Exhibition Review, published in Journal of Architectural Education, 2009
“Louis I. Kahn: The Making of a Room”
George Marcus, Curator
Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania,
February 7–March 29, 2009
A room is a room is a room. Or perhaps there is more than that. Among the various subversive operations against modernism credited to Louis Kahn, a fundamental one is his embrace of the archaic notion of the room instead of the radical idea of the plan libre. The room, that most ancient of architectural ideograms and experiences, was central in Kahn’s imaginary. But the room that appears in his drawings, built work, and oracular texts was neither archaic nor usual. It opened new meditations on the tectonics, phenomenology and anthropo-sociology of the room in modernist discourse.
The exhibition ‘‘Louis I. Kahn: The Making of a Room,’’ with an operatic sub-title ‘‘Dramatis
Personae: A Cast of Characters from the Architectural Drawings of Louis Kahn,’’ casts some new light on some old characters. Professor George Marcus was responsible for selecting the drawings, along with students in the Halpern-Rogath curatorial seminar on modern design in the art history department at Penn. Marcus and his students selected forty drawings and sketches that charted a mythopoeisis of the room in Kahn’s world, matching phrases from Kahn’s cryptic repertoire with appropriate drawings (the characters) from Penn’s archive.
The point of departure for the exhibition is Kahn’s well-known 1971 image that combined drawing and text into a visual meditation on the room. This image, along with several compelling phrases derived from Kahn’s consideration of the performance of the room, provided the thematic organization of the exhibition: ‘‘The plan [is] a society of rooms,’’ ‘‘the room is a place of the mind,’’ ‘‘a room is not a room without natural light.’’ ‘‘Architecture comes from the making of the room’’ is perhaps the clearest indication of Kahn’s reification of the room. The statement suggests a conceptual kinship with Adolf Loos’s raumplan and the oneiric properties of certain spaces as observed by Gaston Bachelard.
As the drawings in the exhibition demonstrate, for Kahn the room is not a monadic thing; it also
inspires the idea of family or society. The socialization of the architectural plan is seen in three ways: in the hierarchical assembly of individuated rooms, as in the Assembly Building in Dhaka; in a
systematized matrix, as in the Kimbell Museum; in the free grouping, as in the unbuilt Dominican
Motherhouse. Kahn’s sense of urbanism was also informed by the room. This is made clear not only in his ‘‘a street is a room’’ sketch, but also in his well-known studies for a civic center in Philadelphia from the 1950s. In these drawings, streets become ideal spaces of sociality, made even more powerful by the fact that, in reality, American streets had already succumbed to a techno-functional takeover that rendered them spaces of sheer mobility.
The exhibition began with a simple investigation of Kahn’s interiors, but it became obvious to Marcus and his students that Kahn’s idea of the room was a modulated oscillation between the inside and outside. Kahn, in fact, rendered this seeming duality in his unbuilt Roosevelt Memorial. Here, the garden is truly an enclosure, presenting the first architectural ideation of the room in such a way that there is a greater kinship between the room and the garden than an antinomy.
In the sense of an anthropological ontology, Kahn’s room was the setting for a fundamental human relationship, a unit of life-world where the space belongs to two humans defining social interaction. This designation is markedly different from the anthropocentric space of the single person. With respect to the inhabitation of the room, this relates to Kahn’s distinction between an event and a performance. The former is precipitated by two people conversing; the latter is the prerogative of the single person. Kahn assigned the significance of the room to two people in conversation. The conversation or exchange is further affected by size and light.
A room’s particularity is constructed by its size and conveyed by the light inhabiting it and this, in turn, has an impact on the thoughts exchanged within. The size determines the social modicums of the conversations and thus the various spatialities of the life-worlds: ‘‘In a small room one does not say what one would in a large room.’’ For this reason, the Memorial for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs is a perplexing entry in the exhibition. Of the six glass structures that form the memorial, all but the central one (the chapel) are solid blocks with no suggestion of interiority. Can solid blocks be thought of as closed rooms where access is physically denied, but where interiority exists as an idea? While this was not particularly intimated by the exhibition, it certainly suggests another degree of habitation of the enigmatic room.
As an exploration of Kahn’s social, architectural, and poetical ‘‘characters,’’ the exhibition made clear the various topologies of the room in Kahn’s oeuvre. What was less obvious was when, why, and how Kahn moved decisively into the room – with its elements of four walls, apertures, and a roof – in the midst of modernist openness and spatial fluidity. The exhibition circles around materials when the room is already at the center of Kahn’s architectural theater.