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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005


 

Louis I Kahn

by

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Although Louis Kahn is now widely regarded as the most important architect of the second half of the twentieth century, his work -- with its obvious indebtedness to Roman and monastic architecture, its emphasis on monumentality and compression rather than lightness, and its use of masonry and concrete rather than steel and glass -- stood in vivid contrast to the then prevailing International Style modernism. Perhaps for this reason there hasn't until now been a definitive study of Kahn's complete works (Vincent Scully's admiring and characteristically woolly 1962 assessment, which remains in many ways the most penetrating, was largely prophetic, because Scully wrote it before Kahn had designed his most important buildings). This nearly 500-page triumph of bookmaking -- handsomely designed, clearly and perceptively written, comprehensive in scope, luxuriantly graced with photographs and illustrations (including newly redrawn plans and computer-generated images of Kahn's unbuilt projects) -- was originally scheduled for publication a few years ago, but has since gone through substantial textual and graphic revision. McCarter is astute on Kahn's rootedness in Philadelphia (where he lived his entire life), on the revolutionary impact of his period of historical rediscovery at the American Academy in Rome, and (following Scully) on the influence his earliest training in the Beaux Arts style had on his subsequent designs. The author's text and the photographers' work especially illuminate those buildings of the intensely bookish Kahn that are devoted to study: the sumptuous and severe Yale Center for British Art, the massive and serene Phillips Exeter Academy library, and his greatest achievement, the at once stark and intimate Salk Institute for Biological Studies.


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