They arrived at this conviction from opposite directions. In Wright’s style, which had grown out of Art Nouveau early in the century, there was a determinedly Yankee individualism. Louis Kahn, on the other hand, born in Estonia to Jewish parents in 1901, worked for many years under the influence of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Only around 1950 did he realize that something was missing from architecture that had to be put back. Kahn once fell out of bed, he claimed, with the realization that “assembly is of a transcendent nature. Men came to assemble to touch the spirit of commonness.” This and similarly vaporous principles would inspire a humanizing option for those who had grown sick of the rigidity of the International Style. It is largely Kahn whom we have to thank for showing us the way out of that Miesian trap into which architecture had fallen.
This he accomplished by revolutionizing our expectations about space and layout, about massing, and about materials. Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery, his first really big commission (1951-53), is a staid box, beautiful, but still fully obedient to Mies. There is no feeling of uniqueness to the structure, of its specific monumental purpose. Only the stairwell, its cylindrical mass capped by a floating, triangulated dome, presages the inventiveness to come. Soon you see something new happening in the Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania, where Mies’s rectangular box has been fractured into so many semi-autonomous facets. At the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, two phalanxes of discrete pavilions confront one another against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. The interior of the library at Phillips-Exeter Academy reveals the book stacks through walls perforated by four massive oculi, topped by a dome that recalls the Roman Baroque structures of Borromini.
Kahn effected a similar change in notions of massing. One of the first postwar architects to reintroduce historicism, he created Gothic buttresses for the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, massive turrets are strung along the Ganges, while the main structures of the city resemble something between a mosque and a fortress. All these forms are strikingly, resolutely modern in their lack of ornament, and at the same time resonant of the living past. Their echoes and allusions are further enhanced by the materials Kahn used. It was in the courtyard of the Salk Institute that poured concrete achieved, for the first time, the delicacy of tooled leather and the warmth of alabaster.
These structures, like so many other works by Kahn, bear out his words: “I teach appropriateness.” There is a humility and a humanity to them that suit each work to its specific site and its specific purpose, without, however, concealing the individual, unmistakable stamp of the author.