Louis Kahn: The Quintessential Architect

By Robert Rohena

Architecture has always been a monumental statement. Architecture consumes energy and resources on a global scale and continually pushes the boundaries of what is physically possible. The product of all architectural endeavors leaves behind traces of when they were made. This is most evident in the different architectural styles, which can be chronologically understood through Socio-economic powers and advances in technology. Gothic churches show us the power of the Church and the latest invention of the pointed arch and flying buttresses. Modern skyscrapers show us the power of Capitalism and the invention of steel and elevators. Architecture has always had a temporal stamp of the here and now.

National Assembly Building, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Louis Kahn set out to break that rule. Kahn aimed to create timeless architecture. He wanted to make buildings that not only withstood the test of time such as the Pantheon or Parthenon, but design buildings that transcend time itself, not defined by the materials or methods used, but by the sense of wonder they instill in the viewer.

“A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and, in the end, must be unmeasurable.”

Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter, NH

Louis Kahn’s Exeter Library is a testament to this philosophy. Using the same brick as the surrounding Georgian Campus, Kahn creates a connection between his Library and its classical surroundings. Strategically chamfering the corners of the exterior to show the depth of the 4 facades and allow each face to read as wall. The square proportions of the wall and floor plan are reminiscent of Plato’s forms, as the building is felt to be a cube. Once inside, this theme of faultless geometry is evident again in the awe inspiring main atrium. This atrium, once entered, draws the eye up to 4 perfect circles cutting through a concrete cube, perfectly framing the multitude of volumes the library encompasses. All while supporting a massive, oppressive concrete light diffuser, like Atlases shoulders.

Another Master work by Mr. Kahn, one that I was lucky enough to experience for myself, is the Salk Institute in La Jolla California. The Exeter Library is more of a sublime building which uses grandiose gestures of geometry to frame the power of knowledge. By contrast, the Salk institute is less profound and takes a back seat to its surroundings. Designed as a research institute for biological studies, the Salk institute’s main feature is its barren travertine courtyard between two edifices. 

The Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA

The Courtyard has a small stream-like fountain that draws the eye to a perfectly framed view of California’s beautiful coastline, becoming a blank canvas for great scientific minds to wonder and inspire potential breakthroughs.   

The Salk Institute at sunset

 “The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.”

And then there is Dhaka. Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh is his Manifesto on architecture.

National Assembly Building, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The Cruciform plan is done with the rigidity and care of sacred buildings from antiquity. Using traditional materials and construction methods Kahn was able to create his crowning jewel.

Carved from these massive monolithic structures are expressions of pure geometry. Circles, squares, and triangles puncture thick concrete walls creating a multitude of layers. The Tension between the brutal construction methods and the light filtering through these expressions of geometry make it seem as if the light itself has carved these forms in an effort to see inside this marvelous expression of architecture.

Louis Kahn was able to capture the mystery and wonder of this world. Using the built world as his medium, Kahn was able to touch upon the infinite and create works of art that are timeless and truly inspiring.