By JM Cava
This article first ran in ARCADE issue 22.4, summer 2004.
Louis Kahn and Henry Wilcots. Photo: Gary Moye
Editor's Note: This week an exciting exhibition opens at the Bellevue Arts Museum: Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture. The first major retrospective of the architect's work in two decades, the exhibition will include architectural models, drawings, photographs and films.
In celebration of the exhibition, we're revisiting past ARCADE articles on Kahn, which we'll be sharing on our home page. Here, JM Cava interviews Northwest architects who worked with Kahn.
Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture is organized by the Vitra Design Museum and will show at Bellevue Arts Museum this Friday, 29 January through Sunday, 1 May. Join BAM for their preview party this Thursday, 28 January, and keep your eyes peeled for other events around the exhibition, including a screening of My Architect with a Q&A with director (and Kahn's son) Nathaniel Kahn. ARCADE is a proud media sponsor of this exhibition.
Although Madonna-esque celebrity architects like Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry feed our insatiable celebrity appetites, architecture generally remains submerged in the great stream of American culture, surfacing only now and then in unpredictable and mysterious ways. The recent unexpected popularity of Nathaniel Kahn’s film My Architect has momentarily brought Louis Kahn – both the man and his work – out of the shadows cast by big-screen buildings and architects. As everyone knows by now, Nathaniel Kahn’s station point is that of a son trying to comprehend an elusive, charming, workaholic father who maintained three separate families as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. Though rarely present for these children, Kahn did in fact care about them. A used book dealer in Philadelphia once told me that “Lou” (everyone called him that, whether they’d known him 15 minutes or 15 years) was a regular customer of his. Eager for the inside scoop on what the Great Man was reading, I asked what architecture tomes he’d purchased. “He doesn’t buy architecture books,” he said. “He buys illustrated children’s books for his kids.”
Most of Kahn’s time was spent in two other roles: as a teacher (where I knew him) and as an architect, though he often said that he considered himself a teacher first. Certainly this was the only secure income he possessed, for Kahn’s office functioned (or malfunctioned, depending upon one’s point of view) in a way that was much more like a school than a business; an architectural commission was a search for meaning, not a source of income. A partner of a large Pacific Northwest firm once told me, when I mentioned Kahn, that if they didn’t get a building designed, documented and in the ground during the time that Kahn’s office spent on preliminary design, they would soon be out of business.
From the late 1960s through the 1970s (Kahn died in 1974), several former members of Kahn’s staff began practicing and teaching in the Pacific Northwest. I tracked down a few of them to find out what it was like working in Kahn’s office, for the projects they brought to life, like Exeter Library and the Kimbell Museum, would alter the course of modern architecture like no other American had done since Frank Lloyd Wright. These were buildings that did not focus on a personal style but achieved, as Kenneth Frampton has observed, “a return to the tactility of the tectonic in all its aspects; to a meeting between the essence of things and the existence of beings…” buildings that “…lying outside time, were at once both modern and antique.” Just as Nathaniel Kahn has shown that his father was not your average father, it’s also clear that his unpretentious space on Walnut Street in Philadelphia did not contain your average office.
Thomas Hacker (Portland, Oregon)
Worked with Kahn from 1965 to 1969
Projects: Phillips Exeter Academy, Library and Dining Hall (Exeter, NH), Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, TX), Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs (Battery Park, NY) and the National Assembly at Dhaka (Bangladesh).
JM Cava: How was Kahn’s office structured?
Thomas Hacker: There were always two distinctly separate groups in the office. There were these young people from Lou’s master class at Penn — very talented students from all over the world. They were in the office during weekends and at all hours of the day and night — in part because it was easier to access Kahn during those times. They rarely stayed for more than a year or two; they returned home or simply had to make more money because we often didn’t get paid for four or five weeks at a time.
JMC: Did other people do design work in the office?
TH: Kahn did all the initial design, but I think the personalities of these young designers had a real impact on the projects. And then there was this smaller core group of older architects who ran the jobs — the dynamic between these groups really fueled the exploration of the work…without it I don’t think the work would have gone where it did; I really doubt that Lou could have pulled it off all by himself.
JMC: So a lot of time was spent on the projects…
TH: There was no real comprehension of what hours meant in terms of fees. It was about the search for meaning in the work much more than getting the right number of hours for the fee. The beauty of that is that the work would never have gotten to the level it did, had that not happened. But it’s also something that you can’t really emulate. I tried that in the early days of my own office, but it really didn’t work. You have to pay the bills. So, the world is certainly blessed with Kahn’s work, but it’s a very rare thing.
JMC: Were people in the office aware that this was unusual and important work?
TH: The office had this inevitable sense of destiny about it; we were all on a kind of mission with Lou. There was this sense of constant energy like being in a current of water — you could get out of it for a moment, but it was always there, wonderful and thrilling — the intensity of it was so great it was almost physical. And at the same time, it was intensely intellectual; we were trying to discover the meaning of things.
JMC: How were you ever able to complete a project?
TH: Kahn’s strength and his weakness was that he was always trying to push everything further and further and further; he was never really satisfied. I never once saw him act like the goal had been achieved. The final schemes were only somewhat better incomplete solutions than the previous ones. Of course this was a problem with money in the office because he just kept pushing and pushing for better solutions without regard for hours and fees; he even tried to change the work after it was built.
JMC: But of course the work is very powerful and timeless.
TH: Yes. In the end, you have to realize that Lou had immense visual talent. The ability that he had to come over to your desk, look at something and then tweak it just a little bit…it was like tuning an instrument — all of a sudden the proportions would just click; he had an amazingly good eye. I don’t know that people see that about his work today, because the buildings are so blunt upon first seeing them, but their proportions are very refined.
Pat Piccioni (Eugene, OR)
Worked with Kahn from 1956 to 1968
Projects: Phillips Exeter Academy, Library and Dining Hall (Exeter, NH),National Assembly at Dhaka (Bangladesh), Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research Building and Biology Building (Philadelphia, PA), Washington University Library (St. Louis, MO), and First Unitarian Church (Rochester, NY).
JMC: You worked on Kahn’s entry to the St. Louis Gateway Competition that Saarinen won?
Pat Piccioni: Yes, actually Saarinen and Kahn became friends when they were on housing committees during the war. Lou was talking to Eero one day about arches having a sense of entry and welcoming about them — this was when Kahn was rediscovering Roman architecture. Our entry had to be postmarked by midnight, so we got it over to the main post office just before midnight, went across the street to 30th Street Station to get something to eat, and then got back to the office a little after 1:00 am, which was just after midnight for Saarinen in Detroit. Just after we got in, the phone rang and Lou picked it up, listened for a moment and hung up. It was Saarinen, and all he’d said was, “Hello Lou…how big is your arch?”
JMC: You left and returned to the office several times, didn’t you?
PP: Yes, I started in 1956. I’d work for Kahn for a while and then decide to try something else, but then I’d get disgusted by what else was out there so I’d go back.
JMC: Did you just ask Kahn for a job when you graduated?
PP: Oh no! A group of us from school decided to go downtown one Saturday and see a movie, so we got off the streetcar at 20th & Walnut near the movie house, and as it happened, right in front of Kahn’s office. So we looked up to the second floor, and there was Lou. He spotted us right away and started waving his hands, telling us to come on up. He told us he needed some help that day, so we all started drawing. It turned into a week, and then a month and, for me, eight years!
JMC: What project did he need help with?
PP: The competition for the Washington University Library. That first day, I was assigned the layout of this very complex perspective; it was really tough to do. He wanted the drawing to show all the detail of these circular coffers in the structural ceilings that had light reflectors and ductwork and all kinds of things inside them. So I spent weeks and weeks and weeks on it. One Saturday morning after I’d just finished, I went in and Lou was sitting there with these crow quill pens and ink and a big roll of tracing paper. The drawing was big — about 3 feet by 4 feet — and he was just slapping sheets of paper over my drawing one by one, just knocking out perspectives – one every ten minutes – these abstract sketchy things. As I watched him do this, I just got angrier and angrier, because when he was done with those sketches, that was the end of it as far as that perspective was concerned. I was pretty upset and talked about it to David Wisdom who just told me, “Get used to it.”
Gary Moye (Eugene, OR)
Worked with Kahn from 1968 to 1974
Projects: Hill Middle School (New Haven, CT), Kansas City Office Tower (Kansas City, MO), Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, TX), Mellon, National Assembly at Dhaka (Bangladesh), Palazzo dei Congressi (Venice, Italy), Phillips Exeter Academy, Library and Dining Hall (Exeter, NH), Pocono Arts Center (Luzerne County, PA), Stern Residence(Washington, D.C.), Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, CT).
JMC: You often speak of being in Kahn’s office as a learning experience…
Gary Moye: Yes, there was a core of extremely good people who were a big part of my architectural education. When I showed up, there were two ways you could participate in the office. One was to come in and sit around and wave your hands and speak poetically but not really get very far with the building’s evolution. The other was to work with the group of people who really produced the work. I wanted to know how great designs were built, so I attached myself to THIS group which included Dave Wisdom, Henry Wilcots, Winton Scott, Marshall Meyers and Gus Langford. They were very hard working; very thorough and as theoretical as anyone else but interested in making sure what was being talked about could really be built. They were there for the long haul, balancing out the mass of people who came in, worked for the great man for a year, and then left. I still have real admiration for these people; it was pretty punishing to work there — you had to have a high degree of commitment, and often you didn’t get paid for a long while.
JMC: What’s your first memory of working with Kahn in the office?
GM: When I first got there, I worked on the schematic design for the Fort Wayne Arts School. It was a kind of “T” shaped plan, and in the joint of the “T” as it were, was a stair that was not really working, so I was assigned to take a look at it. I was given a desk on the 5th floor, which was the same floor as Lou’s office, but I had my back to his door. As I worked on the stair, one thing led to another, and in order to make the stair work, I adjusted the scheme a little this way and that…you know how it goes. And I was working along like this one day — using a stick of charcoal as we were all wont to do — and suddenly I felt this presence at my right shoulder. I looked up and there was Lou, looking down on me (which he could only do if I was sitting), and he said, “What are you doing?” I started to explain, and rose up out of my chair to the left, while at the same time Lou eased down into it from the right, kind of pushing me out of the way, and as he did so he looked up at me and said, “I just want you to know…I make the shapes here.”
JMC: Did he say that with a kind of wink and a nod, or…
GM: Oh no, in this particular case he was entirely serious. He wanted me to know I wasn’t going to be doing my own work on his projects. It was a very clear message. Of course I wasn’t there to do that, and he realized later that I was only trying to solve a problem. But he watched me for a while after that!
Anthony Pellecchia (Seattle, WA)
Worked with Kahn from 1968 to 1974
Projects: Baltimore Inner Harbor / Charles Center Inner Harbor (Baltimore, MD), Phillips Exeter Academy, Library and Dining Hall (Exeter, NH), Mikveh Israel Synagogue (Philadelphia, PA),Olivetti-Underwood Factory (Harrisburg, PA), and the Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, CT — completed this project with Marshal Meyers after Kahn’s death).
JMC: You mentioned that the design process in Kahn’s office was unique — how so?
Anthony Pellecchia: One of the things that happened over and over in Lou’s office was that the design often became ready to be built only after it went full circle. After a great many schemes, we’d wind up going back to something we started with — of course it was different and much more developed, but still… It was a unique way of working, what I like to call “process design”; Lou didn’t like the word “process” — he considered it something you used to make beer. Several of us were greatly influenced by this method, but later on found it difficult to function like that in today’s world. In fact, looking back on it after all these years, I wonder how Kahn could have survived today.
JMC: I suppose part of the ability to do that was the long hours?
AP: We all worked very hard in that office, but one of the things about it is that Lou worked with us. He wasn’t one of these people who told us we needed to do certain things and then left and didn’t work on the weekends or late at night. That was really very inspirational. He could get you to work even beyond where you thought your limit was, and when you weren’t there, even for a good reason, you still felt guilty for not being there! There was this very unusual and inspiring kind of leadership.
JMC: How was the office set up — what were the kinds of contributions you could make?
AP: The project coordinators had a lot of independence and responsibility, but always with the “how,” not “what.” Sometimes we would even make presentations to clients when Lou wasn’t there. I recall one time I had to make some drawings for a presentation that Lou couldn’t attend. So I did them, presented them to the client, and they went over fine. When Lou later saw the drawings, he was complimentary, but I remember him saying, “But it doesn’t look like me.”
JMC: It sounds like Kahn was fully engaged in all aspects of the design.
AP: Yes, there was a night when we were working on Olivetti, and Lou was trying to communicate a design for these struts that go around the building like a ribbon, supporting the walls from the foundations to the edge of the umbrella structures. And he made this gesture with his feet and his body like Charlie Chaplin — he kind of pointed his feet out to show how the struts would work. He could be very mannered and almost comical about how to arrive at solutions, but it was also very effective.
Richard Garfield (Portland, OR)
Worked with Kahn from 1967 to 1972
Projects: Olivetti-Underwood Factory (Harrisburg, PA), Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, TX), Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs (Battery Park, NY),National Assembly at Dhaka (Bangladesh) — where he was Supervising Architect — Palazzo dei Congressi (Venice, Italy), and Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, CT).
JMC: I recall in Kahn’s studio a man who would come in all dressed up in what looked like a tuxedo, and he would launch into long diatribes about light and the nature of things and Lou just let him go on. Someone later told me he was from the office; who was he?
Richard Garfield: Oh, that was Gabor! No one really knew why he was in the office. He came over from Hungary and met Lou and somehow they got along, even though Gabor appeared at the time to have no marketable skills. Lou just liked talking with him about architecture, so he put him on the payroll and gave him a desk. Of course there were frequent complaints about this from the more pragmatic minded members of the staff, and one day, when pressed for the umpteenth time about why the office was spending money on him, Lou stood up and said, “Look — I pay the lights, I pay the heat, I pay the rent, I pay Gabor!” and the matter was never brought up again.
JMC: Kahn’s office was kind of like a studio, wasn’t it? I mean, the environment wasn’t exactly pristine…
RG: There is the famous story of Lou being interviewed by Jackie Onassis for the Kennedy library (I.M. Pei talks about this a little in the movie). Of course it was a big deal to have someone so well-known come in, so on the day of the interview, Lou came into the office, looked around and said he had to do something about cleaning up the place. He went out for a half hour and returned with exactly three ashtrays.
JMC: The mythology has it that people worked all hours at the office, and that Lou had no sense of holidays…
RG: That’s true. One time we were all working on New Year’s Eve and Lou appeared to have no idea of the holiday. Someone finally spoke up and said, Lou, it’s New Year’s Eve, don’t you think we should go celebrate? “Sure,” he said, “let’s all go out and have a drink — but then we have to come back to the office.”
JM Cava is an architect in Portland, where he teaches, writes and designs.
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