Preliminary sketch by Louis I. Kahn of his design for the United States Consulate Buildings in Luanda, Angola. 

Louis Kahn: Finding Daylight in Luanda

Martin Schwartz  draft 092614

Introduction: The Thought of a Wall
In 1961, Louis I. Kahn described his recent visit to Luanda, Angola for which he was preparing a design proposal for a U.S. Consulate complex.  In particular, Kahn recalled the “marked glare in the atmosphere,” saying “Looking at a window was unbearable because of the glare.  The dark walls framing the brilliant light outside made you very uncomfortable.” [1]  Glare, as Kahn knew, is not absolute brightness.  It is the condition in which the eye tries but is unable to adjust itself to both bright light and darkness in the field of vision at the same time. This results in an inability to see clearly or comfortably.  In Luanda, Kahn sought to develop an architectural response to this condition.  He found his response, not surprisingly, in the everyday behavior of Luandans.  Kahn said,

“I …noticed that when people worked in the sun—and many of them did—the native population …usually faced the wall and not the open country or the open street.  Indoors, they would turn their chair toward the wall and do whatever they were doing by getting the light indirectly from the wall.” [2]  

Kahn found himself doing the same thing as the Luandans, looking at daylight as it was captured on wall surfaces:

“I …noticed that buildings which were very close to windows--were very pleasant to look at from the windows…That gave me the thought of a wall a small distance in front of every window…One doesn’t feel like having the view cut away, so I thought of placing openings in the wall…That gave me the thought of a wall a small distance in front of every window…One doesn’t feel like having the view cut away, so I thought of placing openings in the wall.” [3]

Kahn’s simple observation led him to propose walls whose primary purpose, instead of supporting the roof or providing enclosure, would be to catch daylight.  In practice, his proposal meant placing an additional layer of wall and space around a building to protect inhabitants from intense sunlight or bright sky.  Because of the wall’s essential independence from other tasks and the absence of framed glazing, Kahn referred to this strategy as “wrapping buildings with ruins.”

"I thought of the beauty of ruins…the absence of [window] frames…of things which nothing lives behind…and so I thought of wrapping ruins around buildings; you might say encasing a building in a ruin so that you look through the wall which had its apertures by accident.  But in this case, you’d want to formalize these openings, and I felt that this would be an answer to the glare problem.” [4]

This independent wall placed at a small distance beyond a building’s glazed enclosure, was not simply a shading device but was intended to catch and diffuse daylight inward.  The inhabitants of his building would look, from the interior, toward the “ruins” on which sunlight would be seen.  Kahn proposed concrete panels as a wrapping wall at Luanda, walls whose finely textured, light gray surfaces would have absorbed roughly half of the incoming light and reflected the remaining half toward the interior.[5]  Inside, people would live and work in spaces illuminated in the resulting comfortable light.  And even if inhabitants saw a piece of the bright sky or sun, the softly lighted adjacent wall surface would, by providing an intermediate level of reflected light, minimize the glare, the contrast in brightness.

For Louis Kahn, certainly from this point on, light had to strike walls.  Kahn understood that we do not really see light hovering in space.  We occasionally see light as it emanates from a source, but more often we see it when it is reflected from a material or surface.  For example, we see “skylight” as it is reflected by particles (material) in the earth’s atmosphere—this reflective activity is what we call “the sky”—and more significantly for architecture, we see light reflected by walls, floors, and ceilings placed in the path of daylight.  Kahn made architecture in order to see light, enabling his architecture to make its own light, fashioned from that provided by the sun and sky.

Of course, one requires space, a place to stand, in order to see this light and for light to be reflected, and Kahn’s wrapping of buildings with another wall made this possible.  The space between the building and the wrapping wall became an inhabitable, daylighted zone, a place in which the diffused light could be reflected and seen.  In this way, the nested composition logically evolved to emphasize the transition from outside and public space to inside and private space by creating an intermediate threshold.  In Kahn’s hands, the architecture became a secondary source of light, in condition in which daylight and inhabitable space collaborated and became inseparable.  The new layer of space, the zone in which light is mediated, provided the kind of spatial concentration that makes us feel suitably protected while simultaneously exposed, and enabled us to participate in the inside and outside world at the same time.

The question is, in his proposal for Luanda, Kahn’s first effort at employing his wrapping strategy, how effective would it have been?  In order for us to evaluate this, we need to evaluate the daylighting strategy of Kahn’s entire design with reference to the sun conditions in Luanda.

 

Mitigating Glare

One of the great propositions of early twentieth century architecture was that we could bring daylight into interiors by employing two related strategies.  The first strategy was to use column and beam structural systems in place of load-bearing walls to support a building.  The second strategy, one made possible by the first, was to then replace exterior load-bearing walls with envelopes of glass.  Clothed in glass and supported by a grid of columns, interior space could be filled with daylight.  The problem with this was that when sunlight penetrates unprotected glass, heat and glare are introduced in summer, and cold and glare are introduced in winter months.  Kahn was aware of this problem, but questioned the solution endorsed by his then better-known professional contemporaries in the 1960’s, Edward Durrell Stone and Minoru Yamasaki. Kahn observed that

Some of the buildings used piece work, grillwork…in front of windows…(the grillwork) was dark against the light; it gave you just a multiple pattern of glare…little pin points…of glare against the dark ribs of the grillwork.  And that tended to be unsatisfactory.[6]

Patterns of organized glare are acceptable in some situations, for example in religious buildings such as the Mosque at Cordoba where daylight is incorporated into the intricate geometric patterns of wooden grillwork, partly for decorative reasons, and the grill is not prominent in our field of vision; where it is not meant to be a significant source of illumination; or where enough light strikes the interior surface of the grill and reduces the level of contrast between light and dark areas.  But for general living conditions and certainly for work conditions, glare—a direct view of a high contrast scene—is uncomfortable. Intense illumination causes the pupil in the eye to contract, admitting less light and protecting the eye.  The result of less light is less vision: glare is blinding.  When this visual distress is added to warm air and the heat conducted by direct solar radiation, as in Luanda, the discomfort is multiplied.  The grillwork solutions employed by Kahn’s contemporaries tended to be highly decorative; they quickly became banal.    It is noteworthy that Kahn understood both the effectiveness and the meaning of a vernacular solution to intense sun and heat: catching solar energy on a wall so that it can be diffused and enjoyed.

 

The Equatorial Sun Path

The seasons and paths of the sun through the sky are significantly different from those conditions in the temperate latitudes.  Over the course of a year, in Luanda and at other latitudes on or near the equator, the sun moves through both the northern and southern skies.  The sun moves through the southern sky during December (summer), but then through more of the northern sky after the March solstice through nearly the September solstice.   These paths provide high angle direct sun to both north and south elevations of a building.  Additionally, in the hours just after sunrise and before sunset, the angle of the sun above the horizon is low and directed onto the east and west elevations.   Structures in these regions receive significant direct sunlight from all sides, and call for specific architectural responses.

 

The Consulate

In fact, high sun, whether from south or north, is fairly easy to manage.  In his design for the consulate, Kahn proposed a parasol strategy, a “sun roof,” as he called it, which took the form of a trellis structure suspended above what he called the “rain roof,” the structural roof and its weather resistant layers of roofing materials.  Both the interception of the direct sun by the sun roof and the air passing through the interstitial space would have helped the interior of the consulate buildings to avoid a substantial amount of direct solar radiation, heat and light. Kahn said,

“I feel that in bringing the rain roof and the sun roof away from each other, I was telling the man on the street his way of life.  I was explaining the atmospheric conditions of wind, the conditions of light, the conditions of sun and glare to him.  If I use a device—a clever kind of device—it would only seem like a design to him—something pretty.

 I didn’t want anything pretty. I wanted to have a clear statement of a way of life…These are really crude statements…they should be primitively stated first rather than in a high degree of taste.” [7]…I thought wouldn’t it be good if one could express…find an architectural expression for the problems of glare without adding devices to a window…but rather by developing… [an] architecture…which somehow tells the story of the problems of glare. [8]

The trellis would have been highly effective, but in other respects, Kahn’s strategy remained somewhat underdeveloped.  Typically, high altitude sun, experienced in Luanda on both south and north building faces, is effectively shaded by roof overhangs, which are sometimes developed into porches or galleries.  This strategy also permits low angle sun to enter and warm the building in cool seasons.  However, Kahn does not use this approach at the north and south faces of the consulate structures.  Instead, he proposed nearly blank north and south elevations, with no fenestration.  Kahn clipped his trellis, the sun roof, so that it ends in alignment with the exterior walls and cannot shade the north or south facades.

Kahn’s wrapping walls create porches (at the ambassador’s residence) and porch-like gaps (at the chancellery) and these spaces are protected overhead by his sun trellis, but only on the east and west elevations of the buildings. These spaces usually protect the inner building from high sun, but not generally from sun at low angles at the beginning and the end of the day.  Kahn’s arched openings in the wrapping wall are large and so are the gaps between the wrapping wall and trellis.  The programmed rooms just inside the openings were to be substantially glazed.  The arched openings do not align exactly with the inner glazed openings but are offset so that a good portion of the glazed window is overlapped by wall.  Nonetheless, the glazed spaces would have been subject to intense solar radiation penetrating the openings and incident on the glass.

                 

Left: First floor plan of the chancellery with the north elevation at the top.  (Drawing by Robert McCarter)                             

Right: The southwest corner of the chancellery; the freestanding west wall is on the left.  If that freestanding wall with openings faced south or north, the high midday sun would be filtered before it reached glazed openings.  (Rendering by Kent Larson)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Kahn later reconsidered the size of the openings in the wrapping walls:

I feel…that they’re now a little too large, that they can be made smaller.  It’s only that I still haven’t developed a kind of sense in lieu of experience to tell me whether they’re large or small.  I haven’t developed this because they must be tried…I feel the openings should be smaller because you can…always have a side view.  You can look out and see anything you want.[9]

Kahn’s reconsideration is interesting.  He seems to be saying that, at the chancellery, one might have stood on a west or east “porch” or in the gap between the building proper and the wrapper, and seen through smaller openings facing east or west.  With smaller openings, the remaining “side” views toward north and south would be into the intermediate or wrapped spaces--the two-story gaps--and toward high altitude sun.  This would have permitted skylight and limited sun to graze the inner faces of the walls.  Most of the time, sun would have touched and been diffused by wall surfaces before reaching glazing.  Direct views out of the rooms would have been restricted but would still have been available from other rooms or from within the wrapped zone, where one might, “look out and see anything you want.”  One does not always need to offer a full view, even of a great scene, from every interior space.

In fact, this strategy of openings to sun and sky, but without glazing exposed to the sun’s direct radiation is suggested by the rooms located on both floors at the middle of the west side of the chancellery.  Note that glazed windows in these rooms face north and south into the protected gap between the inner and outer walls.  Shaded by Kahn’s trellis and stepped back from the perimeter of the building, the glass in these rooms would have been subjected to sun typically filtered by the trellis.  Those rooms would have received diffused skylight and sunlight reflected from building surfaces.  Similarly, the deeply recessed, two-story, public entry areas centrally located on the north and south sides of the chancellery would have gathered skylight with sun filtered by the trellis before diffusing it toward limited and reasonably protected glazing, as shown by the floor plans.  In general, this strategy of spaces with opaque wall surfaces facing the sun and with glazing limited to walls at right angles to the opaque surfaces would be an excellent approach to the problems of sun, glare, and heat in this climate. 

 

 

 

 

Left: First floor plan of the chancellery rotated 90 degrees so that Kahn's intended north elevation is now oriented to the left and, by drawing convention, facing west. Right:

Right: Model view of the Chancellery from southwest, as Kahn intended.  Imagine the south (right side) elevation as if it were west or east; and the west (left side) elevation as if it faced north or south.

All this suggests that the building, as designed by Kahn in its schematic form, would have been a more effective receiver and diffuser of daylight if the plan were rotated 90 degrees from that which he planned.  As for Kahn’s musing about smaller openings, there are other factors in the design of openings that are equal to or more important than size.   The locations of openings relative to an interior room and its reflecting surfaces, the shapes of openings, and the orientation of openings toward sun and skylight are probably more significant.  If the chancellery were rotated 90 degrees, the size of the openings would not matter much.  In this hypothetical reorientation, porches or doubled exterior walls, along with the trellis, would work well.  The double-wall zones would filter high sun and receive diffused skylight from the north and south skies.  The opaque east and west elevations, vulnerable to direct low-angle sun in their designed orientations, would occlude direct radiation that cannot be blocked effectively by overhangs. The deep entry spaces, now facing east and west, would present opaque wall and floor surfaces to catch low angle sun and to diffuse the light into appropriately located glazed openings.  These spaces would be shielded from high sun by the trellis overhead.   Heliodon and computer model simulations indicate that with the alternate orientation, only the glazed rooms on the “new” north elevation would receive direct sun and then mostly at the rooms’ forward edges, and from sun sliding into the gaps between the outer wall and inner building—not usually through the arched openings.   With the rotated orientation, Kahn’s bilateral symmetrical plan would work quite well.

     

Left: Residence, west elevation with shutters 

Right: Residence, east elevation with shutters

Above: Section through wood shutters

Having expressed a skepticism toward grille work and having considered, if only in retrospect, smaller openings, it is interesting to note that Kahn also considered large, operable, wood shutters, at least at the consulate residence, which would have been located immediately north of the chancellery.  Previously unpublished drawings prepared in the Kahn office and dated February 1961, near the end of his work on the project, show east and west elevations with shutters filling balcony openings, in partially open and closed positions.  The office went so far as to show the shutters detailed in large-scale section drawings and referenced them in written outline specifications.[10]  Undoubtedly, Kahn would also have considered the need for more privacy in the residence, but clearly, late in the design process, the architect was still struggling with the problem of glare and thermal control strategies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Consulate Residence, partial section through balcony and operable shutters

 

 

So far, this discussion has addressed primarily the daylighting strategies Kahn proposed for the U.S. Consulate, with little thought to the challenges of program or functional adjacencies, nor to questions about the site or specific views, or to Kahn’s fluency with proportions and symmetries or Beaux Arts planning.  The Consulate design, as we know it, can be considered incomplete: Kahn lost the commission in August 1961.  However, given the opportunity, it would be safe to speculate that he would have continued to refine the scheme as it came closer to construction.[11]  Kahn had a habit of doing this.  Nor does this discussion take into account the progress he made in his appreciation of daylight and the related comprehension of other design issues as he took up subsequent commissions for projects that permitted him to study daylight further.

 

 

Clearly, a range of important factors influenced this and other Kahn designs.  These factors include Kahn’s commitment to community building and social responsibility, and his interest, shared across the profession, in the development of a modern approach to monumentality.  So, the question persists as to how much Kahn took sun and daylight into account, under what circumstances he might negotiate between the use of light and other design criteria to which he was also committed, and finally, how he used light to generate larger architectural decisions, to advance his greater intentions.

 

 

So much of Louis Kahn’s substantial architectural reputation is based on his passion for and deft handling of daylight.  But Kahn’s architecture was not only about light.  He held, personally, a firm social agenda and was committed to the establishment of community, the potential to represent and serve the shared aspirations of common men and women in society through architecture and town planning.  Kahn also was deeply engaged with other architects and critics in the development of a modern version of architectural monumentality, the recognition of the significance of people, events, places, and contemporary public institutions through specific design strategies.  Sarah Williams Goldhagen has referred to this as Kahn’s “long standing desire to create an architecture that would become a symbol of communal identity and encourage communal participation.[12]  Eventually in Kahn’s work, the streams of thought--the demands of daylighting, the interest in monumentality, and the significance of community--converged.  Taken as a whole, these insights, manifested in Kahn’s maturing architecture, reveal something about the man, as well.

 

 

Community and Social Responsibility

Kahn maintained a personal and professional commitment to the welfare of others, a sense of his own and his profession’s responsibility to address social issues.  He understood the disadvantages of poverty, immigrant and outsider status, and membership in a persecuted ethnic and religious minority—he experienced all of this himself.  He was raised in precarious economic circumstances, during which he saw and understood how neighbors and friends relied on each other to make life better.  Kahn sought to address these conditions through architecture.

 

 

Early in his career, Kahn applied himself to these circumstances mostly through his work as a planner.  He spent two years working with the Philadelphia Planning Commission (1933-1935) and the remainder of that decade as an architectural consultant to the Commission.  During this period, prior to World War II, Kahn was involved in neighborhood planning and was convinced of the ideals of collectivism and social activism.  He was a member of such organizations as “Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Council on City Planning” and the “American Society of Planners and Architects.”  He collaborated with his business partner, the architect Oscar Stonorov, and published pamphlets such as Why City Planning and You and Your Neighborhood: A Primer for Neighborhood Planning; and wrote letters to the editor of Architectural Forum.   These writings encouraged local citizens to involve themselves directly in city planning processes by establishing neighborhood planning councils.  Kahn gained recognition as a designer of public housing and an aspiring urban planner.[13]  In his middle years, Kahn’s design portfolio included commissions for social programs such as Carver Court (1941-1943), housing and community building), the Trenton Jewish Community Center and Bathhouse (1955-1959; the well-known and recently renovated bathhouse was completed in 1955), the Philadelphia downtown civic center plan (1956-1957); and health facilities for two labor unions: the unbuilt center for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (1943-1945) and the American Federation of Labor Medical Services Building (1954-57).  During the mature period of his career in which he produced his most influential and articulate work, his buildings and projects addressed a range of cultural and educational missions.  His commissions included buildings for educational institutions such as schools and libraries, institutions committed to public health and science, the office of a newspaper, and museums.  He was commissioned to design houses of worship and prepared designs for two memorials, both of which resonate with the aspirations for community and for a contemporary monumentality: the Memorial for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park.[14]  All of these programs explicitly recognize and celebrate the lives, aspirations, and cultural significance of common people.  Goldhagen observed that

 

 

“Kahn fused his feelings about his own Jewishness with his response to contemporary trends in American religious culture to arrive at an explicitly non-transcendental religious ideal, which extended his conviction that each individual should participate in a community as a means to a richer, more responsive polis.”[15]

 

 

Monumentality

More than size or age, monumentality is ultimately an expression of some kind of greater significance.  The formal devices traditionally associated with monumentality in architecture include mass, size and scale, unity, symmetry, site design, and the use of substantial materials.  These devices establish presence, focus, and permanence.  When successful, this physical significance translates an event, person, institution, or point of view, into a greater idea.  Kahn realized that it might be possible for a monumental architecture to represent the importance of the lives and aspirations of common people.

 

 

Kahn’s essay, “Monumentality,” is particularly interesting for the paucity of specific uses of the word that constitutes the essay’s title.  After four mentions on the first two of its ten pages, that word, or forms of it, appears but once in the middle and once right at the very end of the text.  The article is really an inquiry about materials, how they perform, and how a particular material does its best work when configured appropriately.[16]  Kahn wrote more about how buildings might work than how they look.  This attention to qualities and performance was a search for authenticity and would later become the essential ingredient in Kahn’s monumentality as his ideas were transformed into his great buildings.  In the same way that he looked to his community of working people to inspire and inhabit his institutions, he looked to common materials, and how they work, to conceive his monumental spaces.  He wrote:

 

 

“Neither the finest material nor the most advanced technology need enter a work of monumental character for the same reason that the finest ink was not required to draw up the Magna Carta.” [17]

 

 

Kahn’s discussion of essential elements includes, of course, modern steel, glass, concrete, and stone, but also notably, daylight.  Daylight has long represented truth (sometimes identified as light itself), enlightenment (learning and understanding), and authenticity (having credibility, sometimes purity, and a place in the natural order of things).  Daylight represents both that which is most common in our world and that which is transcendent.  It is ever present in our lives, yet difficult to capture for any length of time, which ironically, sometimes makes it seem rare.

 

Light expresses both the everyday and the sublime, and both tendencies are present in Kahn’s architecture.  This may be seen in Kahn’s well-known hand sketches that depict classical and historical structures whose mass and presence are amplified in strong light and shadow.[18]  The weight of his architecture, hand-drawn or built, heightens the sense and presence--the monumentality--of weightless space and light.  Kahn said, “the making of spaces is the making of light at the same time.” [19]  Space, too, can be understood as “monumental” when seen in terms of its significance.  The elements that constitute its configuration, including enclosure, proportions, daylight, the clarity and authenticity of the volume, serve to render space and its captured light and shadow, as something monumental.

 

Drawings by Louis I. Kahn

 

 

Kahn’s “Monumentality” essay is really about his continuing search for authenticity and its potential to ennoble architecture.  In the 1950’s,” according to Goldhagen, Kahn sought to harness the authenticity of structure and fuse it with his ethical convictions.  She writes, that Kahn thought, “…architecture should perform the specific social role of symbolizing and reinforcing communal identity. He needed to move to an idiom that merged the authentic with the monumental and the symbolic.”[20]  Kahn’s architecture eventually transformed the language of monumentality from one that had previously celebrated singular privilege into a vocabulary that operates in the service of real lives.  It has presence and meaning, and in its representation of how people and things really work, it holds a surpassing significance.  The Consulate complex in Luanda, when it was designed, was perhaps Louis Kahn’s most complete and coherent expression of these slowly converging interests.

 

      

Louis I. Kahn, photo and self-portraits, over time

About Face

The design of the United States Consulate in Luanda came to an end, unresolved, it is fair to say, because it was never built, which is when Kahn’s architectural speculations always concluded.  The Consulate was not built for a number of reasons: the U.S. State Department’s impatience with Kahn’s lengthy design process; that agency’s dissatisfaction with, and inability to understand, the design;[21] and perhaps also due to the outbreak of the Angolan war for independence that began 1961.[22]  However, the project remains important for what it reveals about the architect and his work.

 

 

In the project for Luanda, the most practical concerns about daylight and glare led Louis Kahn to devise a daylighting strategy with implications well beyond the need for illumination or for glare protection.  Kahn’s architecture was very much about daylight, but not particularly about achieving specific recommended levels of illumination at some point in space.  The work is about light, rather than lighting, and eventually led to decisions about materials, building performance, circulation, structure, and to resolutions of Kahn’s questions about meaning, monumentality, and the social significance of public institutions.  It is this work with light that enabled him to uncover something important about the potential meaning of modern architecture and to develop an ethical position in relation to people and architecture.  The architect confronts frictions and injustices he sees in society, incongruities that parallel those within the architect.  Through this work, we realize, along with Kahn, that architecture makes its own light in a particular place, at a particular time.  And, in a reciprocal way, light (understanding) is also cast onto the façade (face) of the architect, bringing us to a new understanding of the man.

 

 

All artists reveal something of themselves in their work.  This is inescapable: we all reveal ourselves in what we do.   Although these considerations are spoken of in an undertone in architecture, they are central to understanding work in the other arts and even in science.  How could what we make or how we behave not be a reflection of who we are and what we believe?  As Stephen Greenblatt says of his scholarship on the work and life of William Shakespeare, "I believe that nothing comes of nothing, even in Shakespeare. I wanted to know where he got the matter he was working with and what he did with that matter.” [23]  “The older I get,” novelist Jonathan Franzen has written, “the more I’m convinced, that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character.”[24]  An architect’s work is also a mirror of his or her character.  What is revealed is not given in a written or spoken narrative, but what the architect makes and displays is powerful, non-verbal evidence of a life and beliefs.  It may even be that the more articulate and insightful the work, the more revealing the work is of the maker’s character.  So, as with makers of all manner of things, Kahn’s buildings, at least in their outlook, can be said to be reflection of their architect.

 

 

Kahn’s elegantly composed wrapping walls, immersed in daylight and exposed to the world, are perfected and highly abstracted expressions of sometimes tangled, but authentic, human activity.  Like masks, or our faces, the walls can be employed to camouflage, but often end up doing the opposite: they reveal unseen truths.  In the case of Louis Kahn, the interior workings of his architecture--even with highly refined geometries and the elegant use of materials--contain, doubly enveloped, the inevitable messiness of human work and habitation, the disorderliness and unpredictable patterns of human activity, clothed impeccably in bespoke skins.  This can be seen clearly in Kahn’s late buildings, in Ahmedabad, Dhaka, and La Jolla, where the works draw their second skins around themselves, becoming the “wrappers” referenced in the now axiomatic, “buildings wrapped in ruins.”  These works are the direct descendants of Kahn’s Luandan strategy of intercepting sun with secondary wall surfaces, and the development of perfected expressions of the buildings’ inner lives.

 

 

The façade is the most exposed and initially revealing part of a building and it is the same for a façade’s creator.  With this in mind, it is reasonable to ask, what did Kahn see, every day, when he saw his own face and how did this influence or reflect his outlook on the world?  Kahn’s early life was one of difficult circumstances: he was raised in poverty, an immigrant burdened additionally with religious minority status.  Even as a qualified professional he was an outsider, “a Jew working in a protestant gentlemen’s profession.”[25]  Moreover, he was a physically unimposing man.  As an adult, he stood about five foot seven inches tall,[26] with receding white hair and a scarred lower face.  The scars were the outcome of a childhood accident in which he grabbed at the glowing coals in a fireplace.[27]  The evidence of his complex and imperfect family relations is now well known and has been documented on film by his son.[28]

 

 

Clearly, the attraction he held for others and his influence over others was a demonstration of a charisma, a personal wisdom, his well-documented artistic and musical talents, and his own kind of fineness that emerged from an inner, but beautiful, messiness.  If only Louis Kahn could have created a face for himself that fully expressed that inner beauty!  It appears that he did so in his architecture, particularly in the facades, providing for his buildings and the people who inhabit them a perfected version of themselves, and in a sense, of himself, for all to see.  Who else but an individual with a less than perfect face, and with the finest, if conflicted, heart and mind, would have been open to understanding how inner beauty could be translated to the façade?  Interestingly, the way he spoke in public about his work also seems to have been a redirection from reality, the daily disappointments, compromises, and struggles of architectural practice.  Kahn’s talks often became discourses that veiled the struggles that must have taken place in the office to concentrate on larger, nearly philosophical thoughts.  Kahn is famous for speaking in great, glowing language about architecture, inspiring many but confounding others, even his partisan Vincent Scully, who referred to Kahn’s rambling talks as “a smoke screen around his actual methods.”[29]  Kahn’s building facades screen inner conflict, uncertainty, and daily chaos, as much as they reveal aspiration, contentedness, concord, and decency.  Kahn alluded to this, citing Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House as an example, and rendering the relationship between its inner life and public persona in this way:

 

 

 “It was approached…by a cascade of steps that gave you a sense of the ceremonial--seeing that which is not…formally real but internally real, as though the truth was being brought before you…” [30]

 

 

Louis Kahn’s double life is well known; the story is told by his son on film with the empathetic participation of his sisters, each a child of a different mother.  It would be more accurate to say that Kahn had multiple lives, counting not just his three families, but also his intellectual life, which formed the basis of his architecture, lectures, and writings; and his office life, which contained the facts of his transforming his intellectual life into built form.  Kahn’s insight was to make an architecture of his several lives, with several orders of space, layered so that they might be given their own space and a sense of belonging: an acknowledgement that the competing elements of our lives might be recognized as deserving of a place in the world.  In doing so, he reminds us that most of us have multiple lives, competing interests of one sort or another.  Kahn’s layered spaces, geometric paths, proportioned rooms, geometrically framed and carefully located openings, organize our lives by giving each its place, and lending us the impression, at least temporarily, that they all make sense.

Andre Malraux once wrote: “Man is not what he thinks he is; he is what he hides.” [31]  Who else but a man with the very visible imperfections of facial scars, and who experienced early struggles and mature life conflicts, but with a mind that generated lofty and beautiful ideas about how people should live together, would fully, if perhaps subconsciously, appreciate the value of presenting to the world a new, more perfect face, for himself and for his buildings?  Artists have the luxurious opportunity, through their work, to present to the world their best natures, perfected versions of their unfinished selves and beliefs.  Kahn’s architecture presents us with an idealized, yet in some ways more complete, version of himself.  He devised for his architecture, and through architecture for himself, a new face that still revealed hidden truths, that of his and our unruly, but noble, inner lives.  Kahn’s architecture was illuminated by daylight from the outside so that it seemed to emanate from interior space. Kahn himself shone most brightly from the inside and, judging from his architecture, he must have believed that others do, too.

 

 

 

Citations

[1] Alessandra Latour, editor, Louis I. Kahn Writings, Lectures, Interviews, New York: Rizzoli, 1991; page 122

[2] Latour, page 123

[3] Ibid.

[4] Latour, page 123

[5] “An as-struck smooth grey Portland cement surface may have a reflectance of 40%,” but with some care and the appropriate materials, such as white cement, reflectance may reach 70.  The Concrete Society, http://www.concrete.org.uk/fingertips_nuggets.asp?cmd=display&id=916; retrieved January 3, 2014.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Latour, page 126.

[8] Ibid. page 122.

[9] Ibid. page 125.

[10] Louis I. Kahn Collection, Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania; folder 555A, 030.I.C.555.001; pencil drawings on tracing paper.

[11] Carter Wiseman, Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007; page 114.

[12] Sarah Williams Goldhagen, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism, New Haven: Yale University Press, page 122

[13] Goldhagen, pages 18- 24

[14] The park was completed in 2012.

[15] Goldhagen, page 91.

[16] Louis I. Kahn, “Monumentality,” Robert C. Twombly, editor, Louis Kahn, Essential Texts, New York: W.W. Norton, 2003, page 24. Kahn wrote, “The I-beam is an engineering accomplishment deriving its shape from an analysis of the stresses involved in its use.…under test it was found that even the fillets, an aid in the rolling process, helped convey the stresses from one section to another…”

[17] Kahn, page 22.

[18] David B. Brownlee and David G. De Long, Louis I. Kahn, In the Realm of Architecture, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1991, pages 147-150.

[19] Louis I. Kahn, “Talk at the Conclusion of the Otterloo Congress,” Robert C. Twombly, editor, Louis Kahn, Essential Texts, New York: W.W. Norton, 2003, page 48.

[20] Goldhagen, page 63.

[21] Letter from William P. Hughes, Director, Office of Foreign Buildings to Kahn dated Aug 26, 1960, Louis I. Kahn Collection, Architecture Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Box 34, Folder 28: “Before going further into the details of your work on this project, I deem it advisable to point out to you certain very serious functional problems that appear as a result of our review of these sketches.  Our main objections are as follows…The proposed roof construction is considered expensive and unnecessarily experimental, if not bizarre.... Particularly we do not like our public buildings to be planned as windowless buildings nor do we like them to have a fortress quality.”

[22] Lawrence W. Henderson, Angola; Five Centuries of Conflict, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979, pages 199-201.

[23] Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002, page 4.

[24] Jonathan Franzen, “A Rooting Interest,” The New Yorker, February 13 & 20, 2012, page 60.

[25] Nathaniel Kahn, “My Architect Press Kit,” http://www.myarchitectfilm.com/presskit/MyArchitectPressKit.pdf, retrieved June 14, 2012

[26] Kahn’s 1928 passport is accessible at http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0107/feature1_2.html, retrieved October 18, 2013.

[27] Wiseman, Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style: a Life in Architecture, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2007, page 14.

[28] Nathaniel Kahn, director, My Architect, New Yorker Films: New York, 2003.

[29] Interview with Alessandra Latour, editor, Louis I. Kahn, L’uomo, il maestro, Rome: Edizione Kappa, 1986, page 149; cited in David B. Brownlee and David G. DeLong, Louis I. Kahn; In the Realm of Architecture, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1991, page 127.  Kahn, we now know, also mistook or reinvented his own biographical details such as his birthplace as noted in Wiseman, page 13.

Louis I. Kahn: L'uomo, il Maestro, Alessandra Latour, page 149.

[30] Melissa Steeley and William Whitaker, editors, “Conversation between Louis I. Kahn and Doris Fisher; A House within a House,” Architecture and Urbanism (a+u) number 461, 2009:02 (February 2009) page 48. The article is a transcription of a conversation that took place at the Fisher House on March 8, 1970.

[31] “We Are What We Hide,” Lee Siegel, The New Yorker online, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/11/we-are-what-we-hide.html?mbid=social_mobile_email; posted November 15, 2013.

Preliminary sketch by Louis I. Kahn of his design for the United States Consulate Buildings in Luanda, Angola. 

Louis Kahn: Finding Daylight in Luanda

Martin Schwartz

092614

 

Introduction: The Thought of a Wall

In 1961, Louis I. Kahn described his recent visit to Luanda, Angola for which he was preparing a design proposal for a U.S. Consulate complex.  In particular, Kahn recalled the “marked glare in the atmosphere,” saying “Looking at a window was unbearable because of the glare.  The dark walls framing the brilliant light outside made you very uncomfortable.” [1]  Glare, as Kahn knew, is not absolute brightness.  It is the condition in which the eye tries but is unable to adjust itself to both bright light and darkness in the field of vision at the same time. This results in an inability to see clearly or comfortably.  In Luanda, Kahn sought to develop an architectural response to this condition.  He found his response, not surprisingly, in the everyday behavior of Luandans.  Kahn said,

 

 

“I …noticed that when people worked in the sun—and many of them did—the native population …usually faced the wall and not the open country or the open street.  Indoors, they would turn their chair toward the wall and do whatever they were doing by getting the light indirectly from the wall.” [2]  

 

Kahn found himself doing the same thing as the Luandans, looking at daylight as it was captured on wall surfaces:

 

 

“I …noticed that buildings which were very close to windows--were very pleasant to look at from the windows…That gave me the thought of a wall a small distance in front of every window…One doesn’t feel like having the view cut away, so I thought of placing openings in the wall…That gave me the thought of a wall a small distance in front of every window…One doesn’t feel like having the view cut away, so I thought of placing openings in the wall.” [3]

 

 

Kahn’s simple observation led him to propose walls whose primary purpose, instead of supporting the roof or providing enclosure, would be to catch daylight.  In practice, his proposal meant placing an additional layer of wall and space around a building to protect inhabitants from intense sunlight or bright sky.  Because of the wall’s essential independence from other tasks and the absence of framed glazing, Kahn referred to this strategy as “wrapping buildings with ruins.”

 

 

"I thought of the beauty of ruins…the absence of [window] frames…of things which nothing lives behind…and so I thought of wrapping ruins around buildings; you might say encasing a building in a ruin so that you look through the wall which had its apertures by accident.  But in this case, you’d want to formalize these openings, and I felt that this would be an answer to the glare problem.” [4]

 

 

This independent wall placed at a small distance beyond a building’s glazed enclosure, was not simply a shading device but was intended to catch and diffuse daylight inward.  The inhabitants of his building would look, from the interior, toward the “ruins” on which sunlight would be seen.  Kahn proposed concrete panels as a wrapping wall at Luanda, walls whose finely textured, light gray surfaces would have absorbed roughly half of the incoming light and reflected the remaining half toward the interior.[5]  Inside, people would live and work in spaces illuminated in the resulting comfortable light.  And even if inhabitants saw a piece of the bright sky or sun, the softly lighted adjacent wall surface would, by providing an intermediate level of reflected light, minimize the glare, the contrast in brightness.

 

 

For Louis Kahn, certainly from this point on, light had to strike walls.  Kahn understood that we do not really see light hovering in space.  We occasionally see light as it emanates from a source, but more often we see it when it is reflected from a material or surface.  For example, we see “skylight” as it is reflected by particles (material) in the earth’s atmosphere—this reflective activity is what we call “the sky”—and more significantly for architecture, we see light reflected by walls, floors, and ceilings placed in the path of daylight.  Kahn made architecture in order to see light, enabling his architecture to make its own light, fashioned from that provided by the sun and sky.

 

 

Of course, one requires space, a place to stand, in order to see this light and for light to be reflected, and Kahn’s wrapping of buildings with another wall made this possible.  The space between the building and the wrapping wall became an inhabitable, daylighted zone, a place in which the diffused light could be reflected and seen.  In this way, the nested composition logically evolved to emphasize the transition from outside and public space to inside and private space by creating an intermediate threshold.  In Kahn’s hands, the architecture became a secondary source of light, in condition in which daylight and inhabitable space collaborated and became inseparable.  The new layer of space, the zone in which light is mediated, provided the kind of spatial concentration that makes us feel suitably protected while simultaneously exposed, and enabled us to participate in the inside and outside world at the same time.

 

 

The question is, in his proposal for Luanda, Kahn’s first effort at employing his wrapping strategy, how effective would it have been?  In order for us to evaluate this, we need to evaluate the daylighting strategy of Kahn’s entire design with reference to the sun conditions in Luanda.

 

 

Mitigating Glare

One of the great propositions of early twentieth century architecture was that we could bring daylight into interiors by employing two related strategies.  The first strategy was to use column and beam structural systems in place of load-bearing walls to support a building.  The second strategy, one made possible by the first, was to then replace exterior load-bearing walls with envelopes of glass.  Clothed in glass and supported by a grid of columns, interior space could be filled with daylight.  The problem with this was that when sunlight penetrates unprotected glass, heat and glare are introduced in summer, and cold and glare are introduced in winter months.  Kahn was aware of this problem, but questioned the solution endorsed by his then better-known professional contemporaries in the 1960’s, Edward Durrell Stone and Minoru Yamasaki. Kahn observed that

 

 

Some of the buildings used piece work, grillwork…in front of windows…(the grillwork) was dark against the light; it gave you just a multiple pattern of glare…little pin points…of glare against the dark ribs of the grillwork.  And that tended to be unsatisfactory.[6]

 

 

Patterns of organized glare are acceptable in some situations, for example in religious buildings such as the Mosque at Cordoba where daylight is incorporated into the intricate geometric patterns of wooden grillwork, partly for decorative reasons, and the grill is not prominent in our field of vision; where it is not meant to be a significant source of illumination; or where enough light strikes the interior surface of the grill and reduces the level of contrast between light and dark areas.  But for general living conditions and certainly for work conditions, glare—a direct view of a high contrast scene—is uncomfortable. Intense illumination causes the pupil in the eye to contract, admitting less light and protecting the eye.  The result of less light is less vision: glare is blinding.  When this visual distress is added to warm air and the heat conducted by direct solar radiation, as in Luanda, the discomfort is multiplied.  The grillwork solutions employed by Kahn’s contemporaries tended to be highly decorative; they quickly became banal.    It is noteworthy that Kahn understood both the effectiveness and the meaning of a vernacular solution to intense sun and heat: catching solar energy on a wall so that it can be diffused and enjoyed.

 

 

The Equatorial Sun Path

The seasons and paths of the sun through the sky are significantly different from those conditions in the temperate latitudes.  Over the course of a year, in Luanda and at other latitudes on or near the equator, the sun moves through both the northern and southern skies.  The sun moves through the southern sky during December (summer), but then through more of the northern sky after the March solstice through nearly the September solstice.   These paths provide high angle direct sun to both north and south elevations of a building.  Additionally, in the hours just after sunrise and before sunset, the angle of the sun above the horizon is low and directed onto the east and west elevations.   Structures in these regions receive significant direct sunlight from all sides, and call for specific architectural responses.

 

 

The Consulate

In fact, high sun, whether from south or north, is fairly easy to manage.  In his design for the consulate, Kahn proposed a parasol strategy, a “sun roof,” as he called it, which took the form of a trellis structure suspended above what he called the “rain roof,” the structural roof and its weather resistant layers of roofing materials.  Both the interception of the direct sun by the sun roof and the air passing through the interstitial space would have helped the interior of the consulate buildings to avoid a substantial amount of direct solar radiation, heat and light. Kahn said,

 

 

“I feel that in bringing the rain roof and the sun roof away from each other, I was telling the man on the street his way of life.  I was explaining the atmospheric conditions of wind, the conditions of light, the conditions of sun and glare to him.  If I use a device—a clever kind of device—it would only seem like a design to him—something pretty.

 

I didn’t want anything pretty. I wanted to have a clear statement of a way of life…These are really crude statements…they should be primitively stated first rather than in a high degree of taste.” [7]…I thought wouldn’t it be good if one could express…find an architectural expression for the problems of glare without adding devices to a window…but rather by developing… [an] architecture…which somehow tells the story of the problems of glare. [8]

 

 

The trellis would have been highly effective, but in other respects, Kahn’s strategy remained somewhat underdeveloped.  Typically, high altitude sun, experienced in Luanda on both south and north building faces, is effectively shaded by roof overhangs, which are sometimes developed into porches or galleries.  This strategy also permits low angle sun to enter and warm the building in cool seasons.  However, Kahn does not use this approach at the north and south faces of the consulate structures.  Instead, he proposed nearly blank north and south elevations, with no fenestration.  Kahn clipped his trellis, the sun roof, so that it ends in alignment with the exterior walls and cannot shade the north or south facades.

 

Kahn’s wrapping walls create porches (at the ambassador’s residence) and porch-like gaps (at the chancellery) and these spaces are protected overhead by his sun trellis, but only on the east and west elevations of the buildings. These spaces usually protect the inner building from high sun, but not generally from sun at low angles at the beginning and the end of the day.  Kahn’s arched openings in the wrapping wall are large and so are the gaps between the wrapping wall and trellis.  The programmed rooms just inside the openings were to be substantially glazed.  The arched openings do not align exactly with the inner glazed openings but are offset so that a good portion of the glazed window is overlapped by wall.  Nonetheless, the glazed spaces would have been subject to intense solar radiation penetrating the openings and incident on the glass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First floor plan of the chancellery with the north elevation at the top.                                 The southwest corner of the chancellery; the

(Drawing by Robert McCarter)                                                                                            freestanding west wall is on the left.  If that

                                                                                                                                                freestanding wall with openings faced south

                                                                                                                                                or north, the high midday sun would be

                                                                                                                                                filtered before it reached glazed openings

(Rendering by Kent Larson)

 

 

Kahn later reconsidered the size of the openings in the wrapping walls:

 

I feel…that they’re now a little too large, that they can be made smaller.  It’s only that I still haven’t developed a kind of sense in lieu of experience to tell me whether they’re large or small.  I haven’t developed this because they must be tried…I feel the openings should be smaller because you can…always have a side view.  You can look out and see anything you want.[9]

 

 

Kahn’s reconsideration is interesting.  He seems to be saying that, at the chancellery, one might have stood on a west or east “porch” or in the gap between the building proper and the wrapper, and seen through smaller openings facing east or west.  With smaller openings, the remaining “side” views toward north and south would be into the intermediate or wrapped spaces--the two-story gaps--and toward high altitude sun.  This would have permitted skylight and limited sun to graze the inner faces of the walls.  Most of the time, sun would have touched and been diffused by wall surfaces before reaching glazing.  Direct views out of the rooms would have been restricted but would still have been available from other rooms or from within the wrapped zone, where one might, “look out and see anything you want.”  One does not always need to offer a full view, even of a great scene, from every interior space.

 

 

In fact, this strategy of openings to sun and sky, but without glazing exposed to the sun’s direct radiation is suggested by the rooms located on both floors at the middle of the west side of the chancellery.  Note that glazed windows in these rooms face north and south into the protected gap between the inner and outer walls.  Shaded by Kahn’s trellis and stepped back from the perimeter of the building, the glass in these rooms would have been subjected to sun typically filtered by the trellis.  Those rooms would have received diffused skylight and sunlight reflected from building surfaces.  Similarly, the deeply recessed, two-story, public entry areas centrally located on the north and south sides of the chancellery would have gathered skylight with sun filtered by the trellis before diffusing it toward limited and reasonably protected glazing, as shown by the floor plans.  In general, this strategy of spaces with opaque wall surfaces facing the sun and with glazing limited to walls at right angles to the opaque surfaces would be an excellent approach to the problems of sun, glare, and heat in this climate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First floor plan of the chancellery                                   Model view of the Chancellery from southwest, as Kahn intended.  Imagine the

with the plan rotated 90 degrees                   the south (right side) elevation as if it were the west or east and the west (left

so that Kahn’s intended north elevation                          side) elevation as if it faced north or south.

is now oriented to the left and, by

drawing convention, facing west. 

 

 

All this suggests that the building, as designed by Kahn in its schematic form, would have been a more effective receiver and diffuser of daylight if the plan were rotated 90 degrees from that which he planned.  As for Kahn’s musing about smaller openings, there are other factors in the design of openings that are equal to or more important than size.   The locations of openings relative to an interior room and its reflecting surfaces, the shapes of openings, and the orientation of openings toward sun and skylight are probably more significant.  If the chancellery were rotated 90 degrees, the size of the openings would not matter much.  In this hypothetical reorientation, porches or doubled exterior walls, along with the trellis, would work well.  The double-wall zones would filter high sun and receive diffused skylight from the north and south skies.  The opaque east and west elevations, vulnerable to direct low-angle sun in their designed orientations, would occlude direct radiation that cannot be blocked effectively by overhangs. The deep entry spaces, now facing east and west, would present opaque wall and floor surfaces to catch low angle sun and to diffuse the light into appropriately located glazed openings.  These spaces would be shielded from high sun by the trellis overhead.   Heliodon and computer model simulations indicate that with the alternate orientation, only the glazed rooms on the “new” north elevation would receive direct sun and then mostly at the rooms’ forward edges, and from sun sliding into the gaps between the outer wall and inner building—not usually through the arched openings.   With the rotated orientation, Kahn’s bilateral symmetrical plan would work quite well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Residence, west elevation with shutters                                                                    Residence, east elevation with shutters

 

Having expressed a skepticism toward grille work and having considered, if only in retrospect, smaller openings, it is interesting to note that Kahn also considered large, operable, wood shutters, at least at the consulate residence, which would have been located immediately north of the chancellery.  Previously unpublished drawings prepared in the Kahn office and dated February 1961, near the end of his work on the project, show east and west elevations with shutters filling balcony openings, in partially open and closed positions.  The office went so far as to show the shutters detailed in large-scale section drawings and referenced them in written outline specifications.[10]  Undoubtedly, Kahn would also have considered the need for more privacy in the residence, but clearly, late in the design process, the architect was still struggling with the problem of glare and thermal control strategies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Consulate Residence, partial section through balcony and operable shutters

 

 

So far, this discussion has addressed primarily the daylighting strategies Kahn proposed for the U.S. Consulate, with little thought to the challenges of program or functional adjacencies, nor to questions about the site or specific views, or to Kahn’s fluency with proportions and symmetries or Beaux Arts planning.  The Consulate design, as we know it, can be considered incomplete: Kahn lost the commission in August 1961.  However, given the opportunity, it would be safe to speculate that he would have continued to refine the scheme as it came closer to construction.[11]  Kahn had a habit of doing this.  Nor does this discussion take into account the progress he made in his appreciation of daylight and the related comprehension of other design issues as he took up subsequent commissions for projects that permitted him to study daylight further.

 

 

Clearly, a range of important factors influenced this and other Kahn designs.  These factors include Kahn’s commitment to community building and social responsibility, and his interest, shared across the profession, in the development of a modern approach to monumentality.  So, the question persists as to how much Kahn took sun and daylight into account, under what circumstances he might negotiate between the use of light and other design criteria to which he was also committed, and finally, how he used light to generate larger architectural decisions, to advance his greater intentions.

 

 

So much of Louis Kahn’s substantial architectural reputation is based on his passion for and deft handling of daylight.  But Kahn’s architecture was not only about light.  He held, personally, a firm social agenda and was committed to the establishment of community, the potential to represent and serve the shared aspirations of common men and women in society through architecture and town planning.  Kahn also was deeply engaged with other architects and critics in the development of a modern version of architectural monumentality, the recognition of the significance of people, events, places, and contemporary public institutions through specific design strategies.  Sarah Williams Goldhagen has referred to this as Kahn’s “long standing desire to create an architecture that would become a symbol of communal identity and encourage communal participation.[12]  Eventually in Kahn’s work, the streams of thought--the demands of daylighting, the interest in monumentality, and the significance of community--converged.  Taken as a whole, these insights, manifested in Kahn’s maturing architecture, reveal something about the man, as well.

 

 

Community and Social Responsibility

Kahn maintained a personal and professional commitment to the welfare of others, a sense of his own and his profession’s responsibility to address social issues.  He understood the disadvantages of poverty, immigrant and outsider status, and membership in a persecuted ethnic and religious minority—he experienced all of this himself.  He was raised in precarious economic circumstances, during which he saw and understood how neighbors and friends relied on each other to make life better.  Kahn sought to address these conditions through architecture.

 

 

Early in his career, Kahn applied himself to these circumstances mostly through his work as a planner.  He spent two years working with the Philadelphia Planning Commission (1933-1935) and the remainder of that decade as an architectural consultant to the Commission.  During this period, prior to World War II, Kahn was involved in neighborhood planning and was convinced of the ideals of collectivism and social activism.  He was a member of such organizations as “Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Council on City Planning” and the “American Society of Planners and Architects.”  He collaborated with his business partner, the architect Oscar Stonorov, and published pamphlets such as Why City Planning and You and Your Neighborhood: A Primer for Neighborhood Planning; and wrote letters to the editor of Architectural Forum.   These writings encouraged local citizens to involve themselves directly in city planning processes by establishing neighborhood planning councils.  Kahn gained recognition as a designer of public housing and an aspiring urban planner.[13]  In his middle years, Kahn’s design portfolio included commissions for social programs such as Carver Court (1941-1943), housing and community building), the Trenton Jewish Community Center and Bathhouse (1955-1959; the well-known and recently renovated bathhouse was completed in 1955), the Philadelphia downtown civic center plan (1956-1957); and health facilities for two labor unions: the unbuilt center for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (1943-1945) and the American Federation of Labor Medical Services Building (1954-57).  During the mature period of his career in which he produced his most influential and articulate work, his buildings and projects addressed a range of cultural and educational missions.  His commissions included buildings for educational institutions such as schools and libraries, institutions committed to public health and science, the office of a newspaper, and museums.  He was commissioned to design houses of worship and prepared designs for two memorials, both of which resonate with the aspirations for community and for a contemporary monumentality: the Memorial for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park.[14]  All of these programs explicitly recognize and celebrate the lives, aspirations, and cultural significance of common people.  Goldhagen observed that

 

 

“Kahn fused his feelings about his own Jewishness with his response to contemporary trends in American religious culture to arrive at an explicitly non-transcendental religious ideal, which extended his conviction that each individual should participate in a community as a means to a richer, more responsive polis.”[15]

 

 

Monumentality

More than size or age, monumentality is ultimately an expression of some kind of greater significance.  The formal devices traditionally associated with monumentality in architecture include mass, size and scale, unity, symmetry, site design, and the use of substantial materials.  These devices establish presence, focus, and permanence.  When successful, this physical significance translates an event, person, institution, or point of view, into a greater idea.  Kahn realized that it might be possible for a monumental architecture to represent the importance of the lives and aspirations of common people.

 

 

Kahn’s essay, “Monumentality,” is particularly interesting for the paucity of specific uses of the word that constitutes the essay’s title.  After four mentions on the first two of its ten pages, that word, or forms of it, appears but once in the middle and once right at the very end of the text.  The article is really an inquiry about materials, how they perform, and how a particular material does its best work when configured appropriately.[16]  Kahn wrote more about how buildings might work than how they look.  This attention to qualities and performance was a search for authenticity and would later become the essential ingredient in Kahn’s monumentality as his ideas were transformed into his great buildings.  In the same way that he looked to his community of working people to inspire and inhabit his institutions, he looked to common materials, and how they work, to conceive his monumental spaces.  He wrote:

 

 

“Neither the finest material nor the most advanced technology need enter a work of monumental character for the same reason that the finest ink was not required to draw up the Magna Carta.” [17]

 

 

Kahn’s discussion of essential elements includes, of course, modern steel, glass, concrete, and stone, but also notably, daylight.  Daylight has long represented truth (sometimes identified as light itself), enlightenment (learning and understanding), and authenticity (having credibility, sometimes purity, and a place in the natural order of things).  Daylight represents both that which is most common in our world and that which is transcendent.  It is ever present in our lives, yet difficult to capture for any length of time, which ironically, sometimes makes it seem rare.

 

Light expresses both the everyday and the sublime, and both tendencies are present in Kahn’s architecture.  This may be seen in Kahn’s well-known hand sketches that depict classical and historical structures whose mass and presence are amplified in strong light and shadow.[18]  The weight of his architecture, hand-drawn or built, heightens the sense and presence--the monumentality--of weightless space and light.  Kahn said, “the making of spaces is the making of light at the same time.” [19]  Space, too, can be understood as “monumental” when seen in terms of its significance.  The elements that constitute its configuration, including enclosure, proportions, daylight, the clarity and authenticity of the volume, serve to render space and its captured light and shadow, as something monumental.

 

Drawings by Louis I. Kahn

 

 

Kahn’s “Monumentality” essay is really about his continuing search for authenticity and its potential to ennoble architecture.  In the 1950’s,” according to Goldhagen, Kahn sought to harness the authenticity of structure and fuse it with his ethical convictions.  She writes, that Kahn thought, “…architecture should perform the specific social role of symbolizing and reinforcing communal identity. He needed to move to an idiom that merged the authentic with the monumental and the symbolic.”[20]  Kahn’s architecture eventually transformed the language of monumentality from one that had previously celebrated singular privilege into a vocabulary that operates in the service of real lives.  It has presence and meaning, and in its representation of how people and things really work, it holds a surpassing significance.  The Consulate complex in Luanda, when it was designed, was perhaps Louis Kahn’s most complete and coherent expression of these slowly converging interests.

 

 

 

Louis I. Kahn, photo and self-portraits

 

About Face

The design of the United States Consulate in Luanda came to an end, unresolved, it is fair to say, because it was never built, which is when Kahn’s architectural speculations always concluded.  The Consulate was not built for a number of reasons: the U.S. State Department’s impatience with Kahn’s lengthy design process; that agency’s dissatisfaction with, and inability to understand, the design;[21] and perhaps also due to the outbreak of the Angolan war for independence that began 1961.[22]  However, the project remains important for what it reveals about the architect and his work.

 

 

In the project for Luanda, the most practical concerns about daylight and glare led Louis Kahn to devise a daylighting strategy with implications well beyond the need for illumination or for glare protection.  Kahn’s architecture was very much about daylight, but not particularly about achieving specific recommended levels of illumination at some point in space.  The work is about light, rather than lighting, and eventually led to decisions about materials, building performance, circulation, structure, and to resolutions of Kahn’s questions about meaning, monumentality, and the social significance of public institutions.  It is this work with light that enabled him to uncover something important about the potential meaning of modern architecture and to develop an ethical position in relation to people and architecture.  The architect confronts frictions and injustices he sees in society, incongruities that parallel those within the architect.  Through this work, we realize, along with Kahn, that architecture makes its own light in a particular place, at a particular time.  And, in a reciprocal way, light (understanding) is also cast onto the façade (face) of the architect, bringing us to a new understanding of the man.

 

 

All artists reveal something of themselves in their work.  This is inescapable: we all reveal ourselves in what we do.   Although these considerations are spoken of in an undertone in architecture, they are central to understanding work in the other arts and even in science.  How could what we make or how we behave not be a reflection of who we are and what we believe?  As Stephen Greenblatt says of his scholarship on the work and life of William Shakespeare, "I believe that nothing comes of nothing, even in Shakespeare. I wanted to know where he got the matter he was working with and what he did with that matter.” [23]  “The older I get,” novelist Jonathan Franzen has written, “the more I’m convinced, that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character.”[24]  An architect’s work is also a mirror of his or her character.  What is revealed is not given in a written or spoken narrative, but what the architect makes and displays is powerful, non-verbal evidence of a life and beliefs.  It may even be that the more articulate and insightful the work, the more revealing the work is of the maker’s character.  So, as with makers of all manner of things, Kahn’s buildings, at least in their outlook, can be said to be reflection of their architect.

 

 

Kahn’s elegantly composed wrapping walls, immersed in daylight and exposed to the world, are perfected and highly abstracted expressions of sometimes tangled, but authentic, human activity.  Like masks, or our faces, the walls can be employed to camouflage, but often end up doing the opposite: they reveal unseen truths.  In the case of Louis Kahn, the interior workings of his architecture--even with highly refined geometries and the elegant use of materials--contain, doubly enveloped, the inevitable messiness of human work and habitation, the disorderliness and unpredictable patterns of human activity, clothed impeccably in bespoke skins.  This can be seen clearly in Kahn’s late buildings, in Ahmedabad, Dhaka, and La Jolla, where the works draw their second skins around themselves, becoming the “wrappers” referenced in the now axiomatic, “buildings wrapped in ruins.”  These works are the direct descendants of Kahn’s Luandan strategy of intercepting sun with secondary wall surfaces, and the development of perfected expressions of the buildings’ inner lives.

 

 

The façade is the most exposed and initially revealing part of a building and it is the same for a façade’s creator.  With this in mind, it is reasonable to ask, what did Kahn see, every day, when he saw his own face and how did this influence or reflect his outlook on the world?  Kahn’s early life was one of difficult circumstances: he was raised in poverty, an immigrant burdened additionally with religious minority status.  Even as a qualified professional he was an outsider, “a Jew working in a protestant gentlemen’s profession.”[25]  Moreover, he was a physically unimposing man.  As an adult, he stood about five foot seven inches tall,[26] with receding white hair and a scarred lower face.  The scars were the outcome of a childhood accident in which he grabbed at the glowing coals in a fireplace.[27]  The evidence of his complex and imperfect family relations is now well known and has been documented on film by his son.[28]

 

 

Clearly, the attraction he held for others and his influence over others was a demonstration of a charisma, a personal wisdom, his well-documented artistic and musical talents, and his own kind of fineness that emerged from an inner, but beautiful, messiness.  If only Louis Kahn could have created a face for himself that fully expressed that inner beauty!  It appears that he did so in his architecture, particularly in the facades, providing for his buildings and the people who inhabit them a perfected version of themselves, and in a sense, of himself, for all to see.  Who else but an individual with a less than perfect face, and with the finest, if conflicted, heart and mind, would have been open to understanding how inner beauty could be translated to the façade?  Interestingly, the way he spoke in public about his work also seems to have been a redirection from reality, the daily disappointments, compromises, and struggles of architectural practice.  Kahn’s talks often became discourses that veiled the struggles that must have taken place in the office to concentrate on larger, nearly philosophical thoughts.  Kahn is famous for speaking in great, glowing language about architecture, inspiring many but confounding others, even his partisan Vincent Scully, who referred to Kahn’s rambling talks as “a smoke screen around his actual methods.”[29]  Kahn’s building facades screen inner conflict, uncertainty, and daily chaos, as much as they reveal aspiration, contentedness, concord, and decency.  Kahn alluded to this, citing Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House as an example, and rendering the relationship between its inner life and public persona in this way:

 

 

 “It was approached…by a cascade of steps that gave you a sense of the ceremonial--seeing that which is not…formally real but internally real, as though the truth was being brought before you…” [30]

 

 

Louis Kahn’s double life is well known; the story is told by his son on film with the empathetic participation of his sisters, each a child of a different mother.  It would be more accurate to say that Kahn had multiple lives, counting not just his three families, but also his intellectual life, which formed the basis of his architecture, lectures, and writings; and his office life, which contained the facts of his transforming his intellectual life into built form.  Kahn’s insight was to make an architecture of his several lives, with several orders of space, layered so that they might be given their own space and a sense of belonging: an acknowledgement that the competing elements of our lives might be recognized as deserving of a place in the world.  In doing so, he reminds us that most of us have multiple lives, competing interests of one sort or another.  Kahn’s layered spaces, geometric paths, proportioned rooms, geometrically framed and carefully located openings, organize our lives by giving each its place, and lending us the impression, at least temporarily, that they all make sense.

Andre Malraux once wrote: “Man is not what he thinks he is; he is what he hides.” [31]  Who else but a man with the very visible imperfections of facial scars, and who experienced early struggles and mature life conflicts, but with a mind that generated lofty and beautiful ideas about how people should live together, would fully, if perhaps subconsciously, appreciate the value of presenting to the world a new, more perfect face, for himself and for his buildings?  Artists have the luxurious opportunity, through their work, to present to the world their best natures, perfected versions of their unfinished selves and beliefs.  Kahn’s architecture presents us with an idealized, yet in some ways more complete, version of himself.  He devised for his architecture, and through architecture for himself, a new face that still revealed hidden truths, that of his and our unruly, but noble, inner lives.  Kahn’s architecture was illuminated by daylight from the outside so that it seemed to emanate from interior space. Kahn himself shone most brightly from the inside and, judging from his architecture, he must have believed that others do, too.

 

 

 

Citations

[1] Alessandra Latour, editor, Louis I. Kahn Writings, Lectures, Interviews, New York: Rizzoli, 1991; page 122

[2] Latour, page 123

[3] Ibid.

[4] Latour, page 123

[5] “An as-struck smooth grey Portland cement surface may have a reflectance of 40%,” but with some care and the appropriate materials, such as white cement, reflectance may reach 70.  The Concrete Society, http://www.concrete.org.uk/fingertips_nuggets.asp?cmd=display&id=916; retrieved January 3, 2014.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Latour, page 126.

[8] Ibid. page 122.

[9] Ibid. page 125.

[10] Louis I. Kahn Collection, Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania; folder 555A, 030.I.C.555.001; pencil drawings on tracing paper.

[11] Carter Wiseman, Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007; page 114.

[12] Sarah Williams Goldhagen, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism, New Haven: Yale University Press, page 122

[13] Goldhagen, pages 18- 24

[14] The park was completed in 2012.

[15] Goldhagen, page 91.

[16] Louis I. Kahn, “Monumentality,” Robert C. Twombly, editor, Louis Kahn, Essential Texts, New York: W.W. Norton, 2003, page 24. Kahn wrote, “The I-beam is an engineering accomplishment deriving its shape from an analysis of the stresses involved in its use.…under test it was found that even the fillets, an aid in the rolling process, helped convey the stresses from one section to another…”

[17] Kahn, page 22.

[18] David B. Brownlee and David G. De Long, Louis I. Kahn, In the Realm of Architecture, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1991, pages 147-150.

[19] Louis I. Kahn, “Talk at the Conclusion of the Otterloo Congress,” Robert C. Twombly, editor, Louis Kahn, Essential Texts, New York: W.W. Norton, 2003, page 48.

[20] Goldhagen, page 63.

[21] Letter from William P. Hughes, Director, Office of Foreign Buildings to Kahn dated Aug 26, 1960, Louis I. Kahn Collection, Architecture Archives, University of Pennsylvania, Box 34, Folder 28: “Before going further into the details of your work on this project, I deem it advisable to point out to you certain very serious functional problems that appear as a result of our review of these sketches.  Our main objections are as follows…The proposed roof construction is considered expensive and unnecessarily experimental, if not bizarre.... Particularly we do not like our public buildings to be planned as windowless buildings nor do we like them to have a fortress quality.”

[22] Lawrence W. Henderson, Angola; Five Centuries of Conflict, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979, pages 199-201.

[23] Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002, page 4.

[24] Jonathan Franzen, “A Rooting Interest,” The New Yorker, February 13 & 20, 2012, page 60.

[25] Nathaniel Kahn, “My Architect Press Kit,” http://www.myarchitectfilm.com/presskit/MyArchitectPressKit.pdf, retrieved June 14, 2012

[26] Kahn’s 1928 passport is accessible at http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0107/feature1_2.html, retrieved October 18, 2013.

[27] Wiseman, Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style: a Life in Architecture, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2007, page 14.

[28] Nathaniel Kahn, director, My Architect, New Yorker Films: New York, 2003.

[29] Interview with Alessandra Latour, editor, Louis I. Kahn, L’uomo, il maestro, Rome: Edizione Kappa, 1986, page 149; cited in David B. Brownlee and David G. DeLong, Louis I. Kahn; In the Realm of Architecture, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1991, page 127.  Kahn, we now know, also mistook or reinvented his own biographical details such as his birthplace as noted in Wiseman, page 13.

Louis I. Kahn: L'uomo, il Maestro, Alessandra Latour, page 149.

[30] Melissa Steeley and William Whitaker, editors, “Conversation between Louis I. Kahn and Doris Fisher; A House within a House,” Architecture and Urbanism (a+u) number 461, 2009:02 (February 2009) page 48. The article is a transcription of a conversation that took place at the Fisher House on March 8, 1970.

[31] “We Are What We Hide,” Lee Siegel, The New Yorker online, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/11/we-are-what-we-hide.html?mbid=social_mobile_email; posted November 15, 2013.