The Philadelphia School, deterritorialized

Zodiac 17   September 1967

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The America of Louis Kahn is not the one of Frank Lloyd Wright nor the one of Gropius and Mies, that America turbulent and optimistic, bounded by the hopes of the New Deal. It is not the post-war America, confědent of proceeding in the right direction for herself and for the world; but a country involved in a revolution of human and social values much deeper than it appears. It is an America which is paying for past optimum, for incurable idealism; the America which is experiencing events unprecedented both for the masses and for individuals--events which now affect everyone and are no longer simply objects of contemplation and study. It is the America of civil rights and of the cities--of the urban regions, and urban settlement is a more complex and difficult thing than pioneerism. As architecture is the mirror of the times, Louis Kahn introduces methods and attitudes which are now necessary for rediscovering the qualifěcations of architecture in the buildings and in the cities. The early works of Louis Kahn, the community Center of Trenton, the bath house, the Adler house and later the Richards laboratory and the movement diagrams for Philadelphia, are not only the indication of a method but also a warning which brings the architect closer to his principles. All that happened more than ten years ago when the debate in architecture between content and form resolved in an eclecticist language and when the "naturalism" of Ronchamp altered many disciplined efforts of research.

In America the technological feat, the publicity-oriented architecture of the big corporation, the houses of the rich, the talk of buildings as objects to manipulate, the insistence upon visual theories of old type and, above all, the disregard of an artistic crisis in progress were faced with a primitive thought based on a quest for order. Defěning in simple terms the identity of the architectural space has been the basic contribution in the work of Louis Kahn, and all technological events consequently become architectural. In fact, many of the expedients of the so-called modem architecture, the architecture that was involved with "formal evolutions" are discharged, and the responsibility for the "present" is accepted without compromise. So Louis Kahn uses brick, concrete, cement blocks, current carpentry, not as an exercise of brutalism with its burdening preoccupation with matter, but because by relying on the natural economy of the building he makes the order more important than the expression and the structure of the space more important than its existence. It is for that reason that his architecture influences the young, in India, for instance, where such an influence may produce a very important effect proper for the place and its problems. Such a responsibility toward the present, a responsibility that many contemporary architects of great talent have abdicated in order to be advanced has produced aspects in his building which echo past situations. Louis Kahn has used the fragment of the Euclidian geometry, as probably a new geometry will be formulated in order to translate those simple postulates he proposed--postulates which became lost both in the stylistic sterility and in the avant garde ventures as well. But in those broken crystals are the signs of our reality, of a contradictory world where the contradictions give the true measure of our situation but where a coherent architectural dimension is indeed obtained. That is why Louis Kahn can avoid being a polemist. He can look at the past as at a personal experienceand reach at times for the same architectural conclusions as for one dedicated to the present, the discovery is associated with the re-discovery of things that man seems always to look for--the things that have accompanied the human struggle from the primordials and form the main points for a structural relationship. This is true in architecture and it is just such a structure of relationship that Louis Kahn has clarified both in terms of large structures or in terms of a house. The resulting architecture is not easy, as it is not based on generic improvisation, and its forms are not sweet, but it comes strong and strident as all the things that are said for the first lime. They employ precise elements which are rigorously composed to produce a precise identity of spaces "evocative" of different situations. It is perhaps the same rigor which characterized building of the "anti-classic" Palladio.

That Louis Kahn is in the stream of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies may be critically interesting. The important thing is that in his architecture many aspects are discernible--the solemn gestures as well as the humble, like the precious act of crossing a threshold described by Aldo Van Eyck. It is such a "presence" that becomes dramatically operative in the America of today where new necessities are revealed and it is possible to separate what is ephemeral from what is permanent. It is like saying that cities are reborn on a more just human rapport.

This absurd America which is probably passing through the most absurd moments of its existence has now come to rebuild its cities with programs for new urban settlements. It is on such a ground that the principles proposed by Louis Kahn may be developed and where architecture may find again its formative constant, establish the locus of the human things both on a public and intimate level. In a word, the locus of art as the union of a structural order with an order of events. Because the language which will characterize the new American architecture perhaps will not come exclusively from the technology and the great publicity but from the conctrn for the new residential, educational, and civic needs both on an urban and regional scale based on honest social and natural relationships, Louis Kahn has indicated a path which could have extraordinary development. His way of following it is peculiar and his choice as an artist, because Louis Kahn is himself as many of his contemporaries an idealist without illusions.



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