Louis Kahn (1901-1974) was among the most influential architects of the 20th century — his impact has been compared to that of Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe. Born in Russian Estonia in 1901, Kahn and his Jewish parents came to Philadelphia when he was 5, and as he grew that city became his laboratory. He was interested in contemporary urbanism during the decline of the inner city and became part of the American City Beautiful movement.
Kahn had a significant impact on the architecture of central New Jersey. An award-winning graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, in 1935 Kahn was hired by Bauhaus-influenced architect Alfred Kastner to assist at Jersey Homesteads (now Roosevelt in Monmouth County), a planned community built by the New Deal Resettlement Administration.
After a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, with trips to ancient ruins in Greece, Kahn began work on the Trenton Bath House (actually located in Ewing). With help from associate Anne Tyng, his design for the changing rooms includes a central open-air atrium in the shape of a cross. The rooms are topped by pyramidal roofs that appear to float a few feet above the sidewalls, but in fact are secured to steel boots mounted on square pillars in the corners of each room. Sunlight enters from the sides through the gaps above the sidewalls and from above through a space cut at the apex of each roof.
It is cool on a stifling day, and the gaps between the walls and roof allow the light to form interesting patterns on the concrete walls. At one time it had a circular pebble garden and a mural that evoked the mosaics of the floor at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The structure embodies Kahn’s ideas about servant and served spaces — utility systems, for example, were servant spaces, whereas the light-filled spaces were served.
The Trenton Bath House is considered pivotal in the work of Kahn, who went on to design such soaring spaces as the Yale University Art Gallery; the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.; the National Assembly Museum of Bangladesh; and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Hallmarks of his style are vaulted loggias, rushing fountains, and reflecting pools. He was considered a choreographer of light. An interior, he insisted, only becomes an architrecutal space through the diffusion and reflection of sunlight.
In the Trenton Bath House, once part of the campus for the Jewish Community Center and today home to the Ewing Senior and Community Center, it is possible to see the first hints of the modernist use of ancient forms that would become Kahn’s signature. ln 1984, thanks largely to the efforts of architectural historian Susan Solomon, the Trenton Bath House was listed on the New Jersey Register and the National Register of Historic Places. (The Bauhaus-inspired houses in Roosevelt are also on the National Register.) Architectural students from all over the world come to Ewing to study the building. Buses and taxis transport architects from Newark International Airport to Ewing to see the shrine to 20th century architecture.
The Bath House is widely recognized as a transition point in the architect’s work. “I discovered myself after designing that little concrete-block bath house in Trenton,” the architect wrote in a letter.
“It was built a year later than the Fontainebleu in Miami, which was the standard for luxury and how to indulge in leisure,” noted Solomon in “Louis I. Kahn’s Trenton Jewish Community Center” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2000). By contrast, the Bath House is an exercise in simplicity. He aimed to achieve a timeless sacred quality, reflected in the austerity and elemental materiality of his buildings.
“Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture” is on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia through Sunday, November 5. Organized by the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, in collaboration with the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, it is the first major retrospective of Kahn’s work in 20 years and includes more than 200 objects and ephemera.
Though the Fabric Workshop and Museum is a contemporary art museum devoted to creating work in new materials and new media, late founder Marion Boulton "Kippy" Stroud met Kahn while working for Margaret Esherick at the time when Kahn designed her home (1959-61). Later, at the University of Pennsylvania, Stroud attended Kahn’s studio classes. Before her death in 2015 Stroud began contract negotiations with Vitra Design Museum to bring the exhibition to Philadelphia.
"At the Fabric Workshop, we are really all about experiment and innovation,” said newly appointed executive director Susan Lubowsky Talbott. “The Kahn show fits our mission because Kahn was such an innovator, and because that innovation was the result of so much experimentation. We, like Kahn, push the boundaries of possibility and experimentation in art and design."
Visitors should plan to spend several hours viewing the architectural models, original drawings, photographs, films, and text. There are video interviews with architects Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Peter Zumthor, and Sou Fujimoto about the profound influence of Kahn, and how he understood architecture as not only satisfying utilitarian needs but as an instrument of artistic speculation and a way to complete nature, history, and human community. Said Gehry: “Kahn has a mystical relationship with building materials, he made them people. I love the poetry and the innocence of it. He really believed the building was part of the human construct.”
Nature was a key element in Kahn’s architecture, not only in structural terms but in the sense of embedding the building in the landscape. He contemplated how a building would respond to sun, water, wind, topography. He turned to the landscape architecture of the Renaissance and the building traditions of the Middle East to understand a building’s relationship to the site.
Kahn worked with sculptor Isamu Noguchi on the Levy Memorial Playground in New York’s Riverside Park. Noguchi was approached to design the playground and invited Kahn to join him. They collaborated for five years, creating more than a dozen models. It was never built but remained influential in furthering the development of creative playgrounds.
Perhaps the most surprising elements of the exhibit are the watercolor, pastel, and charcoal drawings made by Kahn from his travels to Italy, Greece, Egypt, and even Philadelphia, such as a pencil drawing of the Ben Franklin Bridge. Pyramids in Egypt, his wife dressed in pink, and a street in Gloucester, Masschusetts, caught his eye. An abstract landcape painting serves as a reminder that Kahn taught alongside Josef Albers at Yale and said some of his paintings were inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s spaceframes.
Kahn’s wooden box of pastels is on view, looking as if he just used them yesterday. There are calendars marked up with his travels to Venice, India, Zurich, New York, and back home to Philadelphia. Though it is hard to make out all the words in his notebook, one can see how methodical he is in his writing. Among the words that stand out: the joint; poetry; quarry; wonder.
All of the houses built by Kahn were in and around Philadelphia and were constructed from and furnished with wood, showing the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement and inspired by the simiplicity of Shaker furniture and interiors. He collaborated with artist and sculptor Wharton Esherick to plan a house for his niece, Margaret Esherick.
Interest in Kahn, and the Bath House, spiked in 2009 when the film “My Architect” was nominated for an Academy Award. Made by Kahn’s son, Nathaniel, the film is both about the many projects the architect designed, and a son’s search for a father he never knew. The exhibition includes unpublished footage by Nathaniel. Kahn was married to one woman, with whom he had a daughter, but was also in relationships with two other women who worked for his firm and had children with them as well.
Nathaniel, who was 40 when he made the film and 11 when his father died, recalls always asking his mother when his father would come to live with them. She promised he would as soon as he divorced, and she believed it, one senses in the film. Mother and son would travel to Maine for vacation, waiting for the father to come, believing he would.
Kahn’s death was as mysterious as his life: He collapsed in the men’s room of New York’s Penn Station, an apparent heart attack. The address on the passport he carried was crossed out — Nathaniel’s mother told him that was the proof his father planned to come and live with them — and so it took three days to identify the body of the world-renowned architect.
Kahn never lived in anything he designed — he didn’t believe in owning anything — and died bankrupt. Only a small number of his buildings were erected over a period of 25 years. Only one of his projects ever made money.
Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture, Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, November 5. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Free, $3 donation is suggested.
A series of public programs on Kahn are offered, including "Louis I. Kahn: My Teacher, My Friend, My Father, My Architect," University of Pennsylvania School of Design, 210 South 34th Street, Philadelphia, October 28, with a 10:30 a.m. panel featuring Kahn’s children, Nathanial Kahn, Alexandra Tyng and Sue Ann Kahn moderated by FWM Executive Director Susan L. Talbott; 11:15 a.m. panel with architects Henry Wilcots, Roy Vollmer, Reyhan Larimer and Luis Vincent Rivera moderated by William Whitaker, curator of the architectural archives at PennDesign; and the 2 p.m. screening of “My Architect” followed by Q&A with the filmmaker, Nathaniel Kahn. $10 to $25. 215-561-8888 or www.fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.