In his angular forms and ardent theories a profession searching for prophets seemed to have found a new vision. …
With good reason, people seldom look twice at the random piles of brick, steel, and concrete that stand along our streets. Some of the exceptions were by Louis I. Kahn of Philadelphia. They were adventurous designs and he arrived on the scene at a time when architecture was hungry for daring new departures. It had come near the end of the paths laid down by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier; and Kahn seemed capable of rising to their stature. In a profession that dotes on heroes, he was one of the few America had at the time.
By conventional standards, his Richards Medical Building in Philadelphia is not a beautiful one. You are likely not to see it when you see it. Is brick towers, massive and stark, bristle on the skyline; the concrete structure below seems brutish: ugly pipes, ducts, and wires gnarl its ceilings; the concrete columns and walls throughout bear the corrugations left like birthmarks by the wooden molds. If one seeks a quiet, serene, or pretty architecture, you will not find it here.
The man who made this uncommon structure, and, before it Yale University’s Art Gallery among other works was also an uncommon man. Kahn was born on the Estonian island of Sarema in 1901. He was always interested in ancient ruins and in his office hung a colossal photostat of Robert Adam’s Roman phantasy, an eighteenth-century city of pantheons, baths, flora, temples, basilicas , colosseums, and libraries.
Where we can gauge work before 1950, Kahn’s efforts seem to have been modest and conscientious but in no sense a pioneer. He trained under Paul Cret, the brilliant French critic at Penn who designed one of America’s finest Beaux-Arts buildings, the Pan-American Union at Washington; thus Kahn learned early the discipline of organizing spaces on a monumental public scale. He also worked with George Howe and Oscar Stornorov on good examples of war housing, but nothing to suggest any bold departures.
It was his year in Europe in 1950-51, as resident architect at the American Academy in Rome , did Kahn begin to grow into his own intensely personal and comprehensive view of architecture. Sketchbook in hand, he traveled in Italy, making eloquent drawings of the Italian hill towns, capturing their masses by strokes of shadow. It was a critical experience for him, one that helped him see how architecture’s true concern is the magnificent play of geometric form in light.
With the Richard’s building, it began with the premise of deploring the dreary noxious cells that lined the corridors of most modern laboratories of the time, where foul air and gloomy rooms provided a setting self-evidently incompatible with scientific study. His argument, novel for the time, was that the best design for research would be a series of studios served by clean air and natural light. An isolated, self contained classical sort of structure would only intrude on an already confused and crowded site. Therefore Kahn decided to build a wall, not a building but a series of connected towers.
He arranged his stu
in the towers so that each got as much natural light as possible, and then joined the towers together so as to form a rhythmical chain of pavilions. The Richards Building is a spectacular example of this composition, not a single, self enclosed form but a linked series of accented units: an architecture of rhythm rather than balance, of transition rather than termination, of open rather than closed form.