Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Taking Place: Landscape in the Architecture of Louis Kahn

November, 2007

Published in the “Journal of Architectural Education,” November, 2007.


Vincent Scully describes when he and Louis Kahn were visiting Moscow in 1965, and were walking around the Kremlin, he pointed out towards some of the famous towers in the area and said, “Look, Lou, how they point to the sky.” To which Kahn replied immediately, “Look how they bring the weight down.” In Peter Kirby’s documentary on Kahn, Richard Saul Wurman talks about the AFL-CIO building in Philadelphia, and narrates how Kahn was overly fussy about the “look” of the foundation and was giving inordinate time to it by actually designing and making models of it. When some of the office people inquired about it, Kahn admitted a concern for how the building will look as a ruin.


I think these and other visual and literary narratives, but more than stories, the buildings themselves, and what can be extracted from what Kahn said aligns him with a sensibility that cannot be easily located within what we commonly call modernism, and provides a more complex reading of his work than the predictable Platonist, mystical, genealogical or structural interpretations. While these interpretations are immensely relevant in the context of Kahn’s work, I want to say that Kahn was also profoundly interested in the relationship of building and land in a very particular way. Provisionally, I would like to say that there is a recurrent and heightened notion of the intertwining of form and, for a lack of right word, landscape or environment in his thinking.  This is what I would like to unravel in this essay.


When it comes to locating landscape in the context of the work and ideas of Kahn, there is however expected ambiguity. Although Kahn himself provides openings towards the realm of landscape, it is a-systematic and sporadic, and is superceded by a more persistent meditation on “Form.” In any case, different notions of landscape could be posited from Kahn’s work, from the conventional to more conceptual, from what Kahn himself remarks upon to what I extrapolate from my own orientation. My intention is two-fold that intersects: one, to recover from this diversity a distinct idea of landscape in Kahn that is generally bypassed in the scholarship on his work, and, two, use that understanding to propose a notion of landscape that I argue is inherent in architecture, that building in its essence is a landscape event. The second point may be seen as expanding the idea of landscape and at the same time revising an understanding of architecture.  My thesis of seeing architecture as landscape gains particular insight from Kahn’s work but refracted by the ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, especially in seeking an analogy of architecture to the notion of “lived-body.”  This is the intersection that I alluded to above.


To begin with, Kahn did talk on occasions about a more conventional sense of landscape in the form of gardens.  Landscaping does refer to a botanical or agricultural understanding that involves the particularity of places, the nurturing of plants, the precision of soil, moisture, etc.  Kahn expresses admiration for the work of Gertrude Jekyll – a few places where Kahn mentions other designers – especially the work of Jekyll in intimate relationship with the architecture of Edwin Lutyens, bringing up the matter of building and site as garden.  On another occasion, Kahn sees an analogy between gardening and building, for the architect can learn from a farmer in not making the landscape pretty but “to preserve his crops by the logic of planting.”  The attitude is not too dissimilar from what his friend the sculptor Wharton Esherick had to advise designers: Think like a farmer.


In Kahn’s own work, a botanical or vegetal landscaping becomes an important element in the overall architectural plan in a number of projects, such as the grove at Salk, the [japonais] trees at the entrance of Kimbell, the linear cluster of trees for the Roosevelt memorial, the carpet of grass for the Dhaka Assembly, and the circle of trees on the unbuilt esplanade and meeting center in Dhaka.  While commenting on Kimbell, Aldo Rossi notes an interpretation of the classical realm and mentions cryptically that there is something Grecian about the grove and entering the museum, which, in my view, provides a scenario different from the usual Roman genealogy of Kahn’s work.  Kahn also came to know Mughal gardens directly from his sub-continental sojourns, and the expansive design of water in Dhaka and Ahmedabad (the latter was not carried out) is arguably derived from examples of lakes in North India.


While it may be useful to make a compendium of such landscape strategies in Kahn’s work, it is not something that I plan to do here.  When I say landscape in the context of architecture, I do mean it beyond the botanical aspect, not ignoring it but rather subsuming it in a broader and perhaps more fundamental understanding of architecture, especially architecture in the sense of built work.  In brief, a built work takes place, and it takes place in certain conditions and actualities.  It is this taking place of architecture – being intertwined with the world above all – that I consider as the dimension of landscape.  I would like to think that the matter of the taking place of architecture opens up a rather unexamined prospect in Kahn’s thinking, that I discuss through two conditions: the grounding of architecture, and the weathering or ambient dimension of architecture.


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