A traveling exhibition of the work of Louis Kahn has finally come to Philadelphia where the architect made his name.
“Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture,” created in Germany by the Vitra Design Museum, has been around the world. Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum is the final venue for the show that includes models, drawings, urban design schemes, and interior re-creations that show the breadth of the architect’s thinking.
Back in the 1960s when he was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Kahn explained that his architectural ideas were about shaping light and silence. When he spoke about silence, he wasn’t talking about noise, but something fundamentally human.
“He used the terms ‘form’ and ‘law’ — he used many different words. He wound up in the end of his life with ‘silence,'” said Bill Whitaker, curator at the University of Pennsylvania’s architectural archive, which provided much of the material that makes up the exhibition.
“Kahn’s buildings are difficult to like at first. They can be raw, ugly, but there is an inner beauty in them that reflects a sense of connection that comes from silence,” said Whitaker.
Kahn taught at Penn for two decades, from the 1950s to his death in 1974, and he is often associated with Brutalism, a style involving a lot of raw concrete.
Kahn’s models show his experimentation with repeating geometric patterns. He made prototypes that accentuated stacked and interlocking angular shapes — most notably the zigzagging triangles of the City Tower Project, which was never built. We will never know how it would have felt to move through the building, but the exhibition allows us to appreciate the mathematical grace of its design.
Louis Kahn looks over his City Tower Project, which was never built. (Provided)
The exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum shows how Kahn took inspiration from ancient structures around the world. There are photographs and sketches he made during visits to the Egyptian pyramids and the Parthenon in Greece. The sketches suggest Kahn was less interested in their massive scale, moreso on the way light played off their surfaces.
“Even though he might use a lot of concrete, it doesn’t come off as a heavy material,” said Whitaker. “In the surfaces, he creates light and shadow joints. There’s a liveliness to the surface through the engagement with natural light — it defies gravity, in some ways.”
The exhibition includes drawings and interior re-creations of homes designed by Kahn, to drive the point that he was a maker of rooms, not walls. He only designed nine private homes, all in the Philadelphia region. As part of this exhibition, Whitaker will be giving tours of two of those houses.