Hosted by the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York; we invite you to learn more about us and our Louis Kahn building.

Louis I. Kahn (1901-74)

Kahn was trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition at the University of Pennsylvania under Paul P. Cret and he worked at Cret's office in 1929-30. In the 1930s and 40s he came close to the radical ideas of Buckminster Fuller and Frederick Kiesler. Later he returned to a remote historical imagery through his preoccupation with the creation of hierarchic order out of heavy structural form. He defined space by means of masonry masses and a lucid structure laid out in geometric, formal schemes and axial layouts with a strong processional character of space and images, an approach that derives from the Beaux-Arts tradition. Kahn's architecture also projects a strong emotional quality, a nostalgia for the lost ancient world which is infused into his severe masonry.

Kahn's theoretical point of departure was function but a function explored philosophically in respect to the essence of the building's intended use; of the "human institution" the building was to serve. These "human institutions" stemmed from the inspiration to live which, according to Kahn, is threefold; the inspiration to learn, the inspiration to meet, and the inspiration for well-being. This is how he envisioned the beginnings of an institution of learning:

"I think of school as an environment of spaces where is good to learn. Schools began with a man under a tree, who did not know he was a teacher, discussing his realization with a few who did not know they were students . . . the existence-will of school was there even before the circumstances of a man under a tree. That is why is good for the mind to go back to the beginning, because the beginning of any established activity is its most woderful moment."

This philosophical exploration determined his creation of an answering architectural form. Buildings were not inert configurations of form and space but living organic entities, created by the architect for human use. He constantly asked the question "What does the building want to be?" This was used as a universal ordering principle That was manifested in his later career by the revelation of the constructional process. Function had to accommodate itself to the form, but only insofar as the form itself had been invented from a profound understanding of the overall task in the first place. Beauty was not within his immediate concerns. But true expression and appropriateness to use were. According to him, initially there is something that has the will, the urge to exist. Its basic character and attributes that seek expression must be listened to, comprehended, and given shape. "Beauty will evolve," he maintained.

For Kahn it was natural light that brought architecture to life; the artificial light had an unvarying "dead" quality in contrast to the ever-changing daylight. Light, for him, was not only an instrument of our perception of things, but the very source of matter itself. It represented nature with all her laws by which all matter is bound together. He was especially attracted to the cyclic nature of light and attributed great psychological and metaphysical significance to its daily and seasonal fluctuations. Kahn saw architectural elements, such as the column, arch, dome, and vault, in their capacity of molding light and shadow. In 1939, Kahn rejected the simple-minded, if socially committed, functionalism in favor of an architecture capable of transcending utility. In his Rational City studies (1939-48) he saw the need to make an explicit distinction between the architecture of the "viaduct" (Le Corbusier's "Ville Radieuse") and building at a human scale. In his plan for midtown Philadelphia he attempted to press the forms of Piranesi's Rome of 1762 into the service of the modern city. In this, expressways were thought as "rivers" and the traffic-light controlled streets as "canals." Kahn was conscious of the profound antipathy between the automobile and the city and of the fatal link between consumerism, the suburban shopping center and the decline of the urban core. He proposed a "dock" solution (1956) comprising a 6-story cylindrical silo housing 1,500 cars and surrounded on its perimeter by 18-story blocks that was deprived of elements at a human scale.


Kahn designed a project for the Philadelphia City Hall (1952-7) in association with Ann Tyng. In this project Buckminster Fuller's influence was prevalent. The basic concept was of a geodesic skyscraper, stabilized by tetrahedronal concrete floors ("a vertical truss against the wind")

In 1954, in his Yale Art Gallery the frame is concealed while emphasis is placed on the monumentalization of walls, floors, and ceilings. The main orthogonal volume is animated by a cylindrical form housing the major access stair. Here, the cylinder is the "servant" and the rectangle the "served" form. This asymmetrical architecture depends no longer (as in Mies) on the manifestation of structure as frame but rather on the manipulation of surface as the ultimate agent for the revelation of light, space and support.

In 1957, Louis Kahn created a world-wide reputation with the Richards Medical Research Building (1957-61) of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The brick walled shafts which form the exhaust chimneys for the glass-walled laboratories are reminiscent of the image of the defense towers in a medieval city or an Italian hilltown. At the Richards Laboratories one of his principal ideas was the distinction between "served and "servant"spaces. The glass-walled workrooms are "served" by separate, freestanding brick chimneys. Each "served" space has its independent structural frame with a complete set of supports and its own source of natural illumination. The problematic aspect of Kahn's method lay exactly in this issue, as to whether or not the overall form was typologically justified. The subsequent difficulties encountered in using the building would suggest that it was not.

In 1959, he designed the First Unitarian Church at Rochester New York (1959-63). The basic concept of the church was of the central sanctuary as the place where questions were generated. A corridor and a school were arranged around the sanctuary in concentric fashion. The final design consisted of two concentric cubes with four towers attached at the four corners which admitted light and diffused it (or "softened" it) making the space appear radiant.

In 1962, he designed the National Assembly Building in Dacca Bangladesh (1962-74) as a dense, multilayered, concentric agglomeration of walled spaces clustered around the central Assembly Chamber: press offices, secondary meeting hallls, and a mosque (slightly off-axis to face Mecca). The minor units are also multilayered, admitting light through geometric cutouts in their solid, forbidding walls which suggest an austere, overpowering image of a fortress enclosed by rings of walls and towers. Kahn in his mature work used masonry (especially reinforced concrete) almost exclusively for their massive, rugged qualities. In this he was inspired by Le Corbusier's late style. Le Corbusier's "brise-soleil" became in his hands freestanding perimetric screens. Kahn wrote about this: "I thought of the beauty of ruins . . . of things which nothing lives behind . . . and so I thought of wrapping ruins around buildings."

In his Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (1966-72), the principal floor consists mainly of a repeated structural unit, a barrel-vaulted bay 20x100 feet, laid out in six parallel rows, each row three units deep end-to-end. Each 100-foot-long vaulting unit is supported only at its corners by narrow piers freeing the interior of support walls. This is possible because each vault is a single unit of reinforced concrete forming in essence a concrete beam of semicircular profile. This vault has a continuous 2.5 feet wide opening along the apex with structural bridges every 10 feet. A sun screen (or "natural lighting fixture") made of carved, perforated aluminum panels is hang below the vault. The light partly penetrates through the perforations and is partly reflected off the polished upper surface of the fixture onto the concrete vault filling the space with diffuse "silver light." This is combined with "green light" diffused through the interior from strategically placed sculpture-garden courts.

This page, or a very close approximation to it, was originally produced by:
Bret Thompson
Paul Holje
Jack Potamianos
for a class project and hosted at North Dakota State University through the late 1990s. Later Bret Thompson maintained it at; in October 2000 it disappeared from the Web. After noticing it was gone we found a (possibly imperfect, and certainly unauthorized) copy elsewhere and grabbed it for our site. Subsequently we received a note from Paul Holje remarking that he thought it "pretty cool that you are holding onto it on your web site"; we take that as authorization to keep doing so unless and until one of the authors tells us otherwise. Enjoy.

return to our building's page
June 6 2005