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The Louis Kahn Conundrum

Posted by Lynne van den Berg On March 17th

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A density of purpose, a phenomenal sense of place and an intense spirituality define his works. There is a silence about his buildings, they have a sense of quiet…Michelle Roohani

 

In 1974, a silver haired gentleman suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away in a small, dimly lit bathroom stall deep within New York City’s  Penn Station. A recently used passport was found alongside a weathered briefcase, but the home address was missing and an office address was found to be closed at the time. Despite efforts to identify the man, it would be a few days before anyone stepped forth to claim the deceased. This unknown man, who was reportedly heavily in debt at the time of his death, is considered by many to be one of the greatest and most influential American architects of the twentieth century. The riddle of how this preeminent architect could meet such an anticlimactic end can be best surmised by one of his own quotes, “How accidental our existences are, really, and how full of influence by circumstance.”

                                                                                                                  

Louis Isadore Kahn had three separate families: a wife with whom he shared a daughter and two other long-term relationships with colleagues, one of which produced a daughter, the other a son. Despite this uncommonly complicated family life, the architectural historian who penned the first book about Louis Kahn, Vincent Scully said, “For a while, I didn’t know he had even one family … that was part of his mystery.” He was a workaholic nomad and a man passionate about architecture.  As with many visionaries, Kahn’s weaknesses and virtues were inseparable and it is worth acknowledging both when contemplating his body of work. It consisted of fewer then one hundred designs and only a handful came to fruition.

Experts say, one of the poorest countries in the world has one of the most beautiful public buildings on Earth.The structure is surrounded by water and from a distance, it appears to float on a lake. Khan spent the last twelve years of his life on the project. It was completed in nineteen eighty-three, nine years after his death.

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Dhaka, Bangladesh Government Buildings

Louis Kahn completed his study of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and went on to become a professor at the Yale School of Architecture before returning to teach at his alma mater. In Kahn’s obituary it is written ‘that his sombre, poetic buildings of stone and concrete led a generation of younger architects away from glass boxes’ (George Goldberger, New Yorker).  He is well known for his mythic use of large open spaces and dramatic light in his buildings, which results in a bountiful feast for the eyes.   Kahn refused to veer from his firm belief that the materials an architect uses have their own divine decree. In his words, “Design is not making beauty, beauty emerges from selection, affinities, integration, love.” Louis Kahn was unyielding in the purity of his architectural landscapes. Despite a brilliant but mixed record of success in the United States, Louis Kahn did find an enthusiastic embrace for his work in India where he built his last great project, the government building at Dhaka.

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Yale Art Gallery: Silence and Light, Tetrahedron Slab

“Late 20th century icon of American Architecture. Master of putting a square thing inside of a round thing, and a round thing inside a square thing. Also adept at adding triangular openings in the round thing or square thing, and sometimes he put a shallow arched opening in the square thing OR the round thing.”   Jody Brown, Architect: A Talk with Louis Kahn  Coffee With An Architect December 16,2010

The influence that Louis Kahn had over the industry is vast. Architect Frank Gehry credited Kahn as his original inspiration and said that without Louis Kahn, he would not be the same man. World renowned Architect I.M. Pei said, “He may only have completed a few buildings, but they are great masterpieces.” In his own words, “A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable.” Perhaps the full value of Kahn’s impact on American architecture has traveled along a similar winding road.

Salk Institute  La Jolla, California Photo: Cultivar Consulting

Salk Institute La Jolla, California
Photo: Cultivar Consulting

 

My Architect  (DVD) Nathaniel Kahn shares clips from his documentary “My Architect,” about his quest to understand his father, the legendary architect Louis Kahn

Works by Louis Kahn    Map of Works

Cuba’s Architecture Moderna….Mid-Century

Posted by Lynne van den Berg On January 23rd

 

Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Workshops of the University of Villanueva 1959, Manuel GuitérrezWebsite for the photo is Arquitectural Habanera .org

Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Workshops of the University of Villanueva 1959, Manuel Guitérrez
Website for the photo is Arquitectural Habanera .org

Mention a place like Havana, Cuba and many images come to mind.  Displayed the world over, photographer Alberto Korda’s famous image of Che Guevara probably pops up, as well as outdated military apparel and classic cars;  cigars, Ernest Hemingway, communism– perhaps all of the above.  Mid-century modern architecture is most likely not found on that list.  Any quick searches of Cuban architecture would bring up salt spurned colonial structures of an eclectic and grandiose appeal.  A quick walk down a side street would be as if you had tripped and fallen into a colonial Easter egg basket.  Many would be surprised to know that Havana also boasts a fair share of Art Nouveau and Art Deco in its public buildings and residential homes as well as Mid Century Modern.  A blog we follow, mid-century-home.com  http://www.mid-century-home.com/mid-century-modern-homes/mid-century-modern-havana/ recently posted an article concerning this very subject, and with such personal ties to Cuba, PGMod couldn’t pass up the re-blogging opportunity, nor the subject.  My late, great, grandfather Lee Minor, spent several years in Cuba during the Fulgencio Batista years. Coincidentally which just so happens to be the same time period in which most of these examples of mid-century happened to pop up.  I mean, it can’t be that surprising that a place in which 50’s automobiles are so famously prevalent, that architecture from the same time period would be equally preserved.  PGMod wishes to give a nod to Cuban modernism and the influences Cuban architects share with the greater architectural community.
Author:  Joshua van den Berg  http://thechronicmasticator.com/

Lee Minor returning to La Habana 2004

Lee Minor returning to La Habana 2004
lumierefl, flicker

In 1939 Cuba’s first national congress of art gave a statement: We must strive to achieve a typically Cuban Architecture governed by the spirit prevailing in our country, always subject to the new modalities of architectonic expression….both form and spirit should abide by the atmosphere of the place and region where the new building is to be located….then continuing on this theme, Eugenio Batista emphasized the importance of the continued relevance of the Cuban tradition of patios, portico’s and louvers* on the materials level and gaiety and cleanliness on the spiritual plane.  (excerpt from, The Havana Guide:Modern Architecture1925-1965 by Eduardo Louis Rodriguez

* three P’s: patios, porticos and persianas (louvers)      =  The ABC’s of Tropical Architecture Eugenio Batista

“Many of  Havana’s most notable modern buildings have remained relatively unchanged since their initial construction. The economic forces of real estate development, which long ago would have demolished similar buildings in other cities, have been denied access to Havana, so it is virtually like a time capsule. However, this ironically fortuitous situation is likely to end when U.S. travel restrictions ease and the embargo is eventually lifted. ” [Leland Cott, ReVista,summer 2010]   Yes, things are changing according to newswire reports… the end of both real and symbolic obstacles to travel by islanders has begun, though it is not expected to result in a mass exit, it is quite a statement to the Cuban people.  With a passport and a national identity card, you can be off to America for a visit with loved ones.

Something else is changing here in the US as well. The Wall Street Journal reports that the other side to this story is  that Cubans would be allowed to travel in a “legal, orderly and safe manner” and that those who had defected from Cuba more than eight years ago, including scores of doctors and athletes, would be considered eligible to visit Cuba.

As a side note, I was born and raised in Miami, my dad and his three brothers traveled frequently to Cuba and had a business there during the 40’s. I was raised on stories of Cuba, and lived not far from the famous Calle Ocho.  My dad’s clear blue eyes glossed over with love when he spoke of his time spent in Cuba.  From Jai Alai, Hemingway, Cuba Libre’s, to La Floridita, and on and on, but especially the Cuban people.   As the story goes, my mother made the decision for us to live in Miami not Cuba. My father returned to Cuba in 2004 at 90 with the Hemingway Society, traveling via Mexico….it was a meaningful continuation and culmination of his long love affair with the island.

The political climate, leading to the revolution was a strong component of Cuba’s mid century modern story. ” Architecture has the power to do more than provide shelter for human activities and everyday life—it has the power to embody the highest values of our culture. It can  also express the ethos of a particular historical moment and provide inspiration for the generations that follow.

che-fidel-golfThe now-famous golf game of January 1961 (http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/che/che-fidel-golf.jpg), after which Fidel Castro and Che Guevara decided to build Cuba’s National Art Schools on the manicured grounds of Havana’s famed Country Club—once the exclusive preserve of the city’s elite—has by now entered into the mythology  of the Cuban Revolution.”  Excerpted from a paper about Castro by John Loomis:

Following is a link to a video documentary about the National Art School…..Cuba’s allure and mid century architecture and it’s unique expression of modernism made in 2011: Unfinished Spaces: Cuba’s Architecture of Revolution….Directed by Alysa Nahmias and Ben Murray

Modernismo 1940-1959

La Revolucion 1960-2000

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There were many architects that were associated with Modernism in Cuba. This list is in no measure complete: Eugenio Batista, Nicolás Quintana, Leonardo Morales, Max Borges, Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi, Vittorio Garatti, Richard Neutra, Phillip Johnson, Pedro Pablo Mantilla, Maria Teresa Fernñdez, Antonio Quintana and Manuel Guitérrez.

The Modern Regionalist ideas developed in Cuba make that movement one of the most brilliant moments of Cuban architecture. With their works, Cuban architects substantiated Ernesto Rogers statement:

“Modernity does not contradict tradition, it is actually the most developed instance of tradition itself.”

La Casa de Noval,1949  Architect: Mario Romanach

La Casa de Noval,1949 Architect: Mario Romanach