In spite of his position as one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, Louis Kahn always considered himself a teacher first and an architect second. After an early stint at Yale, he taught a master class at the University of Pennsylvania for over 15 years in a light-filled, double-height Beaux-Arts studio above the art and architecture library designed by Frank Furness.
These notes are my near-verbatim transcription of Louis Kahn’s comments from his fall master studio in 1972 prior to his sudden death the following year. These comments were addressed to students, outside visitors and his co-teachers, Norman Rice and Robert Le Ricolais, and are presented here in approximate chronological order. In the studio, students worked primarily on a library for the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, a project then in Kahn’s office; a more abstract program of shorter duration—simply entitled “A Room”—was given near the end of the term. The following notes are from the introductory section from the first week or two.
One must have the feeling that what you are undertaking is something of extreme importance; it must be worth all of your attention and effort in a valiant, combined effort. If it is not worth this, then it is not worth the slightest glance.
The land and climate of a project determine, in part, the character of the building. In Bangladesh, for instance, the monsoons affect people’s attitudes towards water and rain. It is at one and the same time a wished-for blessing and a dreaded evil. And there is the character of the people themselves to consider . . .
It is never necessary to have a consistent “style” in your work, for then you are conceding or conforming to other more superficial factors than the search for the nature of the thing at hand.
The wall of a building is of necessity an organic entity, much like the wall of a human being or any animal, which has layers of fat on the outside for protection from the heat and layers of fat on the inside to insulate from the cold. Thus, a wall is the organic skin of the building.
If I love natural light, I will be determined to have it at any cost and by any means necessary. If I cannot have natural light, I would perish in the gloom.
In order to begin to search and to build, the process is like that of a farmer starting a new field of crops. He must look about and choose exactly the right piece of land and get to know it thoroughly. He has to lovingly prepare the land—only then can the vegetables grow.
A truly great artist is someone who reveals the nature of whatever material he is working with by means of his point of view. Everyone has their own point of view, their own angle from which they view the world, but this aspect of the artist’s work is only secondary. Of primary importance is that the painter, for example, reveal the nature of paint, of color, and that the musician similarly reveal the nature of music. The music of Beethoven is not beautiful because it is Beethoven’s but because it is music. “Ah,” I say, “so this is what music can be . . . ” Once the nature of the thing has been revealed, and once I am able to grasp it, I become released from the artist’s point of view. I no longer need Beethoven, for I have stolen from him (through his generosity) the very nature of music. To feel the freedom is to steal the nature and run away with it.
Point of view is a way of reaching the nature of the truth. There is a difference between getting across the nature of something and having information about it. For someone or something to be considered useful, it means that they are inspiring, helping one to realize the essence of the thing. I don’t want to be “informed,” I want to have the thing itself—not to know about it but to simply know it.
The structure of the Room, its nature, is defined by the light, which is defined by the structure of the Room. One should not be forced to move from one room to another to be able to see the structure. The light will reveal the structure, which will in turn, reveal the light.
Referring to diagrams of a house vs. a stacked house drawn on the chalkboard by Kahn:
A very “poor” man lives here [single house diagram]; so-called “poor” because he has no money. He has, however, a dog, a deer he gave shelter to, a garden, a tree and so on. And he is always able to have such things, perhaps making him not so poor after all. How can this “poor” man’s luxury be preserved in this [high rise]? How can each person have their own tree, garden and animals? How to make each dwelling belong to its owner?
I must honor the materials that I use, which come from natural sources. I need to be aware of their sources, how far away they had to come for me to use them and how well their new surroundings will respect them.
What distinguishes one space from another? The nature of those spaces. The space must be endowed with a particular presence, a sense of always being aware of its surroundings and not falling asleep on you when you’re not looking. The Room must be radiating its undivided attention, which will stimulate the same in whoever is in that Room. Such a space must be one that inspires. If it be a home, it will inspire living. I would enter that space and immediately feel that I would like to live there, because it is truly a space for living in; it is conducive to living. It inspires that quality and no other.
Why does one feel at home in some spaces and not in others? In this space I can work, but in this one I cannot. The associations are limited by the space. This is architecture, as opposed to the work of a contractor, who haphazardly throws together odd assorted spaces. You want to feel that the space is your own private shelter; the light inside is your light . . .