Form Follows Function

One of the 20th century’s most eminent designers, Louis Kahn was a Modernist pioneer, as much artist as architect. The Design Museum, London, hosts the first major retrospective for 20 years.

Described in his New York Times obituary as having been “one of America’s foremost living architects”, Louis Kahn (1901-1974) was an expert manipulator of form and space, a masterful choreographer of light, and a trailblazing visionary amongst the architects of the mid-20th century.

Both a contemporary of and influence on leading names such as Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Peter Zumthor and Sou Fujimoto, Kahn was categorised as a Modernist, and although his design ethos is certainly in keeping with the movement’s principle of “form follows function”, his heavy aesthetic is far removed from the light panels and glass panes that were favoured by Modernist architects such as Le Corbusier or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

An artist as much as he was an architect, Kahn was uncompromising in his attitude towards his designs. This has meant that few of his ideas were ever realised, so his legacy is chiefly represented by his everlasting impact upon future architectural generations, and in a handful of remarkable institutions such as the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, which was designed to be “a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso”, and otherworldly, monumental forms such as the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture  was initially presented by the Vitra Design Museum in 2013 and stands as the first major retrospective of Kahn’s work in two decades. An archive of the designer’s life as much as a survey of his work, the exhibition encompasses an unprecedented number of original sketches, paintings and photographs from Kahn’s many travels, as well as previously unpublished film footage which was shot by his son Nathanial Kahn, who directed the intimate documentary portrait My Architect  (2003).

Alex Newson – curator at the Design Museum – explains that these personal elements are necessary inclusions due to the way in which Kahn was “influenced by his travels, the architecture and the antiquities he saw all over the world. I don’t think you can tell the story of [Kahn’s] architecture without telling his story; without doing that you’re missing a piece of the puzzle.”

Not only influenced by the explorative life he led as an adult, Kahn’s career may also have been greatly affected by his youth. Born in Estonia to impoverished Jewish parents, and emigrating to Philadelphia before the age of five, Kahn was home-schooled due to his weak constitution after a severe bout of scarlet fever and the facial scars left by an earlier accident. When he finally attended school, he was introverted, yet so gifted that he eventually won a scholarship to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania; here he was given an Ecole des Beaux-Arts training by Frenchman Paul Philippe Cret, an unusual education for an American architect.

The combination of Kahn’s low self-esteem, immigrant status, artistic temperament and the fact that he worked through the 1930s Depression were all contributing factors to Kahn’s lack of a concrete success – literally – during his lifetime. However, it was his artistic eye and appreciation for a broad range of cultures which made his work so significant, and Kahn himself “very different from any architect practising at the time or since.”

Kahn made brave decisions: “He worked in parts of the world which were perhaps unfashionable to work in at the time – in Bangladesh for example – where none of (his more evidently successful contemporaries) were working.” Still, it was in Bangladesh that Kahn’s most iconic work was realised: the National Assembly Building in Dhaka (1962-1983). Seen as the epitome of Kahn’s work, this vast structure was completed – unfortunately posthumously – by hundreds of local labourers strictly according to regional construction methods. It is an example of a completed version of Kahn’s idealised “city of the future”: 200 acres of reinforced concrete and brickwork, it holds all seven of Bangladesh’s parliaments and incorporates meeting places, restaurants, offices and places of worship as well as lakes, residences and lawns. Channelling light through large geometric porticoes it illustrates Kahn’s masterful “understanding of how light can change a building”, Newson also states: “Architecture appears for the first time when the sunlight hits a wall. The sunlight did not know what it was before it hit a wall. He did things completely in his own way and that’s why the architectural community holds him in such high regard: because he did stand alone.”

To survey the life and work of such a fascinating character is no mean feat, and to do so The Power of Architecture  is divided into six sections: City, Science, Landscape, House, Eternal Present and Community. City  examines the relationship between Kahn and his work in Philadelphia, his adoptive home and in which “he taught for a great number of years, and spent a lot of time trying and failing to remodel.” To Kahn the city was a laboratory in which to experiment with new architectural principles and, possibly for this reason: “He had quite a fractured relationship with the city planners in Philadelphia and (the city) was something that mattered to him a great deal.”

Science “looks at structure and how Kahn’s buildings are built. His was not a typical modernist perspective: he used a lot of brick, stone and concrete but there was also quite a lot of high tech structural engineering to underpin that.” Much of Kahn’s structural development occurred during his work at Yale University; it was with colleagues such as futurist, inventor and architect Richard Buckminster Fuller (perhaps an unlikely choice for Kahn, as a Modernist) and engineer August E. Komendant, a fellow Estonian immigrant, that Kahn created entirely new methods of concrete construction – later utilised for the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven (1951-1953) and the Richards Medical Research Laboratories in Philadelphia (1957-1965). Although varied, the cubic Art Gallery and high-rise towers of the Laboratories are both formed of prefabricated concrete pieces and so do not need the foundations and steel framing required by more traditional builds.

Conversely to Kahn’s status as a second-generation Modernist, the Richards Medical Research Laboratories have even been recognised as a “potent design alternative to International Modernism” by Emily Cooperman, a specialist in historic preservation at the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. Whilst Modernist buildings create unified spaces and minimise weight and load, within this Laboratory building Kahn made divides between served and servant spaces (i.e. areas for maintenance work), evoked historic architectural forms and used an openly weight-bearing structure. The progress and debate incited by Kahn’s seemingly simple design for the Richards Medical Laboratories has allowed the building to become one of his most influential works, and it has been hailed one of the most significant pieces of architecture to have been built after World War II.

As his design for the Richards Medical Laboratories communicates, the core of Kahn’s process was based on the notion: “Listen to what your materials can tell you.” For example, when working with a material as strong as concrete, why not allow it to support itself? Something of an eccentric, Kahn is seen in My Architect  explaining his methodology, very literally, to a class: “If you think of Brick, you say to Brick, ‘What do you want, Brick?’ And Brick says to you, ‘I would like an Arch.’ And if you say to Brick, ‘Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over you. What do you think of that, Brick?’ Brick says, ‘I would like an Arch.’ It’s important, you see, that you honour the material that you use. […] You can only do it if you honour the brick and glorify the brick instead of short-changing it.’’ It is filmic extracts such as this, which feature throughout the exhibition, that provide an intrigue and true authenticity.

Newson explains that Kahn was “very much a believer that there should be an honesty in the materials and their use.” He continues: “Landscape relates to the idea that his buildings have such a strong relationship to their environments, and that there’s often a huge amount of landscaping which takes part in rooting them to this.” Demonstrated by his work in Dhaka, natural forces not only inspired Kahn’s designs, but also became a contributing factor. Teaching his students that “Architecture is what nature cannot make. Architecture is something unnatural but not something made up,” he observed sun and wind patterns to organise the positioning of daylight and to achieve passive climate control, and incorporated traditional building techniques which considered regional weather conditions.

House, studies Kahn’s residential designs – often prototypes for larger forms – and is linked to Community  by the designer’s consideration of spaces in terms of human experience. Kahn studied the way that “large volumes affect people’s behaviour and how moving from a large to a small volume and into communal spaces impacts upon our emotions.” With this in mind he looked at city planning as you would a house: residential districts become bedrooms, industrial areas are kitchens and streets are corridors. “Kahn was a big believer that buildings only exist due to their users, and that communities, as well as light, give right to architecture; they should be at core of what a building is and without people it’s just an empty monument.”

The social significance of building was at the epicentre of Kahn’s practice, and he is one of the very few (perhaps the only) leading architects ever to have designed a church, as well as many mosques and synagogues. His work is as sensory as it is scientific, which leads us to Eternal Present, which “discusses how [Kahn] looked to antiquity rather than Modernism.”

“He travelled a lot and said that he often envisaged his buildings as ruins to start with and worked backwards, placing his work in the context of Modernism and architecture history in general.” Kahn was convinced that contemporary architects should produce buildings that were as dramatic and inspiring as the ancient columned ruins of Greece, as were his own designs. Newson notes that Kahn “was not of a particular time as his buildings are monumental and spiritual; they have a root with antiquity which makes them timeless.”

This conviction explains the aesthetic and material differences between Kahn’s works and those of other Modernists. Newson explains that “there’s a famous film called ‘How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?  ’ ” which looks specifically at the work of English architect Norman Foster, and “this idea that high-tech architects wanted (their buildings) to be weightless, and to appear to be floating. Kahn’s are very different – they were built from brick and from concrete and you can see those materials in the building. They weren’t hidden at all, so you can read its construction.”

Working in the era of glazing, steel and glass, it is Kahn’s honesty of materials and appreciation of immense structures that separated him from his contemporaries. He is best described as a “second generation Modernist” who “had a very different interpretation of [the movement]: his was about weight and heft and buildings that were part of the landscape.” Kahn’s work is still being realised today, with his floating President Franklin D Roosevelt memorial Four Freedoms Park only completed in 2012 – characteristically featuring a granite roofless version of a Greek temple. Still, the architect’s story is as tragic as it is brilliant: he was bankrupt, alone, and carrying the unfinished designs for Four Freedoms Park  when he died on 17 March 1974 in New York’s Pennsylvania Station, on his way home after a trip to India.

While Newson states that “all architects that you speak to, even people like Richard Rogers, say they look to him as a source of inspiration”, Kahn was perhaps a victim of his own ambition, as clients and city planners found it difficult “to fully understand his vision. Kahn wasn’t willing to compromise his designs, but that’s why we now have such wonderful lasting buildings, because of his purity of vision.” Newson sums him up: “Unique is possibly not the best word, but it’s very hard to find a Modern architect to compare him to.”

Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture  runs from 9 July – 12 October, The Design Museum, London. For more information, visit

Chloe Hodge