Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection / Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania

Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn / Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania

Louis Kahn
On the Thoughtful Making of Spaces:
The Dominican Motherhouse and a Modern Culture of Space

Michael Merrill
Lars Müller Publishers. 2010.

Louis Kahn
Drawing to Find Out:
The Dominican Motherhouse and the Patient Search for Architecture

Michael Merrill
Lars Müller Publishers. 2010.

Eons ago, a friend and I made an architectural tour of the City of Brotherly Love. On our hit list was a pilgrimage to the Louis Kahn archives at the University of Pennsylvania. Unlike the Liberty Bell, the archive turned out to be a rarefied, reservations-only setup and access was firmly denied. Undaunted, we dashed through the door during a momentary distraction and stumbled on some kind of massive organizing effort. Thousands of drawings were scattered in piles on the floor, and we pounced on the stacks of oversized tracing paper covered in smudged black pencil and charcoal like pirates with buried treasure. And, like the Mona Lisa or any icon never seen in the flesh, the drawings’ physical reality was at once more powerful and more ordinary than imagined. They had incredible physical beauty but were oddly similar (in form not content) to drawings on so many architects’ desks. This was both disturbing and reassuring—here was the handiwork of an honest-to-god genius, yet it was so close to how we all worked: same pencils, same paper, same process, same struggle (though certainly not the same outcome!).

Michael Merrill, a practicing architect, professor and a very good writer, brings this same sense of wonder, joy and discovery to life in a pair of provocative companion books published by Lars Müller. He invites us to view the great complexity that is the universe of Kahn’s work through the lens of a single unbuilt project – the Dominican Motherhouse – an unusual and risky approach, but it works beautifully. We follow the evolution of Kahn’s thinking from week to week over a three-year period, accompanied by Merrill’s fluid narrative, illuminating design nuances, and opening up of new important lines of inquiry. Of course, one reason for the book’s success is that, prominent within the pantheon of great unbuilt buildings (Boullee’s Library, Terragni’s Danteum, Kahn's Salk Meeting House, anything by Archigram, etc.) stands this project of Kahn’s. Pragmatically, the Motherhouse is an integrated ensemble of buildings and landscapes for a congregation of Dominican sisters nestled into a wooded property in rural Pennsylvania. Historically, it represents a singular position both in Kahn’s personal exploration of meaning and form and within the larger narrative of modern architecture.

The two books are superb companions – I recommend going ahead and buying both – and credit needs to go Lars Müller for agreeing to the considerable expense of publishing two volumes when one might have seemed sufficient. Each format shows off the strength of its respective content. The intellectual portion is neatly packaged into an appropriately denser paperback, with smaller illustrations illuminating the text. Freed from those constraints, the second book is a luscious visual documentation in large-format hardcover with Kahn’s drawings lovingly and richly reproduced on thick, coated paper. This volume also has a concise accompanying commentary meant perhaps for those who choose to skip the history-theory tome. Like any good pairing, the two books are most rewarding together – it’s safe to say the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – but each functions nicely on its own. This arrangement is particularly well suited to a thoughtful work of architecture/architect, and it could only have been conceived by a practicing architect/teacher who wrestles with the peculiar split nature of architectural theory as an abstract historical “text” that remains inextricably tied to the physical act of making. Merrill calls this his “drawing-board bias” towards theory, an attitude appropriate for students of architecture or anyone who practices more than they theorize. For these drawings are not artistic expressions in and of themselves (though many of today’s architects subvert this) but records of seeking, thinking and translating thought into the physical realm. Merrill describes this investigation as a “culture of making” distinct from a purely historical approach, while Kahn himself talked about it as making the “immeasurable measurable” and Le Corbusier laconically called the process “architecturing.”

The first half of what I’m calling the intellectual book (the second one is visual) tells the detailed story of the Motherhouse design with many of the accompanying drawings from the large volume (reduced in size), while the second half is a tour through Kahn’s overall life-work and the ideas he struggled with while prying open the restrictive canon of mid-century modernism. There are many books on Kahn, but Merrill’s is – for my money – not only one of the most enjoyable and accessible reads but it touches on topics often neglected in the standard Kahn literature. Merrill’s style calmly and easily integrates academic sources and quotations into an engaging storyline. In the course of events, he mentions many of Kahn’s lesser-known collaborators and influences like Le Ricolais, Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch, Tyng, Kommendant, Meyers, Van Eyck, McHarg, Kiley and the Smithsons along with the vastly undercited landscape architect Harriet Pattison. Merill’s in-depth interviews with her appear to be an important primary source investigating the essential role of landscape in Kahn’s work over the years. The text also re-emphasizes what many forget—the fact that Kahn’s approach was simply not possible without his Beaux-Arts background. Merrill furthermore makes a compelling case for Kahn’s work being highly contextual in nature (see also Sarah Goldhagen’s Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism) and refreshingly, he’s not afraid to point out problems and awkward planning that occurs within certain schemes as the Motherhouse evolves.

Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection / Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania

Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection / Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania

Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection / Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania

Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection / Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania

Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection / Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania

Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection / Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania

Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection / Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania

Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection / Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania

The larger volume of drawings provides me with downright visceral pleasure and makes me think that perhaps all architectural theory should be presented in this two-part format. In this volume, Merrill is free to discuss the idea of drawing in architecture, how it’s used as a tool of inquiry and how it’s changed with the advent of computers. He summarizes:

"For many architects born after the Dominican Motherhouse, Kahn’s tools and drawing culture may seem to have more in common with those of Palladio than with those of our own digitalized practice. Our new tools have not only affected the conception and production of architecture, have not only restructured our profession’s social and value systems, they have also changed our way of seeing."

Part of the delight in this book is that not all of the drawings, Merrill notes, can be called “...‘masterly’; in fact, much looks rather rough, even naive, with the architects’ uncertainty or frustration at times almost palpable.”

This combined presentation of Kahn through the eyes of the Motherhouse reveals a depth of architectural thought rarely seen today, particularly in over published celebrity architects. Such struggles and searches, common to the Kahn office, are seldom engaged. Instead, the focus is on public relations, status and publicity. The only well-known office that comes to mind with what might be called a Kahn-view of exploration is the Patkau’s who have, like Kahn, continuously brought ideas to each and every project they design.

It’s with some degree of nostalgia that I imagine some future, adventurous young architect bursting excitedly into the archive of a 21st century master, only to find an empty room with a file cabinet of shiny round metallic CD’s. These books are timely in that sense, because for me – still the unrepentant designer with paper and pencil – they represent the potential for a reevaluation of the nature and essence of architectural design and its larger role in the world. These drawings and texts are cause for reflection and, as Heidegger remarked, in the end, “human reflection” is possibly all we really have.