Buildings and Blocks

Loving Lou

There are lots of theories about what architecture is. The dictionary definition - the art and science of building - may be the most complex, suggesting a kind of hybrid activity that straddles often irreconcilable domains, the intuitive and the deliberate, the imprecise and the determinable. Then there's Louis Sullivan's 1896 declaration, startling for its time but marking the beginnings of the modern movement, that architecture is what it does, that its form follows function. The visual look of a building reflects the activities that take place within and the technology of its creation.

From that we move backward in time to theories even more arcane and abstract. German philosopher Goethe, for example, called architecture frozen music, his attempt to place it alongside painting and sculpture, poetry and music, things of beauty divinely created to counter the "worldly cares" that tended to obliterate them.

As an architect and musician, I've never found a direct relationship between the two creative fields, and have always found their differences more striking than their similarities. Theorists talk about both in terms of composition, rhythm, texture, order, structure, narrative, color, symmetry and so forth. But it's one thing to apply these organizing principles to solid, physical artifacts called buildings, and quite another to apply them to abstract, temporal creations dependent for realization on conductors, performers, and the technology of instruments. All human creative activity is defined by certain common organizational principles, but how those principles apply to each marks their differences.

Architects, of course, can make or enjoy music, and musicians occasionally dabble in the building arts. David Byrne, co-founder (with Brian Eno) of the rock group Talking Heads, studied architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, an education that notably permeates his music, art and filmmaking. Bruce Goff, chair of the architecture school at the University of Oklahoma, had his students listen to avant-garde composer Edgard Var¸se. As a hobby, Goff composed player-piano scores by punching paper rolls with patterns of holes that created music when run through the player mechanism.

Frank Lloyd Wright, an amateur pianist, requisitioned a Steinway grand for the opening of an exhibit in New York. After playing it, he tried to get it delivered to his hotel suite. Wright was known to have had a particular fondness for Bach and Beethoven as accompaniment when he was working. Architect Louis Kahn, a pianist since early childhood, earned spare cash playing at local bars and restaurants in Philadelphia. When he was given a piano as a gift, he had no choice but to sleep on top of it as it took up so much space in his room.

I was pondering all of this when, browsing the downtown library, I came upon a copy of "My Architect," a 2003 award-nominated documentary film about Kahn. Written and narrated by the Philadelphia architect's son Nathaniel, the film provides a detailed, intimate look at his personal and professional lives marked by controversy, rejection, and a few remarkable buildings.

His early work, like that of many of his contemporaries, was in a rigorous mid-20th-century style characterized by simple, bold shapes, flat roofs, the honest use of materials, and forms more or less following functions. The Yale University Art Gallery was as good a modern building as could be found in the US when it was completed in 1953, with elegantly proportioned galleries separated by luminous interior courtyards, window walls providing a continuity of indoor and outdoor space, and a concrete structure attempting to reconcile squares and triangles.

The Richards Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania (1965) went even farther in refining Sullivan's dictum. Kahn established zones that he called "served" and "servant," applying class warfare to the techtonics of building. Laboratories were housed in airy, transparent areas while mechanical equipment, vertical movement (stairs and elevators) and toilets - servant spaces - were enclosed in opaque brick shafts. While the building didn't work by any reasonable standard of functionality, its ideas changed architecture and architectural education forever, as designers and students began to group similar functions and express them in plan and volume through the use of specific forms and materials.

By the mid 1960s, with "modern" evolving into an eclectic neo-classicism (some call it post-modernism) and formalism overtaking functionalism, Kahn was again at the front of the movement. At the Salk Center (1965) in semi-arid La Jolla, California, two symmetrical research buildings face each other across a concrete-paved courtyard that opens, at its west end, to the Pacific Ocean. The complex looks great in photographs, especially black-and-white ones, but the space between the buildings is blank, devoid of vegetation, and oppressively hot in summer. It's hardly a place for human activity, but maybe that was the idea.

Later work became even more arbitrary and estranged from strict programmatic need. The Philips Exeter Academy Library (1972) in New Hampshire pushes bisymmetry to a new extreme. At its core is a central atrium framed by concrete walls and punctuated with superscaled, multistory circular holes, an architectural move so monumental one forgets the building serves teenage clients.

One of Kahn's favorite questions to his audiences, both student and public, was, "What does a brick want to be?" His answer was always, "An arch." But the architect's final work, the National Assembly Building (1982) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, contradicted this by the use of huge brick-adorned circular openings, about the last thing you'd imagine bricks "wanting to be." As one of his colleagues noted, the inconsistencies in Kahn's philosophy and work are expressions of his humanity.

Hosted by his former graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania who had entered the teaching profession, Louis Kahn visited the University of Tennessee on February 15, 1974, just a month and two days before his strange, untimely death in New York's Pennsylvania Station. Delivering a lecture in what was then the Hyatt Regency, he characteristically sat perched on a high stool, in jacket and bow tie, and talked, without slides, about his own theory of what architecture is. Only seven minutes of that lecture remain in a deteriorated video recording. Kahn's image, transparent and opaque, strong and frail, disappears into a screen of electronic snow. As Lou himself said that evening, "Nothing is destroyed, it just goes into change."

©2008 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice and was the last in the series.
Photo: Architect Louis Kahn in Knoxville, February 15, 1974