecture, the Indios, and the Maya, etc.

But the point is that Wrightís architecture implies, effectively, a concept of time centred on personal experience: in Wright's vast and consistently experimental new production there is never--as was his intention--any dialectic or contrast of elements that might in any way warp or unbalance the perfect and congruent organic nature of the whole--the temporal and creative process experienced as a total subjective participation in this disposition of materials in planes and volumes which follow the seams of the earth on which they stand: where calculated spatial equilibrium is involved with the responsiveness of the materials to light absorption, force of gravity, etc. Wright has consciously moved well away from Sullivanís volumetrie precision, (the crispness of edges and the grid-framing that define it) which reflects the disenchanted rationality of his composition. The plasticity of the ornamentation which in the Masterís architecture served as a structural counterpoint,is in Wright, resolved in the absolute congruence of space-form-structure. This congruence is expressed from the outset in the Prairie Houses, by the brushing aside of the traditional box construction (punched with holes here and there to lighten the interior) and the adopting of a free, static, formal balance of horizontal planes (on orthogonal axes) and vertical elements.

The cosmic Infinite, the Order of Nature, assumed as absolute terms of comparison, quiver, and are expressed in the orthogonality of the horizontal axes, in their four directions indicating the striving for totality. This striving, runs through all of Wrightís work: at times, becoming more enigmatic as a result of the diagonal direction in the orthogonal modular rhythm of the plan (in the project for the Nakoma Country Club of 1924; in Taliesin III, 1925; in Taliesin West, 1938; in the project for the Florida Southern College, 1938); at others, expressed in the circle motive (in the Johnson Offices, 1936-1939; in the project for the Ralph Jester House, 1938; in the project for the Glen McCord house, 1948; in the project for the Harry G. John Jr. house 1948; in the Greek Orthodox Church, 1956; in the plan for Greater Baghdad, 1959; in the Key Project Apartment and Hotel Kona Coast of Hawai, 1959, etc.); or even emphasized and developed in the uncoiling spiral on a circular plan (in the design for the Gordon Strong Automobile Objective and Planetarium, 1925; in the Guggenheim Museum from the initial sketches for the project in 1943; in the project for the Keith house, 1947; in the Morris Shop, 1948; in the project for the Pittsburgh garage, 1947; in the house for Mr. and Mrs. David Wright, 1950; in the project for the Baghdad Opera House, 1957). To these symbolic forms, one may add the cusp, the pointed tower that shoots up to the sky, tapering off aloft, in a dynamic centrifugal tension, a kind of rocket aimed at the cosmos, since, if Earth is the great Mother--Wright seems to be saying--the emotional and cognitive initiative which projects him into new levels of being, is the concern of her son--Man. In Wrightís later work we find a multiplicity of tower projects (a very representative example is the Mile-High Skyscraper, which terminates significantly in an aerial) or of cusps which are often accompanied by the circle or the uncoiling spiral (projects for Baghdad, the Pittsburg Golden Triangle, Marin County, 1959-62).

But are these really contradictory symbols, or are they not, rather, embodiments of that same Unity and Totality for which Wrightís architecture has always striven, in diverse forms? From the quaternion to the circle, to unity; from the rustic Prairie Houses to Marin County which, from the figurative point of view, looks like a space station rather than a civic centre; or to the Key Project, for example, on the round Ellis Island off New York where the gigantic piers supporting the cylindrical towers are buttressed against the wind by steel cables fixed to the ground, while the semi-spherical mounds and rounded hollows give the earth the leavened aspect of a lunar landscape. The inhabitants too, and the land and airborne vehicles (helicopters), which animate the latest perspectives illustrating the utopian city of Broadacre are by now, on the fringe of science-fiction, the comic strip and, one might almost say of Pop Art, were they not devoid of humour or of Pop intention.

Through a long series of metamorphoses and incarnations or re-incarnations in serial form, in keeping with the horizontality of the Middle West prairies, in harmony with the plant fibres of the sahuaro and the cactus of the Arizona desert, cantilevered over water-ways or from rocky peaks overlooking the Pacific Ocean, set out in terraces, ramps, or on piers, according to the nature of the soil and the landscape, here, we have, in the Fifties, this prodigious explosion of architectural forms, that now look towards the utopian world of science-fiction. The parabola has come to an end, and we, in our amazement, are left wondering how in Heavenís name, all this could have come about; what is worth saving from this alchemistís cauldron in which the most disparate of substances are fusing over the heat of a sacred fire, now lost to us?

For Wrightís great strength, his constant striving for Unity and Totality within the process of change, this slow but continuous current in which the forms of all beings are altered, appears today, his weakness and limitation too, which coincides of course with the assumption and identification of an individuai psychological time cycle with the great naturai cycles.

European rationalism

The third great American architect following Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright is Louis Kahn. His work is located entirely on this side of the rigid crystalline screen of European rationalism, introduced in America mainly by Mies and Gropius, and which made its impact especially in the Fifties.

This screen, as we shall see later, works on Louis Kahnís personality and architecture like an optic filter through which the light beam of Wrightís temporality is newly decomposed into two diverse time concepts, complementary to one another: the contingent-- individual and the natural-- historical; the finite and the infinite; the conscious and the unconscious. Here we have a return to the dichotomy that had haunted Sullivan and which he expressed philosophically by focusing on the real meaning of the Personality of Man and on his creative Power over his institutions and their fundamental nature, and which he expressed architectonically in the essential combination and co-existence of strong, clearly stressed volumes, and an intricate form of decoration gnawing into the surfaces and designating his architecture as typically nineteenth century.

But a pause and petrification of the flow of change by way of European rationalism was necessary, to acquire the consciousness of this dichotomy once more, together with a sense of the impact of the language, a historical sense and a temporal dimension relevant to our times. It was necessary, in order to interrupt and suppress the causal and finalistic order in favour of a static and synchronic systematization which should approach as far as possible the cognitive methods of Science. Similarly to what had taken place in biology with Cuvier more than a century earlier, the European rationalists carried out a revolutionary classification of architectural forms and organisms; just as Cuvier had asked himself if there was not a possible discriminatory morphological principle beyond the classifications and categories of Linneus' natural history, more intrinsically necessary and connected to the intimate nature of biological organisms, and had identified such a principle with the vital organic functions of these organisms, so the rationalists (by-passing all stylistic and descriptive codifications and prescriptions laid down by the Beaux Arts treatises), bound architectural phenomenology to the discriminatory principle of anthropological-social functions, which were considered by them to be the determining matrix of every architectural fact.

The building types which the rationalist classificatory system gives rise to, are pure static and formalizing concepts, a static ordinance of being, not unlike Cuvierís biological types; they do not therefore, acknowledge the causal and dynamic order of change that lies at the base of organic philosophy and the organic concept of function. In fact, when Sullivan says: "The Function creates and organizes his Form", he is explicitly referring to a dynamic function, that is, a vital process with an end in sight, subject to a principle analogous to the Aristotelian one of entelechy. This clearly results from the examples given: "The oak tree expressed the function oak, the pine tree the function pine..." where the function oak and the function pine are, in reality, functional-natural structures or organisms seen as a process of temporal growth.

On the other hand, the anthropological-social rationalistic functions are a simple analytic grid through which the various possible building types are specified. These are based on the optimum calibration of the elements involved, to the ends of attaining and maintaining standards in the fields of building, town-planning, sociology, and economics, which would be universally valid and acceptable in that they were based on objective units of measure (the functions) as well as on objective technological data.

Of course, the rationalistic standards are not merely of service as scientific and quantitative measurement: at the same time, they are also a means of communication and exchange, where, in fact, the objectivity of the communication is based on the adoption--as Gropius puts it--of a "common denominator". It follows that the problem of individuai expression can no longer be considered significant or centrai to the work of art: and the statements of Gropius, Mies, Taut, and Haring, agree on this.

In 1924, for example, Mies declared: "We are concerned today with questions of a generai nature. The individuai is losing significance; his destiny is no longer what interests us. The decisive achievements in all fields are impersonai and their authors are for the most part unknown. They are part of the trend of our times towards anonymity."

In 1921, Bruno Taut said: "We must again commit ourselves to the great current uniting us with those who will come after us; just as in the age when European civilization was most powerful the construction of cathedrals was left half-finished for decades, and then returned to, we must again adopt another measure of time, which will enable human life to find fulfillment which will be all the greater precisely because of its effective lack of greatness."

And in 1932, Hugo Haring wrote, "The artist can only assume an intrinsically contradictory attitude towards functional form, until he divests himself of his individuality; for in the quest for functional form, what we want is not to fulfil the artistís individuality, but instead, to grasp the essentiality of a serviceable object and make it as perfectly functional as possible."

Even Le Corbusier, a figure who stands apart in European rationalism, considers functions as an indispensable filter for setting production standards. In his Vers une architecture Le Corbusier writes: "With its objectivity, architecture rouses the most brutal instincts; in the same way, with its abstraction, it encourages the noblest feelings. Architectural abstraction has this magnificent quality: that while it is rooted in brute fact, it nevertheless spiritualizes that fact, for the brute fact is nothing but the materialization or symbol of a possible idea." This direct passage from the functional to the formal and rational fact, almost as if it were a step in a chemical process of sublimating solid matter into vapour, is characteristic of Le Corbusier and of his formal world: so free and yet so bound to a classifžcatory vision of structural and functional elements. But, as I said, Le Corbusier stands apart in European rationalism, in that he does not accept the extreme consequences of it; that is to say, the substantial decentralization of the subjective contribution from the process of creation and research, let alone the explicit attempt to create a formalization and a static-analytic construction of the expressive language in relation to an increasingly scientific approach to this. Rationalism, then, brings us to the very antipodes of organic morphology: where the expressive and linguistic problem (so acutely formulated by Sullivan as individuai creative ability in relation to the impact and requirements of institutions and later resolved univocally by Wright as an exclusive and absolute Man-Nature relationship) is anyhow focused on the subjective contribution and is keyed to the order of change, temporal memory, and diachronic stratification.

Louis Kahn and modern cognitive space

I think that the meaning and importance of the architecture and thought of Louis Kahn rises betwen the two opposite poles of American organicism and European rationalism, like a glowing are lamp. The Beaux Arts aspect of Kahnís architecture, an aspect which has so long been discussed and accepted as a main element characterizing and determining his work--seems to me only secondary and incidental, in any event, in no way central to the real historical meaning that his work has taken on for us.

This meaning lies in the new ambiguous dimension, in the difficult coexistence of past and present, synchronous and diachronic, measurable and immeasurable, that Kahn has managed to achieve, opening a breach in the closed circuits of Wrightís organicism and European rationalism. In themselves alone, these two experiences, these two approaches, so coherent and conclusive, to architectural dialectics are no longer fruitful: there is no valid school of Wright, and European rationalism has slipped into the commercialism of the "International Style".

It has often been said, even by such students of thought processes as Max Wertheimer, that he who has struggled unsuccessfully for a long time with a certain problem, eventually realizes that there can be no solution to the problem unless it is formulated differently. That is to say, as Louis Sullivan had already declared in The Autobiograpby of an Idea: the solution to any problem is already implicit in its very formulation.

Louis Kahn has reformulated the problem of architecture. He began at the beginning as Sullivan had done, by asking himself where Manís creative Power lies,--what his Personality is,--what his institutions are. Sullivan gave an answer to these questions, an answer which most succinctly may be expressed as follows: The Man of the new architecture is the Man with Needs but also with redeeming Power. In this formulation, fundamental to American organic and democratic architecture, we find the dramatic confrontation of the two terms: Needs - redeeming and creative Power,--and all vital works oscillate between these poles.

And in this dark and ambiguous zone, where there can be no certainty except for the obscure urge to achieve something vital, in this painful oscillation between the subjective and the objective (might not "conscious and unconscious" be more precise and expressive terms?) Louis Kahnís tbought is rooted. Beyond the rationaiistís analytical logie and Wrightís demiurgic creative will, Kahn strangely returns to a definition of the creative and vital process very similar to Sullivanís. Sullivan had said: "...Intellect is recent, and neuter, and unstable in itself, while Instinct is primordial and procreant: it is a power so vast, so fathomless, so omnipresent, that we ignore it; for it is that power within whose dream we dream,--even as in our practical aspect, our hard-headed, cold-blooded, shrewd, calculating suspicious caution we are most obviously dreamers of turbid dreams, for we have pinned our faith to Intellect; we gaze in lethal adoration upon a reed shaken by the wind."

What Sullivan calls Instinct, Kahn calls Feeling, and he connects it to the Psyche (or unconscious). The Psyche is identical with the vast fathomless and omnipresent power of which Sullivan writes, the source of all our dreams and desires, our vital and creative drives. "The Psyche," says Kahn, "is the source of what a thing wants to be." This is at one and the same time, within us, and outside of us, something that both belongs to us and eludes us. The dividing line across which Needs and redeeming and creative Power face each other, runs through our entire field of consciousness, until it reaches the origin of the creative act, where that which is about to take shape responds to our incitement and yet is ready to come into being on its own account ("From what the space wants to be the unfamiliar may be revealed to the architect," says Louis Kahn); it is both new and ancient, both an unknown entity, and an Institution. Is this not perhaps the meaning of Institutions? We ourselves are their creators, and yet they limit us and transcend us in accordance with their own laws; our language itself is an Institution; and in reality, our cognitive-expressive field is by no means a smooth and continuous surf ace: it is neither the diachronic and psychological field of Wright, nor the formalizing synchronous one of rationalism; it is, on the contrary, a mass of cracks and fissures, subject to the pressures of unknown forces. Rationalist Functions--but can we really take them for granted once and for all?

Can we really deceive ourselves that they are rationally measurable? One espies through the network that defines and measures them, the mythical, fathomless depth of Institutions, and their cone of shade projecting over the functional frame-work, affecting its clarity.

Let us try to invert the cognitive-expressive system and appeal to our central will to order (Wrightís Order of Nature) instead of to an exterior classificatory system: we find that this Order of Nature escapes us, leaving us with a pack of meaningless forms, because Nature is by definition, everything that exists outside of us and--without us. But if we finally give up our illusion of a tangible, concrete, operational continuity, whether it be the rational, quantitative and extra-subjective continuity of functions, or the psychological, temporal, and subjective continuity of Wrightís consciousness; if we admit that our every conscious act is foreshadowed in our unconscious, in a past that belongs to us only to an infinitesimal degree and in a present for the most part extraneous to us--if we acknowledge that our every function, for the very reason that it is a human and social function, is raised ipso-facto to an Institution, and on the other hand that the most authentic meaning of Institutions is the original (which paradoxically means a contradiction of the "historical" attributive), that human needs and functions are increasingly complex, new, and varied, and yet always unchanged--and that therefore, man, in search of his own nature, indefinitely approaches the search for the origin, ...if we admit all this, we shall find ourselves very near Louis Kahnís thought. The theory of Institutions is central to this thought, for here, in Institutions, we find the measurable and the immeasurable inextricably bound together, that which concerns pure physical function, and that which symbolically transcends and forms it into a constellation of significant and ever diverse systems. Every system is a world in itself, a coherent and organic whole in which the architect limits himself to creating "what a thing wants to be" within the laws of the system. But a the same time everything refers back to its origins, to that desire for life and for being, which preside over every human Institution and over the very realization of Manís being. When Kahn writes: "The Psyche is the source of what a thing wants to be" he means that life (or the drive towards being) runs through us but does not belong to us individually, so that man finds himself curiously decentralized with respect to his own work: which as Kahn himself says, is an achievement all the greater, the less it pertains to Design (i.e. the contingent, measurable, and subjective) and the more it belongs to Form (i.e. the transcendental, immeasurable, and universal). Between Form and Design, the creative process takes place as an indefinitely repeated shuttlying process, and by this the plot of the work is laboriously woven; a plot which is a strip stretched across the non-homogeneous, the non-continuous, or in the end--the unconscious.

Almost inadvertently, we have passed from Sullivanís considerations, steeped in the meaning of history,to those of Kahn which, instead, seem not to take into consideration any possibility of consequential-temporal participation. Does not the search for the Origin and the Primal Idea represent a leap forward and beyond the phenomenology of building types belonging to the past? Does not Kahn explicitly advise us to forget the barren and false fashions of current building and wholly reinvent the architectonic organism? Moreover, the Beaux Arts forms of his architecture have a very precise figurative function, and bear witness to his particular creative process, which disregards actual and legitimate temporal sequences and is always ready for slips of the memory, and that mysterious selection of form, which is all the more mysterious in that the form rises out of a submerged world. This explains the widespread prejudice that Louis Kahnís architecture is academic, monumental and historically out of context.

In reality the arches, squares, cylinders, skylights, exedrae and symmetrical axes which spring from this architecture in ever richer and more complex ways, give rise, once they are realized, to fragile and powerful simulacra of the discontinuous and the non-homogeneous, of what is ours and at the same time what is not. The clean-cut surfaces of the walls are slim diaphragms, the flexible and unconventional use of which creates a continuous interplay of light and shade,--highly refined and complex filters of the energy field of light; but the light relayed from these surfaces is an unreal light, une lumiŤre 'autre'. The more intelligent and pertinent the use of Design and appropriate the choice of materials, perfect the technique of execution and detail, meticulous the expression of all the static forces involved, the more the measurable enters the realm of the immeasurable, and from what is physically and tangibly present, from surfaces, cracks, holes, and pools of light, it blows like a metaphysical, weightless breezewithout the weight of earthly gravity I mean, but in return, laden with allusions to mnemonic depth and dimension and to everything that this architecture, in its fragile, contingent, physical and almost miraculous equilibrium "is not."

What it "is", in fact, one can always define as the product--temporary, fleeting, as limited as you may wish--of everything it "is not", of this immeasurable and vast force which presses on and continually urges new events.

In this sense, and almost reversing the terms of the problem, Kahnís architecture recovers the sense of history and re-proposes the basic theme of Sullivanís aesthetics: that of the impact and weight of the language, of its dangerous and inescapable semantic burden, with which all creative projects must struggle. But in Sullivan, who had also been strongly attracted towards what "is not" the sense of history and the surrender to the infinite represented only a necessary counterweight, an alternate phase of what "is" and what comes to light; just as the seed must lie in the darkness of the earth before it flowers and vegetates, so the artist must plunge into the depths of life and language before creating something new. The semantic weight of language and Manís depth of Personality are actually only the fertile ground out of which creative Power will rise to preside over any authentic architectonic organism, over its pursuit and acquisition of its own form (just as in naturai organisms) through the oscillations, phases and seasons of change.

But in Kahn, the finite-infinite dichotomy has another meaning which in no way implicates Sullivanís vital dynamism towards a formal-formative end. He, on the contrary, proposes modern cognitive space, in which (after filtering through European, rationalism), the subjective and individuai can be realized only by limiting, denying, decentralizing itself; but in which, on the other hand, the assumption of subjective finitude with its incessant selfquestioning as to the myth of the Beginning, in a vital and problematic way brings up for examination once more the synchronous and logical classifications of rationalism, pointing from behind its fragile, immobile, and provisional screen, at the dark and blind forces of change in progress and the inevitable erosion of time.

Architectural morphology in Louis Kahn

From a more specifically architectonic--spatial viewpoint, the Kahnian divergence from the rationalist functional classifications has involved the revolutionizing of the trilithon system and all those attributes which have since set up rationalism as the so-called "International Style"; for example: the open plan, or independence between functional space and structure; the sheath faÁade (Le Corbusierís brise-soleil frontage, or the curtain-wall) which are also the result of the independence of functional space and structure, and finally, the containment of this space in prismatic volumes, geometrically pure, but intractable to plastic articulation responding to functional needs.

But it was precisely this which Wright had sought for, from the very beginning, when as a young man of twenty he had proposed the abolition of the brick box and the realization of a formal organic plasticity, freely expressive of its functions. But now, after the umpteenth process of metamorphosis in coherent homage to the Wrightian himm to life, his morphological research, this rich patrimony, which seemed destined to remain immured in books on the History of Architecture, re-appears, to sustain--but not in an immediately recognizable manner--the experience of Louis Kahn.

The theory of "served" and "servant" spaces (applied from his very first works, and particularly in evidence in the Philadelphia Towers), the repudiation of,the "package" and the pursuit of more highly articulated and complex architectonic organisms (from the Philadelphia Towers to the Salk Laboratories, the Ahmedabad School and the Assembly Hall at Dacca) where the formal volumetrie clarity of the various functions is combined with the invention of new and subtle systems of light distribution; all these elements offer us an architecture of open forms, integrated with the plein air of the surrounding landscape. In this Kahn follows Wright and accepts his teachings. But as I said before, the unity of the Wrightian temporality is, in Kahn, split by the dichotomy of the finite and the infinite, the contingent and individuai opposed to the natural and historical. Thus, the integration of architecture and plein air cannot have the same meaning for Kahn that it had for Wright, because whilst Wright sought to confirm the total organic integrity of the Natural Order, Kahn limits himself to observing that the architectonic organism, in that it is a subjective and finite product, is always foreshadowed in the natural and cosmic infinite. And the open form, this constellation or system of forces in dynamic equilibrium, becomes then, emblematic of the spatial infinite in which it finds its place.




Quondam © 2002.08.12