Why the Drawings of Louis Kahn Still Matter
In an age of ebooks and web-first publishing, Louis Kahn: The Importance of a Drawing (Lars Müller Publishers) is a defiant throwback: a lavish, 500-plus-page book, very much an object befitting its subject, whose buildings had a weight, both literal and figurative, that was part of their power and appeal. Conceived and edited by Michael Merrill, the book is both a deep examination of Kahn’s creative process, as told through the medium of the hand drawing, as well as a revealing portrait of the man behind those buildings and illustrations. Merrill is an architect and educator and currently serves as director of research at the Institute for Building Typology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. He’s also the author of two previous books on the master architect, Louis Kahn: Drawing to Find Out and Louis Kahn: On the Thoughtful Making of Spaces.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
MM: Michael Merrill
The stream of books about Louis Kahn, nearly a half century after his death, continues. What accounts for this permanent academic and architectural fascination with him? Why do we keep circling back to Lou?
Kahn posed fundamental, perennial questions that just don’t go away: What’s the nature of a room? What are the basic spatial forms for human assembly? What are the natural orders of different building materials? Kahn’s buildings tend to move us viscerally, in fundamental ways, and I think many of us want to find out why.
His work is also so multifaceted that successive generations have been able to find something in it that fits their agenda. Postmodernists found typology and history. The high-tech architects, his elegant integration of building science. Those interested in phenomenology have been drawn to his elementary constructions, his feel for material and natural light. More recently, architects have been drawn to social themes in his work, to climate responsiveness and the sense of place in a globalized world.
And then, of course, there’s his compelling biography: poor immigrant, late bloomer, who in a kind of historical long shot becomes one of the most important modern architects and then suffers an untimely death. There’s also his role as a teacher, encouraging students to think of architecture empathetically, asking things “what they want to be,” or using words like “wonder,” “commonality,” and “agreement.” I could go on for an hour, but maybe what it boils down to is excellence. Every discipline—be it painting or dance or chess or whatever—has its masters, and Kahn was one of ours. Masters are the ones we always return to with our questions of “How?”
Tell me the origin story of the book.
Perhaps it’s relevant to begin by saying that I’m an architect—one with an affinity for drawing, I actually studied illustration before architecture—and a teacher of architectural design. So my writing and research are colored by those facts. In 2010, I published a pair of books based on the drawings for an unbuilt convent by Kahn, the Dominican Motherhouse. That project grew out of my teaching, and I found that in addition to all of the good questions I could raise for my students by following Kahn’s design process, his drawings, with their special combination of vagueness and precision, are fantastic sparks for the imagination. You almost can’t help taking them, making them your own, and then thinking on them further. The positive feedback from that project eventually helped me to attain a research grant for this new book.
Was using Kahn’s drawings the idea for the book initially, or did that idea evolve once you looked at the drawings?
Thanks to my previous project, the drawings were there from the beginning. The idea was to use them extensively for the first time as a means to approach Kahn and his work. Because drawings give us a privileged view of his thought processes; they reveal things that get hidden in the completed buildings. Drawings tend to bring theory down to earth. They tell us about collaboration and other things that architects want to know about.
The larger idea was to use Kahn’s rich culture of drawing and representation to reflect on perennial questions of representation and architecture. While the computer has changed a lot, it hasn’t changed everything, and the thesis was that Kahn’s drawings can be used to pose a number of provocative, and fruitful, questions to our current culture of representation.
What kinds of provocative questions?
Currently, in large parts of the profession, there exists something approaching a dogma that three-dimensional digital simulation is the measure of all things, usurping older modes of representation. Kahn helps to question that dogma through his broad and expansive command of drawing types and media. He reminds us of each drawing type’s specific propensities and virtues—and shortcomings. The newest tool isn’t always the best one, and no drawing type is superior per se, only superior toward specific goals.
Kahn’s drawings, especially his design sketches, demonstrate that attempts to remove ambiguity and friction from the design process are often misguided. How do we reconcile that knowledge with tools designed to work in ways that are increasingly frictionless and precise, in a professional context that increasingly calls for quick and easily consumable images?
The pure physical presence of Kahn’s drawings reminds us that architectural drawing, properly considered, is a deeply embodied practice, not, as it’s often understood, a purely visual one. How might we better integrate our analog and digital tools—or even develop new tools—to reclaim the quality of that embodied practice? Recent books by Paul Emmons and by Mark Alan Hewitt offer food for thought on this.
In regard to design education and the analogue-digital discussion, we tend to get caught up in the question of “what to do” with hand drawing. I think that Kahn helps us to reformulate the question as, “What might the practice of drawing do with you, were you to seriously engage in it?”
This is another question where I could go on for an hour, but I hope that my intention is already clear: In using his drawings to raise provocative questions, I don’t want to make Kahn into an analog stick to beat at digital technology. Instead, by demonstrating the richness of Kahn’s culture of representation, I hope to motivate architects to develop a richer, more comprehensive understanding of our craft as we move forward.
How did you get access to the drawings?
The main source of research was the Kahn Collection in the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, which holds close to 40,000 drawings by Kahn and his associates. It’s a fantastic institution: in addition to being the primary source for Kahn’s work, they also house the Venturi and Scott Brown collection, those of landscape architects Ian McHarg and Lawrence Halprin, and the work of hundreds of architects dating back to the 17th century. The archives are open to scholars and architects from around the world, and my generous research grant allowed me to spend more than eight months there. While there, I viewed several thousand drawings and rifled through dozens of files. I filled numerous notebooks and established a working databank of over 8,000 photos. As you might imagine, once you start to do something like this you can become a bit obsessive, so the search for unpublished, missing, and especially telling drawings also led me far afield to museums and private collections in the U.S. and Europe. So some of the drawings have interesting backstories.
This almost feels like a biography of Louis Kahn, as told through his drawings. Is that how it was structured?
In a way, yes. From the very beginning I felt, to quote Robert Venturi, “a commitment to the difficult whole.” I wanted not merely to collect a random sampling of themes around drawing, but to build something like a narrative arc. We all seem to love getting lost in stories, and I think that the best books for learning are the ones where the reader gets so caught up in a narrative that he or she doesn’t realize that a lesson has been going on. So the narrative arc is also a kind of epistemological arc, if you will.
So while you can go ahead and skip around the book for its specific themes, I also wanted you to be able to trace Kahn’s lifelong creative growth and to understand the role that drawing played. Kahn learned early that drawing was not just a series of discrete techniques to be learned and applied, but could also be a means for seeing, for seeing more, for discovering things. In this, becoming an artist/architect became a kind of spiritual or philosophical quest. In terms of biography, I thought that it was also important to include nonarchitectural drawings to reveal different facets of Kahn’s compelling personality. For example, there’s a wonderful piece by Nathaniel Kahn on drawing together with his father.
The book has essays by a number of people, including two of his children. Tell me how you organized those pieces.
In the beginning I had a provisional outline and a list of coauthors, some of whom I’d already enlisted for the project, others I hoped to woo on board. Both the outline and the list of authors evolved constantly over the length of the project: new themes arose as I dug deeper into the archives, replacing other themes that just didn’t pan out. Some of the original authors had to drop out due to other commitments, while the project brought me in contact with some marvelous architects and scholars who were willing to contribute. The big challenge was to gradually guide all of these movable parts into the kind of arc that I was hoping to attain. In the end, the arc was there, but in a shape that I hadn’t originally imagined—better, actually, which was a happy surprise. Some of the book’s most important essays were not part of my initial outline, such as those by Richard Wesely, Gina Pollara, Michael Cadwell, and Jane Murphy. I think the experience goes to show how a special kind of serendipity occurs when you really immerse yourself in something.
Kahn really thought through his hands, through his drawings. In spending so much time with the drawings, do you feel like you had in some way entered his design mind?
Drawing, at least for Kahn, really is thinking on paper. To spend time with his drawings is to get to be active, to come along, to ask questions. My task was to do this in the name of design research, to look for general and transmittable knowledge about designing, to extract rational, goal-directed elements from the process and make them available for architects and students. Or to try to find new or better ways to describe tacit knowledge.
But then there is also something very personal in the drawings: you notice when Kahn is tired or uncertain, when he is stuck and failing. This makes him very approachable. We all know what it’s like to be stuck and fail, so we can definitely relate. Of course, sooner or later he will get unstuck, and the drawings will make you realize what a formidable mind and energy Kahn possessed; he’s always working longer hours than you, always more willing to risk what was difficultly gained. He almost always had an anxiety-free willingness to let things slowly ripen, no matter how long that might take. John Keats called that last quality “Negative Capability,” And Kahn certainly had it.
What surprised you about the drawings?
What I might not have expected when I first began looking at the drawings is the sheer quantity that were often made to develop a design: over 900 drawings over a period of three years for that unbuilt Dominican Motherhouse, for example. Or the extent of Kahn’s involvement in the projects; you don’t usually expect the principal of an office to be making drawings for a project from the initial concept sketch down to the final mortar joint, but Kahn did. And in our age of starchitects, with their 300-person offices, it never ceases to amaze that all of these drawings were made by Kahn working together with a team of 20 or so dedicated colleagues. That’s why it became important to me that the book show Kahn’s architecture as collaborative work, and that it shine a light on some of the very impressive men and women who made it possible.
Featured image: Market Street East (1960-62), Philadelphia Civic Center (1956-57). Images courtesy of Lars Muller Books, The Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania, Sue Ann Kahn, and the Museum of Modern Art.
With contributions by Michael Benedikt, Michael Cadwell, Louis Kahn, Nathaniel Kahn, Sue Ann Kahn, David Leatherbarrow, Michael J. Lewis, Robert McCarter, Michael Merrill, Marshall Meyers, Jane Murphy, Gina Pollara, Harriet Pattison, Colin Rowe, David Van Zanten, Richard Wesley, William Whitaker. Design: Integral Lars Müller.