Louis Kahn Superstar

Andrea Branzi

Niels Ole Lund

He was one of those personages who besides existing in real times are also a revival of themselves, a sign recalling some period of our lives, a significant detail in a much larger picture; in the background of an uncut version of «American Graffiti» teeming with teenagers and their yogourts, one should see a game of tennis going on between Louis Kahn and Marcuse.. He made us run terrible risks, but today we can smile at the tought of him and remember «the way we were» without any danger of our turning to stone. When his star rose in the early sixties we were all firmly settled in our admiration of the socialdemocratic perfection of the Scandinavian quarters, and our hitchhiking holidays were spent discussing our hopes to meet swedish girls…

Surrounded by mediocre teachers who talked of prefabricated schools, Louis Kahn then represented the almost biblical symbol of the campuses of American Universities, a myth still possible of the great master, the last specimen of the gerontocracy that dominated the world of architecture in those years (a tenuous link with the Founding Fathers, against whom rebelion was unthinkable ). His allusions to the classical origins of architecture – Roman – to be exact – was the academic answer to the stalemate to which Modern architecture which continued to point to itself as a rational order, with the Villa Savoye as its Parthenon and Siemenstadt as its Polis. As a counterbalance to this motionless Greek and Euclidean self-admiration, Louis Kahn proposed the Latin example, an experimentation brought on by destiny, an allusion to Roman way of looking architecture, in which volume and structure, fonction and monumental purpose coincided. It was then that the first reproductions of Piranesi began to be passed around, and the first visits to Villa Adriana took place. There are still some who haven’t recovered from it all..

At bottom Louis Kahn’s original compositional contributions were very few, and were useful in revealing that after all classical architecture was still latent under the skin of modern architecture. It was the first sign of a credibility crisis in the Modern Movement, and this crisis he lived from positions on the right. It was also the last weary debate on architecture and its laws of compostition; the came the deluge. It was the deluge because suddenly everyone realized that Carnaby street, the Animals, the Birds, the Beatles and the Mamas ans Papas were much more important, significant and complete than any prophecy meant for the masons. It was then that we broke off, because of those personages and along those lines; from that moment on our education went on elsewhere, and no longer in schools of architecture. Louis Kahn’s defeat was not due so much to the confutation of his theories as to the general leap forward taken by the youth culture, to the appearance of new and powerful media, and to the entrance of public creativity on the publis scene. It was the instruments, especially, that brought about his defeat, the sound of an LP record, clothing, and drugs were educational instruments more powerful than any form of architecture. The great consisted in the capacity of this «depth media» to appeal to the masses everywhere in the world. A cultural revolution had begun which went far beyond the conflict over its content and swept over unbelievable numbers of consumers.Architecture, as cultural communication, has no way of achieving the same «quantitative» following as modern electronic media or models of behaviour. In a world in which a message spreads simultaneously everywhere , architecture remains an immovable object which on must travel to reach, as on a pilgrimage, an object which is half a usable instruments and half allegory, closed within its disciplinary limits and successfully imposed in a narrow field of urban influence only because of a ridiculous aspiration to the monumental. The city itself no longer coincides with an architectural area, but only with a consumer model. The quality of that model is as important as that of any municipal structure: any place, reached by the television, telephone, fashions, is an integral part of the urban system. Indeed, the metropolis is no longer a place, but a condition. Let the dead look after their dead, then. With Louis Kahn, architecture died and not simply a particular concept of it; he, like everyone else before him, saw it as a problem of quality.

Source :
Andrea Branzi, Radical Notes, Casabella 1975.