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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Louis Kahn

Sometimes in art, the story of the artist may be more interesting than the art itself. Leonardo comes to mind. Rembrandt and Rubens were both very fascinating individuals. Jacques-Louis David, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Georgia O'Keefe, Frank Lloyde Wright--their work lives on after them, but appeals now much more to artists than anyone else. But it's who they were as human beings, with their artistic genius marred by often very deep flaws in their personalities, that gives them universal appeal. We can't all identify with their art, but we can identify with their humanity. Sometimes these stories are not easy to tell.

Louis Isadore Kahn

He was born in 1901 in Estonia. When he was three years old, warming himself by the open hearth in the family home, the boy became fascinated by the unusual green flames of a lump of coal. He picked it up and put it in his pocket. His clothes caught fire. He covered his eyes with his hands, thus preserving his eyesight, but his face and much of his body became horribly burned, later disfigured by the healing scars. He became an ugly child, later an ugly man, and as a result, as an architect, cared little for the traditional smooth, shiny "skin" which was the hallmark of the International Style popular about the time he entered his chosen profession. His name was Louis Kahn.

Yale University Art Gallery, 1951-53, Louis Kahn
Shortly after the terrible tragedy that began his life, the Kahns moved to Philadelphia where young Louis was quite shy, quite self-conscious, but also quite the best artist in his class. It was this love of drawing, and the skillful ease with which he did it that saved him...also fed him and his family through the 1920s, the Depression, and the war years. He was fifty years old before he built his first major building, the Yale University Art Gallery (left). The building features a cylindrical core of unfinished concrete containing a massive spiral staircase built around a tall cube housing the elevator shaft and service elements of the building. The galleries splay out from that, roofed by a tetrahedral frame inspired by Buckminster Fuller. Critics called it ugly. At least no one complained about the building competing with the art as in the case of Wright's Guggenheim.

Richardson Medical Research Lab, 1957-65
University of Pennsylvania, Louis Kahn
Kahn had a wife and daughter. They lived with her mother. In 1945, he fell in love with a young female architect at the firm for which he worked. They also had a daughter but never married. Kahn couldn't bear to leave his wife and other daughter. He lived with both "families," and later fell in love with a third woman with whom he had a son. Add to this yet another extramarital affair with yet another young woman at his office. He did his best work late at night. He considered his office his home address. And despite his physical appearance, apparently found there no shortage of women to love.

The Salk Institute, LaJolla, California,
1959-65, Louis Kahn
When painters fail, they can destroy the canvas, or hide it away in a closet. When architects fail, their work remains on public view for decades, perhaps centuries. It was another seven years after his Yale Art Gallery before Kahn got his next commission, the Richardson Medical Research Building on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania (above, right). Ever the artist himself, he conceived the labs as "studios," stacked together like children's blocks--brick, concrete, and glass. The problem is that much research in the biological sciences required windowless environments. Also, while the spaces inside were flexible, they were not flexible enough. Some labs were too big, others too small. Research flowed out into the halls and public areas of the building giving the appearance of a crowded submarine.

Exeter Academy Library,
Exeter, New Hampshire,
1965-72, Louis Kahn
In 1958, Kahn began drawings for the Salk Institute, overlooking the Pacific near LaJolla, California (above, left). He continued doing drawings until the buildings were finished in 1965. This time instead of designing research "studios," he built research "galleries." An artist learns from his mistakes. Commissions came profusely thereafter. The trademark unfinished "ugly" concrete remained, along with exposed pipes and ductwork which often came to be the only decorative design elements in his buildings. Later commissions included the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (bottom), The library at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (right), the British Art Center in London, and government buildings in Dacca, Bangladesh. In every case the basic geometric shapes dominate--the cube, the cylinder, the sphere. In 1974, Louis Kahn suffered a heart attack and died in the middle of New York's Penn Station while return from one of his projects. His body remained unidentified in the city morgue over a three-day weekend because in his pocket, he carried only a small sketch book, and in his wallet only a slip of paper with his office address.

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1966-72, Louis Kahn

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