Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California, USA, 1959-65. Photo by Peter Aprahamian

The reflective Louis Kahn

Some of this architect’s greatest creations are simple spaces for quiet contemplation, as our new book shows

In 1904, when he was aged just three, Louis Kahn became fascinated by the glowing red coals that burned in his family’s grate. The child shovelled the burning coals onto the apron of his pinafore; his clothes caught fire, scarring his hands and face for life.

“His facial scars, combined with the fact that he started school late (due to contracting scarlet fever shortly after the family’s arrival in the United States) and having to learn English, made Kahn shy,” writes Robert McCarter in Louis I Kahn, his newly revised and updated monograph dedicated to the life and times of this Estonian-born US architect. “This initial shyness and anonymity, followed by notice of his unique talents, was very probably the source of what would become Kahn’s acute sensitivity to the experience of being a student, a characteristic both of his own teaching and of his conception of the appropriate architecture of school buildings.”

Louis Kahn was a remarkably contemplative architect, how dining rooms and courtyards could serve as equally fruitful places for effective rumination, when compared with more conventional settings for reflection, such as libraries and galleries.

Kahn’s best known building is almost certainly the Salk Institute, a medical research facility in southern California founded in 1960 by Jonas Salk, the developer of one of the first successful polio vaccines.

Louis Kahn teaching graduate architectural studio, University of Pennsylvania, USA, c.1967. Picture credit: Eileen Christelow Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Given Salk’s background and his new institute’s brief, you might assume that the medical researcher came to Kahn with visions of a high-tech science campus. However, as McCarter points out, the two chose to work goethe because “in Salk, Kahn had found a kindred spirit, exemplified by Salk’s statement during their initial talk that he desired the Institute to be a place where the modern rift between the arts and the sciences could be bridged.

“In what was without question the greatest challenge ever given to Kahn, Salk asked him to design the Institute to be the kind of place where Picasso could be invited to meet the scientists,” writes McCarter. “Thus, from the very beginning, Kahn’s designs for the Salk Institute focused both on the places of work – the biological laboratories – and the equally important places of meeting, discussion and contemplation.”

Kahn reached back into antiquity to fulfil this new brief; in the summer of 1960 he wrote of his desire to visit the monasteries of northern Italy “which have a bearing on what I am doing for Dr Salk in San Diego”.

The final design, completed in 1965, stands as ”Kahn’s greatest and most seminal design”. It simply consists of parallel blocks of laboratories and studies, overlooking a central courtyard, through which runs a simple, open water course.

It’s a near perfect space; without any formal use, the space lends itself to simple contemplation better than any study hall. “The court changes throughout the day and throughout the season,” writes McCarter. “If you are there at sunset, as the scientists are every day, you see the most magical of transformations. The golden glow that fills the sky to the west is first reflected in the water of the ocean, and then shoots like a line of fire, up through the gathering darkness of the plaza’s stone floor, to reach its source in the cubic fountain. The perfect example of Kahn’s understanding that great architecture is truly timeless, this court is at once both ancient and modern.”

This ancient, yet modern quality is present in Kahn’s other great American works:The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, on Roosevelt Island, in New York.

The contemplative Louis Kahn

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Roosevelt Island, New York City, 1973, 2010-12. Aerial Photo by Stephen Amiaga

Here’s how McCarter describes the development of that project in his new book. “In early 1973 Kahn was commissioned by the New York State Urban Development Corporation to design a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, proposed for the arrowhead-shaped southern tip of recently renamed Roosevelt Island in the East River of New York City, with a view of the United Nations building.”

“For Kahn, who had been deeply involved in New Deal housing programmes, the commission was a particularly important one,” McCarter goes on, “as his client noted, Kahn ‘loved Roosevelt and knew much more about him than most of us.’”

Kahn died in the spring of 1974, and the park was only completed in 2012; indeed, in an earlier edition of McCarter’s book, it was included in the section for unrealised projects. “Yet this unprecedented realization of Kahn’s design, half a lifetime after his death, can be said to confirm his own remarkably optimistic attitude toward unbuilt designs, which he maintained were ‘merely waiting for the right circumstances’ to be realized,” notes McCarter.

Now known as Four Freedoms Park (in reference to President Roosevelt’s 1941 speech, in which he argued all people should enjoy the freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from want and fear), the park consists of a triangular garden which leads to a simple, open courtyard or ‘room’, as Kahn conceived of it. “The garden is somehow a personal nature, a personal kind of control of nature, a gathering of nature,” McCarter quotes the architect as saying. “And the room was the beginning of architecture.”

Kahn reaches back to that beginning via pre-classical allusions. McCarter calls it “ Kahn’s most archaic space, which he related to a temple space from the time before the Greeks.A 60 foot (18 metre) square room, closed on the east and west sides by 12 foot (3.7 metre) tall, 6 by 6 foot (1.8 by 1.8 metre) solid granite walls and paved in 6 by 6 foot (1.8 by 1.8 metre) slabs of granite,” writes the author. “The room opens at the south end, to the downriver view of bridges and the United Nations building, while the closer midtown skyscrapers to the west and piers of Queens to the east are blocked from view by the 12 foot (3.7 metre) tall walls.”

Despite being within sight of one of the busiest metropolitan areas in the world, Kahn's calm creation makes for a remarkably contemplative space. “It is at once monumental, in the way it forms and sculpts the end of the island itself, in the way it is constructed from massive granite blocks,” McCarter argues, “ and in the way it is proportioned and axially organized; and yet at the same time it is intimate, in our quiet contemplation of the ‘four freedoms’, in the meeting of individuals that takes place in the room, and in our paradoxical sense of being alone in the midst of the city. More perhaps than any other built work by Kahn, the Memorial is at once ancient and modern – having waited almost forty years to be realized, it is nevertheless timeless in the sense that it feels like it has been here forever.”

The contemplative Louis Kahn

Louis I Kahn

For more on this and many other works by this brilliant architect, order a copy of Louis I Kahn here.