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Nathaniel Kahn: Taking the Public/Private Initiative

18 Jul 2005

Private Phaidon has just published a beautiful book by Robert McCarter on Louis Kahn. The book focuses on Kahn’s work but in recent years his private life has come under scrutiny. Alan Dunlop talked to Nathaniel Kahn, Kahn’s son and the film maker behind My Architect, about the relationship between the private man and his public work.

AD The thing that’s disappointing about how people photograph your dad’s buildings is that there’s never anybody in them. You never get a sense of the life. For example, in photographs of Salk Institute you never see anyone in the courtyard. Do the scientists and other people use the courtyard?
NK They use the courtyard in a contemplative way mostly, and there are plenty of people who just cross it because they have to get to the other place. One of the first things Lou thought about when he designed that building, was that he realised from listening to the scientists that at one level they had the same needs as artists. They had to work on something very intensely and then they had to get away and think about it. And so he created the lab space and the study as totally different spaces, and that delineation is fundamental to the success of the building. You’re working very intensely, you don’t necessarily need light flooding in, and then you need to walk away, to feel the breeze of the Pacific. Some scientists use their study as a painting studio, one guy has a piano in his study, some keep them completely empty as a kind of Zen-like meditation space, and others have cluttered offices, overrun by books.

AD Your film was full of great set pieces. In particular I enjoyed you roller-skating in Salk Institute. Was that something you had wanted to do for ages?
NK I’ve always wanted to roller by the Salk, I mean, sure, absolutely, what a great place to do that, and what a great way to use a father that everyone feels so reverential toward, it’s hardly the kind of place you kick off your shoes, right? The challenge for all of you architects, is how do you present your buildings to non-architects. How do you give them humanity? You yourself said, we talked about the photographs and about the lack of people, yet they’re meant to be inhabited. How do you communicate these human qualities to people? You can’t just film the building; it’s not enough. So that is why in each case, for each building, I tried to find a human way to give you an access to the meaning of the building. In the Salk Institute, me roller-blading on the plaza was a way of humanising this space and you see a son playing in his fathers plot.

AD One question I really want to ask about was his appeal. You can divide his life up into two parts. Before he went to Rome in 1950 he had built really nothing, and yet he’s a professor of the University of Pennsylvania, had won awards from the American Institute of Architects and was a visiting critic at Yale. But on what basis? Was it the force of his personality?
NK He did not find his own distinctive voice until he was in his fifties. And I don’t only credit that with Rome; I think people mature at different rates. Lou never quite got a ‘real’ scholarship for his trip to Rome; he had to teach at the same time, because he never had any money. Basically, they had allowed him to be in Rome at the Academy, and to take a trip to Greece, and Egypt, and I think the trip is what absolutely opened his eyes. And I think more than the forms, although he talked a lot about the forms, it was the feel of these places. I think having worked as a modern architect for quite a while, trying to incorporate your feel for modernism, with all these things, these great revolutions that were happening with Mies and Gropius, and to a degree with Corbusier, and also with his own work. But modern European architecture coming to America; that stuff never quite fit right with Lou. We live in a world that is so obsessed with youth and early fame and money-oriented, and you’re a loser if you’ve not built a great building or directed a great film by the time you’re 30. You’re a loser. And it’s so unbelievably wrong, I mean any architect will tell you this; Frank Gehry will tell you that.
AD Well, you don’t get in your stride until you’re 50.
NK In Lou’s case I do think that it was quite extraordinary that it took him until he was in his fifties to be able to express himself and luckily, he had a kind of confluence of events. He was teaching at Yale where he had a great friend and a wonderful fellow architect, George Howe. Lou was a poor immigrant Jew, George was ‘establishment’; but George loved Lou. George pushed Yale to choose Lou to design the Yale University Art Gallery, to give him that commission. In the end it was public buildings that he loved, as he called them ‘Institutions of Men’, I think part of that was that as an immigrant, coming to this country, he had nothing. A home was not so important; what was important was the places he could go for free – the libraries, the art galleries, the music institutes. The first real commission that he got that was like that was the Art Gallery, in 1951.

AD Kahn’s work has a monumentality,
but it also has a drama to it.
NK You are right, it does have a drama to it. The Yale Art Gallery is so wonderful; you can’t just get in, you have to turn a corner to get in. Great thing. I think that at that time in his life he was also with Anne Tynman and they get this great commission, he’s seeing the ancient ruins, and he’s already starting to design the building at this point. And she said to him, “Look, if you’re going to design here, go all the way; make it different. Make it your own thing.” And you see, in that building, him changing. I think the one absolutely magnificent room in the building, is the stairwell. The stairwell is 100 per cent where Lou is going with his architecture, just this incredible, monumental power.

AD If he had lived longer, where would
his architecture have gone do you think?
NK Nobody knows, Lou didn’t even know and this is the wonderful thing about art and about architecture – it is very evolutionary. And one of the things I really admire about Lou – I’ll talk about him as my father now – one of the things I really admire about my father as an artist, is he was willing, with every building, to reinvent it from the very beginning. There are no two buildings the same.

AD There are similarities.
NK Yes. In the materials, the kind of detailing, the approach to windows and openings there are similarities, but each building really is enormously unique. At the Kimbell Art Museum, the structure is in service to getting light into the space, which is enormously different from the Salk Institute, which to me is an outdoor building, which is very different again to the Capital in Bangladesh, it’s a monumental building, perhaps more of a castle. But in each case he was willing to go back to the very beginning and ask himself, ‘What really is the programme for this building?’ What does it mean to build a library? And, of course, it’s probably a story you know, he said, “Mmm, a library is a place where you bring a book from the darkness into the light.”

AD I get a sense that Louis Kahn felt that he had a limited amount of time. If he were to come back now, for instance, and he was reviewing his life, do you think he would change the direction of his life, do you think he would spend more time with you?
NK Would he choose a different path and not be an architect? No. Would he come back and perhaps re-evaluate his life? I think yeah. But I think one of the things I learned from making this film is that we’ll never know. There is a fundamental ambiguity there, that is in his architecture, it’s part of what makes his architecture as good as it is. A building like the Salk Institute is a great example; it’s so many things, it’s not just one thing. Is it one building or is it two buildings? Is the space in between the building a building? When you stand in that courtyard and you feel that the building is big, and that it’s small. It’s both intimate, and it’s monumental. It’s, grand, it’s playful, it’s romantic, it’s harsh. This was an enormously complex man, and that life is such that we’ll never know the answers to those questions. I’ll never really know who he was. And perhaps, he was, what we were saying, was a mystery. A father is always a mystery, on some level, to a son; a parent is always a mystery to a child. And on some levels some people are mysteries to themselves. Lou was a mystery even to himself.

Louis I Kahn by Robert McCarter is available from Phaidon £49.95. The film My Architect by Nathaniel Kahn is available from Tartan Films.

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