Rebirth of an icon: Louis Kahn's Jewish Community Centre

As the Trenton Bath House re-emerges from a major restoration programme, Phaidon.com speaks to the man behind the makeover
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Bath House entrance, with mural at the entry (now lost)

1 / 24 Bath House entrance, with mural at the entry (now lost)

Exterior of the Bath House pre-restoration (2010)

2 / 24 Exterior of the Bath House pre-restoration (2010)

Exterior of the Bath House pre-restoration (2010)

3 / 24 Exterior of the Bath House pre-restoration (2010)

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The Day Camp pavilions during restoration (2010)

6 / 24 The Day Camp pavilions during restoration (2010)

Day Camp pavilions pre-restoration (2010)

7 / 24 Day Camp pavilions pre-restoration (2010)

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Trenton Bath House, pre-restoration (2010)

9 / 24 Trenton Bath House, pre-restoration (2010)

View from the raised swimming-pool plinth

10 / 24 View from the raised swimming-pool plinth

Perspective view of the entry facade and playground field, fourth and final design; drawing by Kahn

11 / 24 Perspective view of the entry facade and playground field, fourth and final design; drawing by Kahn

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View from central forecourt to swimming-pool area (2009)

13 / 24 View from central forecourt to swimming-pool area (2009)

Interior courtyard view towards Day Camp area and changing rooms pre-restoration (2010)

14 / 24 Interior courtyard view towards Day Camp area and changing rooms pre-restoration (2010)

Interior courtyard view towards Day Camp area and changing rooms pre-restoration (2010)

15 / 24 Interior courtyard view towards Day Camp area and changing rooms pre-restoration (2010)

Bath House forecourt with circular gravel centrepiece (1957)

16 / 24 Bath House forecourt with circular gravel centrepiece (1957)

Interior courtyard view towards the basket room and changing rooms pre-restoration (2010)

17 / 24 Interior courtyard view towards the basket room and changing rooms pre-restoration (2010)

Entrance and inside changing rooms (1955 and 1956)

18 / 24 Entrance and inside changing rooms (1955 and 1956)

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Changing room, a hollow column is employed as the entry from the central court

20 / 24 Changing room, a hollow column is employed as the entry from the central court

Bath House shower room pre-restoration (2009)

21 / 24 Bath House shower room pre-restoration (2009)

Wooden roof structure with central oculus

22 / 24 Wooden roof structure with central oculus

Interior view of changing rooms pre-restoration (2010)

23 / 24 Interior view of changing rooms pre-restoration (2010)

Trenton Bath House forecourt, pre-restoration (2010)

24 / 24 Trenton Bath House forecourt, pre-restoration (2010)


Louis Kahn's designs for the Jewish Community Centre in Trenton, New Jersey, was a pivotal work in the architect's career, paving the way for major commissions such as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Richards Medical Centre in Philadelphia. Following years of water damage the Bath House and day camp pavilions underwent a major restoration programme during 2010. Phaidon.com spoke to Michael Mills, of Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects, the practice overseeing the project, about the significance of the bath house and the experience of repairing such an iconic work of architecture.

 

Q: How did you first discover the Bath House?

I've known about the Bath House since I was an undergraduate at Princeton. Kahn was talked about in reverential tones by my professors, who included Bob Geddes and Harrison Fraker. Henry Jandell taught a course on building materials and actually took us there on a field trip to see Kahn's use of materials. So Kahn was a big influence when I was a sophomore. More recently it's also a place that my wife and I have taken our children to swim!

 

Q: How important in the development of Kahn's career was his work at the Community Centre?

The commission was early in his career (he'd just started work at Yale [at the University Art Gallery] at the same time) - he was commissioned in 1954 with construction taking place in 1955. It is the first work where he experiments with 'servant and served spaces', a concept he explores in greater detail at the Richards Medical Centre (1957-61), the University of Pennsylvania and the Kimbell Art Museum (1967-72). I was fortunate to see the Kimbell Art Museum as a graduate and was awe-struck by the building. There are some clear similarities in elements such as how light is brought into the building. 

 

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the history of the commission?

The Bath House was the first phase of a larger commission to design all the facilities for the Jewish Community Centre, which included the Bath House itself, a day camp for children and a main building. Only the first two were completed to Kahn's design. By 1957, Kahn's relationship with the board had deteriorated and he was 'let go' right after the day camp was completed.

 

Q: How does the layout of the building work?

The layout is a cruciform plan comprised of a combination of square and circle forms, a device that Kahn employed right from the beginning in his designs for the building. It is a very classical, formal idea - I do think Kahn actively turned to classical precedents - which is also reflected in the procession to the Bath House and up to the pool. The entrance is actually on the inside south east corner of the building - you can't enter it from the main axis - and was identified by the landscape layout and a mural (now gone). You enter into a roof-less forecourt, which has roofed pavilions at each of the four corners. Immediately to your left is the basket room where you would check your street clothes and then you would go to the men's and women's changing rooms, change and then circulate back into the forecourt and the pool. It's a very formal, processional sequence of space. The concrete block walls are 15ft high. With the pyramidal roofs and the impressive space you feel like you're in a Roman ruin. 

 

Q: What was the state of the Bath House before the restoration?

It was in pretty rough shape. There are no gutters on the roofs so nothing to direct rainwater away from the concrete blocks, and they suffered from freeze-thaw. After 50 years of weathering they were really showing their age.

 

Q: What work have you carried out as part of the restoration?

We've repaired the concrete block, stitching in new block custom-made to fit the original cinder block which is no longer available. The roofs were restored to their original colour. We thought about putting gutters on the roof edges, but after consulting with Anne Tyng, Kahn's associate, who he was also romantically involved with, we did not. She explained that the idea was that the water would flow: off the roofs, over the masonary and into the drains. So, instead we've made the upper surfaces more durable than Kahn intended. We've also built a new snack bar. When Kahn was let go in 1957 the snack bar still hadn't been built. It was constructed in plywood and later in concrete block but it was never Kahn's intention to have it where it ended up. The new snack bar will form a picnic area courtyard, which is what Kahn intended for the West of the structure. Hopefully this project will mean the buildings will last another 50 or 100 years. 

 

Q: What has it been like to work on the project?

It's been both humbling and exhilarating. There's tremendous interest in the building and the site locally and internationally and I feel like every architect in my community is looking over my shoulder to see what we are doing! It's been a great experience for us and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.

 

Q: If Louis Kahn were to come back today, what would he think of the restoration?

I hope he'd feel we'd been good stewards of his work. I think he would have been vexed by the plywood snack bar installed after he left the project, and by the landscaping and the loss of the entry mural and central decorative circular element. The overall conception of the building was important to him and I feel we've brought that back. 

 

Michael Mills, thank you.




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