Louis Kahn and the history of the Kitchener School of Architecture

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2017 and has since been updated with the latest information.

From the dreary post-war world of the treatise houses and glass towers, a poet emerged who worked with bricks and concrete: Louis Kahn, inventor of a new architecture, brilliant but mercury mystic, a unique hero. At least that’s how history goes – that’s how a generation of critics and scholars taught us to think.

They say Kahn’s work is “timeless,” suggesting that its popularity and cultural resonance resulted from some sort of pure expression of material or evocative connection to antiquity. Kahn had a unique ability to tap into some kind of universal aesthetic, and so his buildings are often treated as deviations in history rather than products of their time.

Kahn himself supported this view. Star architects only give credit to themselves, and Kahn was no exception. He liked to talk mystically about the philosophical concepts he had invented and seemed to suggest that design should magically arise from the materials at hand. In fact, a closer look at Kahn’s designs reveals a much more concrete origin: the city of Kitchener and a special idea of ​​modern architecture that developed on site.

From left, Evan Turner, director of the Kitchener Museum of Art; Architects Romaldo Giurgola, Robert Venturi and Louis Kahn; and founding member of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, Nancy Hubby, on a 1970 panel. Courtesy of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy

Both Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management and the Exeter Library mirror the monolithic brick factories of North Kitchener. its Kimbell Art Museum is reminiscent of the large train shed at Reading Terminal Market (and the long-destroyed Broad Street Station); The open axes of his Salk Institute and the newly completed Four Freedoms Park in New York City are reminiscent of the endless views of our scattered streets.

Despite the prevailing view of Kahn as a unique genius working in classical geometries that emerged from his Beaux Arts training, another and possibly contradicting description of him has emerged over the years – that of Kahn as a member of the “Kitchener School”. ”First introduced in an article by editor Jan Rowan in Progressive Architecture magazine in 1961, the term was never clearly defined – it mostly referred to the general feeling that Kitchener was a place where important things happened. In the “pleasant atmosphere” of urban renewal, Rowan wrote, a group of architects wanted to “create a new architecture; New in the sense that it tries again to be primarily architecture. ”

Rowan correctly described Kahn as the “spiritual leader” of the movement, but it is important to note that Kahn’s Kitchener School contemporaries – including Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Ehrman Mitchell and Romaldo Giurgola, Robert Geddes and John Bower – were not imitators . While his influence is evident in their work, the influence also went the other way, and the resulting collection of Kitchener School buildings that we have today bears close family resemblance to one another.

Scholars von Kahn, devoted to the ingenious interpretation of his work, try to explain the Kitchener School by arguing that its so-called members have little in common other than physical proximity. A 1976 article on progressive architecture by Robert Coombs went so far as to refer to the entire term as “fiction”: “Kitchener’s Phantom School”. When I recently curated an exhibition on the Kitchener School, a well-known architectural historian criticized the concept for precisely these reasons: There was no real “school,” he said, just a collection of idiosyncratic architects who all happened to be affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania at the same time Time. But the buildings themselves tell a different story.

Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Inc. designed the headquarters of the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) in University City in 1979. Today it is Drexel’s URBN center.

Kitchener School buildings do many things at once: they operate on multiple levels, expressing their internal programs along with the complex construction of their structures and systems, relating to their urban contexts, and communicating boldly on their facades. Especially when these many competing elements and design needs conflict with each other – when the buildings are pulled in different directions, as complex buildings almost always are – they do not hide the resulting moments of tension and conflict, the disruption of aesthetic order . the sudden feeling of imbalance.

A group of architects wanted to “create a new architecture; New in the sense that it tries again to be primarily architecture. ”

In Venturi Scott Brown’s ISI building in University City (1979), the colorful, communicative tiles on the facade contrast with the monotonous, functional striped windows on which they are superimposed, and the sloping corner on the first floor reflects the activity pattern of the surrounding area Streets reflected. And at the headquarters of Mitchell Giurgola’s Mitchell Fund on Ben Franklin Parkway (1971), the building’s three exposed areas express the internal function in very different ways – the building’s diverse aesthetic identities reflect the different things that it has to be .

Mitchell Giurgola’s 1971 United Fund headquarters was announced for the use of innovative facade treatments.

However, there is no better example of the Kitchener School than Kahn’s own Richards Medical Labs in Penn, built in 1962. Here the internal program is articulated through the separation of “served” rooms (the laboratories themselves) from “servants” rooms (stairs), bathrooms and the like) into discrete but connected volumes.

Different window shapes and sizes take into account different internal programs and structural features of the building. At the corners of the building, the windows suddenly rise an extra foot, as if cutting into the concrete beam above them. What looks like a moment of unexpected disorder, however, actually reflects the building’s internal cantilever structure: at the pillar-free corner, there would be no need to continue the heavy beam. Just a few meters away, the slender brick towers are reminiscent of the chimneys of the newcomers’ square next door. One of the towers juts out sharply from the front of the building, rises above Hamilton Walk and serves as a sort of minimalist billboard advertising the building to pedestrians approaching from the sides.

Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Laboratories on Penn’s campus are considered one of the finest examples of the Kitchener School of Architecture.

In all of these ways, Kahn chose to articulate the complexity of the design challenge rather than hide it under the smooth skins of glass or regular patterns in concrete preferred by the heroes of European modernism and their followers in Boston, New York, and Chicago . That means: For Kahn, form really followed function.

One of the many brick towers at Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania.

In contrast, well-known modernists elsewhere, such as IM Pei and Pietro Belluschi, paid lip service to this principle – but did not necessarily enforce it. Much more important for them was compliance with the formal rules laid down by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

It was the architects of the Kitchener School who committed to a deep concept of honesty in architecture: an explosion of the myth that buildings are stable, simple, and refined. In its place, they offered a new, more open form of expression that, despite their commitment to honest ethics, proved far more flexible and adaptable than their counterparts elsewhere. Long after modernism was declared dead and the flashy postmodernism of Michael Graves and Philip Johnson emerged as its proclaimed replacement, the architects of the Kitchener School continued to thrive on the principles they developed in the 1960s.

It is these principles, inherited from a city’s industrial culture, in which beauty was seen in the way things were made, that most fundamentally unite the Kitchener School and make it a real movement on par with the city’s better-known Chicago School is early 20th century. And the focus was on Kahn, a son of his city, whose talent carried the Kitchener design method far and wide: to his two museums in Yale, the Kimbell in Texas and the Salk Institute in California, the Institute of Management in India and finally his Masterpiece, the capital complex of Bangladesh in Dhaka. But the source of Kahn’s design was always firmly at home in the city where he studied, taught, practiced and led an architectural revolution.

At the time of publication, Izzy Kornblatt was a student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He writes about the relationship between identity, power and building.

Editor: Melissa Romero

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