You don’t know what the building is, really, unless you have a belief behind the building, a belief in its identity and in the way of life of man.
—Louis Kahn

It has often been observed that in our secular, democratic age, the art museum has emerged as the symbolic building type par excellence, replacing the statehouse, palace, and cathedral as a prime repository of architectural ambition and prestige. Whatever hesitations one may ultimately have harbored about this development—moral hesitations, in part, about inappropriately exalting aesthetic experience at the expense of other values—there was certainly nothing mysterious about it. One did not have to be Matthew Arnold to grasp that religion (whatever private vitality it retained for believing individuals) had to a great extent lost its binding social force. Living in “the aftermath of the absolute,” to borrow André Malraux’s felicitous phrase from The Voices of Silence, one could easily have predicted that art and the whole realm of “creative” cultural endeavor would more and more step in as an important source of spiritual consolation. And one could also have predicted that architecture would follow suit, lavishing great attention on building the edifying structures in which ever greater crowds congregated to pay obeisance to their newfound cultural talisman.

The real shock is how vitiated it all seems today: the art, the architecture, the redemptive cultural experience that they once promised or at least presupposed. It is not, or not quite—not yet—that culture, too, has irretrievably lost the elasticity and seriousness that made it, for many, a grateful compensation for spiritual losses suffered elsewhere. Rather, it is that the dazzling proliferation (one hesitates to call it success) of the art world has had an immeasurably coarsening effect on public culture at every level, from the most refined and elevated to the frankly quotidian. Forget about the Mapplethorpes and Serranos of the world: their main interest is as exotic, perhaps depraved, curiosities; and the chief question their notoriety inspires is what it says about our culture that they should have come to occupy so central a place in the discussion in the first place.

The more persistent issue concerns the direction of high culture and the institutions that support it. Where in this age of media infatuation are they heading? In recent decades, few institutions have been more accurate barometers of shifting cultural tastes and anxieties than our art museums. The extraordinary growth of museums across the country has raised in the most immediate way possible questions about the role of the museum as cultural custodian, educational institution, arbiter of connoisseurship and artistic quality.

The more persistent issue concerns the direction of high culture and the institutions that support it.

On the one hand, the widespread ethos demanding a museum for every town, village, and hamlet—as well as exhibitions of every conceivable scrap of cultural trivia—has done much to dilute the art museum’s traditional concentration on preserving and exhibiting objects of the highest artistic achievement On the other hand, a feverish art market has helped to transform the contemporary art world—including much in the contemporary museum world—into a sordid cultural free-for-all obsessed with “trends” and reputations. The circus architecture proposed by Michael Graves a few years ago for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is only one of the most publicized architectural fiascoes threatening the museum world. Worse—because actually built—are the many aggressively undistinguished additions Kevin Roche has purveyed to the Metropolitan Museum to house their collections of contemporary art, the preposterous tower Gwathmey, Siegel is constructing to disfigure the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, and the meretricious museum buildings churned out by other fashionable architects like James Stirling, Robert Venturi, and Charles Moore.

In this context, it is useful to remind ourselves that the current situation is not, as it were, an inviolable state of nature, and that there are genuine architectural alternatives to the promiscuous chaos we are faced with today. As is often the case, a good start for anyone wishing to plot a course into the future is a glance at the lessons of the past. In the annals of recent museum architecture, there is no more rigorous and compelling example at odds with current trends than the twentieth-century American modernist Louis Kahn (1901–74). A current traveling exhibition that examines Kahn’s museums provides a good opportunity to review his accomplishments in this realm. Organized at the Duke University Museum of Art, “The Art Museums of Louis I. Kahn”1 includes over one hundred sketches, models, ground plans, elevations, presentation drawings, and so on for Kahn’s three completed museums as well as preliminary drawings that he did for the de Menil Museum project in Houston, Texas.

While Kahn also is well known for other buildings—the Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, or the Salk Institute Laboratories in La Jolla, California—he is probably most acclaimed for his museums. In fact, museums bracket his mature career. The Yale University Art Gallery (1951–53) was his first major commission, while the Kimbell Art Museum (1966–72) which most observers regard as his architectural masterpiece—was the last building he completed. Though under construction when he died, the Yale Center for British Art (1972–77), like all Kahn’s buildings, was still in a process of design evolution and had to be completed by other architects.

As Patricia Cummings Loud points out in her detailed catalogue essay,2 the story of Kahn’s career is a tale of the triumph of talent and perseverance over adversity, a classic instance of the American Dream come true. Louis Isadore Kahn was born on a small island off the coast of Estonia to poor, but literate, Jewish parents. When he was three, he suffered a horrible accident that disfigured him for life. Attracted by the colorful glittering of burning coals, the young boy reached into the fire and pulled some coals onto his apron. They immediately burst into flames, burning and irreparably scarring his hands and face. According to Mrs. Loud, his mother took the accident as a sign that her son had been “touched by destiny” and subsequently singled him out for special nurture and support.

The Kahns immigrated to the United States in 1906, settling near relatives in Philadelphia, the city that would be home for Louis for the rest of his life. Some two years after arriving, Kahn’s father, Leopold, sustained a serious back injury that put an end to his employment as a laborer. The family subsisted largely on the meager wages Kahn’s mother earned by her sewing and needlepoint. Despite their straitened circumstances, Kahn’s talent as a draftsman was recognized early and encouraged. One story has it that a drawing of a steamship that the five-year-old Louis did while crossing the Atlantic with his mother and siblings won him a box of oranges from the ship’s captain.

In high school, Kahn took a course in architectural history that decided him on his vocation. He went to the University of Pennsylvania to study architecture, and was there steeped in the Beaux-Arts tradition under Paul Cret. He completed his training in 1924 and, after working a few years as a draftsman and apprentice designer, managed to save enough money to embark on a yearlong tour of Europe. Returning to Philadelphia in 1929, he went to work for Cret, but the Depression soon put him out of work. The Thirties and early Forties were, Mrs. Loud notes, “lean years” for the architect. He worked with several firms, mostly on housing projects and designs for private houses. Finally, in 1951, his moment came: he was asked to take over as architect for the Yale University Art Gallery after Philip Goodwin (co-architect of the Museum of Modern Art) had to withdraw from the commission because of health problems.

Kahn’s strikingly original design for the Yale Art Gallery—exceptionally pristine yet still warm and inviting—established his national reputation. By the early Sixties he had become something of a legend among architects. His gnomic utterances and questions—“All matter is spent light,” “What does an arch want to be?”—helped make him a kind of guru among his students at Yale in the late Forties and Fifties, while the craftsmanship, clarity of design, and humane proportions of his best buildings won him a wide critical following.

Kahn’s contributions to architecture are more often admired than emulated.

Unfortunately, though, Kahn’s contributions to architecture are more often admired than emulated. In an age when postmodern pomposity seems to have triumphed everywhere, he stands as a rare example of modernist probity. Indeed, while Kahn came firmly out of the Beaux-Arts tradition, in his maturity he emerged as a foremost American modernist, perhaps the foremost American modernist of the Fifties and Sixties. Like all the great modernists, he did not reject architectural history or tradition, but adapted both to contemporary needs and what he liked to call “availabilities.” The vaulted galleries of the Kimbell, for example, are perfectly traditional in conception yet superbly contemporary in execution and feeling. “Tradition,” Kahn noted, “gives you the powers of anticipation from which you know what will last when you create.” Today, when “modernism” has become a term of opprobrium for many critics, Kahn is often not identified as a modernist. It is true that his buildings do not look like those of Corbusier or Mies. But few architects are closer to the spirit of those modernist masters in their attention to detail, rejection of applied ornamentation, and delight in the aesthetic potential of contemporary building materials and engineering techniques. What other architect has managed to imbue cast concrete with such dignity and even sumptuousness?

In this sense, Mrs. Loud is right to insist that “Kahn accepted the premises of the International Style.” Though his buildings are not the glass boxes we tend (too narrowly) to associate with the term, they do display a commitment to structural honesty that is a hallmark of high modernism. “The artist,” Kahn wrote, “instinctively keeps the marks which reveal how a thing is done.” As Mrs. Loud explains,

In Kahn’s works materials are handled not just straightforwardly but with a sense of the worth of their own properties and qualities. Kahn’s concept of the adornment of a building dealt with structure and construction, with the joint as the beginning of ornament, as he often said. Thus we will find separation, even declaration, of parts of the building; we will find concrete handled so that it is marked by the means of its forming.

One of the chief merits of all Kahn’s museums—what makes each of them an architectural success in the the fullest sense—is the happy marriage of architectural individuality and what we might call architectural invisibility. There are certainly many quirkier contemporary buildings than Kahn’s—architecture in the Seventies and Eighties has been virtually defined by quirkiness—but few perhaps that are genuinely more distinctive architectural creations. The post-tensioned barrel vaults of the Kimbell, the tetrahedral slab ceiling of the Yale Art Gallery, the cylindrical stairwells of the Yale Art Gallery and Center for British Art: these are signature architectural innovations that helped make these buildings the memorable works that they are. But it is part of Kahn’s genius that these distinctive elements never intrude upon the viewer’s attention.

Kahn’s museums are individual to the point of idiosyncrasy, yet they remain transparent to the works of art they house. The beautiful contrast of unfinished blond oak against the cool, smokiness of pre-cast concrete: this is certainly part of what one takes away from a visit to the British Art Center. But while one looks at the works of art there, the building exists only as a serene and reticent presence. Louis Kahn was in the habit of asking, “What does a building want to be?” Among his greatest gifts were the patience to listen and the wit to discern the answer.

  1.   “The Art Museums of Louis I. Kahn” opened at the Duke University Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina, last fall. It traveled to the Yale University Art Gallery this winter, and then went to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, where it is on view until June 17. The exhibition concludes its tour at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it may be seen from July 19 through September 16, 1990. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue of the same title written by the guest curator, Patricia Cummings Loud (Duke University Press, 304 pages, $60; $30 paper).
  2.   Detail is Mrs. Loud’s forte. She seems to have inspected every bill of lading and memorandum connected with the projects she discusses, and she does not hesitate to share them all with the reader as she moves from “Commission Background” through “Evaluation of Completed Building” for each project. An employee of the Kimbell, Mrs. Loud has burrowed even deeper into the minutiae surrounding the history, construction, and design of that museum in a long essay on its architecture that appears in In Pursuit of Quality: The Kimbell Art Museum: An Illustrated History of the Art and Architecture, which was published by the Kimbell in association with Abrams in 1987.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 10, on page 64
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