‘It’s important to honour the material. Honour the brick.’

On a recent visit to Estonia, Jan Fuscoe, discovered facts, and an especially interesting theory, about Louis Kahn, one of the most influential architects of the 20th century.

Kahn died in 1974, in the men’s room of Manhattan’s Penn Station in New York City. His body couldn’t be identified as he’d crossed out his address in his passport, so he lay unclaimed in the morgue for three days. His death was as unconventional as his life had been.

Though Kahn is considered an American architect, he was born in Estonia. Aged 28, he married Esther Israeli but his private life was complicated. He had many affairs,  two with fellow architects who bore his children. Harriet Pattison’s son, Nathaniel, set out to make a film about the father he scarcely knew, piecing together his own memories with those of the people who knew and worked with him; ‘My Architect’, was nominated for an Oscar in the year of its release in 2004.

Unlike the modernist architects of his day, Kahn eschewed steel and glass and chose brick and concrete. As professor of architecture at the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, Kahn explained to his students that they should ‘listen’ to the materials that they are working with, ‘asking’ the materials how they should be used:

‘‘What do you want brick?’ and brick says ‘I like an arch’, and you tell brick that arches are expensive, and maybe a lintel would work, but brick says ‘I like an arch’. ‘It’s important to honour the material. Honour the brick.’’

Many of Kahn’s biographers cited his visits to Rome, Egypt and Greece, where he confessed he was drawn to the symmetry, weight, and timelessness of the ancient buildings, as his inspiration. But Estonian art historian, Heie Treier, believes that Kahn was influenced much earlier, by the 14th-century Kuressaare castle on the Estonian island of Saaremaa, where he was born. He was only five years old when his family moved to the United States, but Kahn told Nathaniel that he was born on an island, with a castle on it, and he would certainly have witnessed the extensive restoration of Kuressaare Castle, which took place between 1904 and 1912.

Kuressaare Castle

Kuressaare Castle – Photo: Arne Maasik

Aerial shot of Kuressaare Castle

Aerial shot of Kuressaare Castle – mPhoto: Arne Maasik

Kahn’s love of brick, stone and concrete can be seen in the brick pillars of Ahmedabad’s Institute of Management, his castle-like National Assembly in Bangladesh, and the architecture of his Richards Medical Research Laboratories – all reminiscent of the ancient style of Kuressaare. Treier suggests that the monumentality of Kahn’s structures has a direct link to the castle of his childhood. She makes a compelling argument in her recent book ‘Kahn’, and related exhibition ‘Kahn: The Islander’ held at Kuressaare Castle; Treier compares the castle’s rose windows, typically medieval, with the pared back, but monumental circular windows in Kahn’s library for the Phillips Exeter Academy, for example; the triangular shapes in the castle’s groin vaults seem to be repeated in the ceiling of his Yale University Art Gallery, while the geometrical layout of the Gothic castle – squares and circles – appears to form the basis of most of the buildings that Kahn built too.

Phillips Exeter Academy Library in Exeter, New Hampshire

Phillips Exeter Academy Library in Exeter, New Hampshire – Photo: Arne Maasik

Louis Kahn said that he knew he wanted to build from the age of three years old. Who can’t believe that it was the monolithic castle of his childhood that inspired him for the rest of his brilliant career?

A view inside Kuressaare Castle

A view inside Kuressaare Castle – Photo: Arne Maasik

The Phillips Exeter Academy Library

Notice the similarity to the image above, this is inside of The Philips Library by Kahn – Photo: Arne Maasik

But while Kahn’s buildings appeared solid and substantial, he was a modernist, stripping back detail and bringing in light to create new spaces and impressions.

Frank Gehry described him as a mystic, and Balkrishna Doshi, the architect who invited him to Ahmedabad to build the Indian Institute of Management, believed Louis Kahn was an architect who created buildings in spiritual terms, ‘Silence mattered to him, the enigma of light mattered to him… we call him a Yogi’.

Kahn’s love of light remained with him throughout his life, believing it to be as important an architectural element as any other: ‘The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building’.  He once told Nathaniel that, aged three, he’d been captivated by the light from the coals in the fire; he scooped them into his apron where they caught alight, burning his face and hands. His own father thought it might have been better if he’d died, but his mother was sure he’d grow up to be a great man because of it.

The Trenton Bath House

The Trenton Bath House – Photo: Arne Maasik

Words: Jan Fuscoe

Photo – Arne Maasik

2 Responses to “‘It’s important to honour the material. Honour the brick.’”

  1. Arne Maasik says:

    Why there are no credits of the photos?
    Arne Maasik (the author of the photos)

    • david says:

      Sorry Arne, all images now have credits. ( please let us know if anything needs adding / changing ) Thank you for allowing us to use these great images, very much appreciated.

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