Louis Kahn's life and legacy at Exeter

Submitted by digital on Fri, 02/20/2015 - 00:57
{"version":"0.3.0","atoms":[],"cards":[["images-card",{"images":[{"url":"http:\/\/res.cloudinary.com\/dpcbzfiye\/image\/upload\/v1458762482\/vq0gsz8pgmzos61femib.jpg","id":"2221"}],"caption":"Exeter zoning ordinances in the late-1960s required buildings to be no more than a few stories tall\u2014a rule Kahn flouted by including mezzanines, bringing the building to eight actual floors, as this section shows."}],["images-card",{"images":[{"url":"http:\/\/res.cloudinary.com\/dpcbzfiye\/image\/upload\/v1458763736\/yr8lda5jemfy0kzh6jgr.jpg","id":"2241"}],"caption":"Many of Kahn\u2019s spaces, \u201cservant\u201d or \u201cserved,\u201d utilize elemental shapes such as squares, circles, tetrahedrons, and cubes to create programmatic relationships."}]],"markups":[["i"]],"sections":[[1,"h2",[[0,[],0,"\n\nPhiladelphia\nmay claim him but Kahn defined a New Hampshire town, as well\n\n\n\n\n\n"]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Little was what it appeared to be with the man born\nItze-Leib Schmuilowsky on Feb. 20, 1901. Estonia was Russia then, making him\nculturally Estonian but nationally Russian\u2014although no person, least of all\nLouis Kahn, would cite any other city besides Philadelphia as his real home.\nFebruary 20 is also only half right; it\u2019s the Julian calendar date. Russia\nwould not switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1918. And, as his son\nNathaniel Kahn\u2019s 2003 biopic "],[0,[0],1,"My Architect"],[0,[],0," unfolds, his\npersonal life was anything but straightforward."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"To be sure, Philadelphians certainly continue to\nclaim him. And how could they not with his Philly rhotic and Joe Lunchbucket\ngait, his rumpled suits, and matted hair? Half of his two dozen realized\nbuildings still stand there; the other half are scattered to far-flung cities\nand towns\u2014with each local population claiming him just as vociferously. \n\n\n\n"]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"In La Jollians know exactly where their Salk\nInstitute sits and will tell you the best time of day to visit according to the\nsun or the mist. Those who live in Dhaka, Bangladesh, won\u2019t just tell you where\nto find their National Assembly Building\u2014 they\u2019ll take you there. In a traffic\nlull, New Havenites can stand in the middle of Chapel Street and with barely a\nhead swivel direct you to either the Yale Center for British Art or the Yale\nUniversity Art Gallery."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Those from Exeter, N.H., as I am, are also proud of\ntheir Kahn. With a slightly rounded north-of-Boston Brahmin accent and lexical\nefficiency, they will tell you: Head west, away from downtown\u2019s bandstand, and\nyou can\u2019t miss it. Kahn\u2019s library there\u2014a brick sentinel, the tallest building\nfor miles\u2014is a constant presence. It sits on a low hill along Front Street,\nwhich perfectly cleaves the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy, cattycorner from\na Ralph Adams Cram church to the west and scarcely 20 feet from Kahn\u2019s Elm\nStreet Dining Hall to the east."]]],[10,0],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"It was also where I had my first job, at the age of\n14, as a \u201ccomputer lab proctor\u201d\u2014a glorified babysitter for whirring machines\nand, pre-email, word processing endeavors. As first jobs go, it was less\nglamorous than lifeguard and far more sedentary than paperboy. But I was in\nheaven. I spent 480 hours in the library computer lab that summer\u2014and countless\nmore studying in a carrel a few years later when I was a student at Exeter."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"That\u2019s the official record. The unofficial one: I\nprobably spent more time wandering around, neglecting my work, and learning\nevery inch of the building. It couldn\u2019t be helped. Cosseted by a million\nclinker bricks\u2014uneven and craggy, the final lot harvested from the Exeter\nbrickyard on the west side of town before it closed\u2014it felt like my private\nworld."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Ascending to the fifth or sixth floor and peering down into that central\nspace is surely the most satisfyingly urban experience you can have in Exeter,\nbut it\u2019s also the most terrifyingly sublime. That interplay between intimate\nstacks, study spaces, and a death-defying prospect is an incongruity, but it\nworks\u2014just as the blonde oak paneling throughout the building works with the\nblack, brown, and burgundy bricks; or the brick shell works with what Kahn\ncalled the concrete \u201cdonut\u201d of the atrium; or as the tallness of the building\nworks with the relative squatness of the campus and town beyond."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"At Exeter, it\u2019s not about discord with Kahn, though.\nThere and elsewhere, he doesn\u2019t jar your sensibilities so much as he creates\nsingular environments that have an internal logic driven by his sometimes\nsimple, sometimes maddening use of language."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"\n\n\n\n"]]],[10,1],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"The stories that architects and historians like to\ntell about Kahn\u2019s design thinking are mythical\u2014about \u201csilence and light,\u201d about\ntimeless and elemental forms, about a brick \u201cwanting\u201d to be an arch. Even in\nhis own lectures and writing, Kahn ducked and weaved like a prize fighter,\nspeaking in everyday terms about the experience of architecture and, in the\nnext paragraph, invoking what can only be described as spiritual essences that\ncenter on Platonic ideals like Nature or Art."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"On one hand, he could speak and write eloquently\nabout hierarchy\u2014\u201cservant\u201d and \u201cserved\u201d spaces come to mind, a useful dichotomy\nthat anyone can perceive in the organization of a building. On the other, a\nphrase like \u201cexistence will\u201d\u2014an amorphous \u201cspirit\u201d or \u201ccharacter\u201d\u2014breaks the\nclarity and we\u2019re stranded in a conceptual funhouse, wondering how to connect\nwords to building."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"One of the interesting things about Kahn is,\npublicly, he had little regard for the liminal areas between served and servant\nspaces. Corridors, he noted on a few occasions, weren\u2019t \u201cworthy\u201d in the larger\nenterprise of creating architecture. But if we believe, as he did, in the\ndefinition of architecture as \u201ctotal harmony,\u201d then his hallways or\npassageways, his vestibules or vestries, are not only worthy\u2014they are some of\nhis best spaces."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Think about the Kimball\u2019s portico, the Salk\u2019s\nexterior arcades, the Trenton Bath House\u2019s corner baffles, the double-height\nrecesses outside of Rochester\u2019s First Unitarian Church. Or think, as I often\ndo, about the Exeter library\u2019s mezzanines, which are an integral part of the\nbuilding but exist outside of proper floors in a zoning loophole. It\u2019s in these\nspaces that you find lounge areas and desks tucked away, neither served by any\nofficial function of the library, nor servant to anyone but the lucky person\nthat stumbles upon them, clutching a book to read."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"As interstitial spaces go in Kahn\u2019s work, the\nlittle-known dining hall that Kahn designed for Exeter has one of the most\npeculiar ones on the outside of the building: a small room in the west \u201cchimney\ntower\u201d accessed through a single opening with no lintel and no semblance of a\ndoor, seemingly cut out of the brick with a surgeon\u2019s precision. As with his\nwriting, the clarity of Kahn\u2019s dining hall\u2014its medieval massing, its union of\nprogram and form\u2014is interrupted by this moment of whimsy. Standing inside the\nbarely 10-foot-square room, and looking up into the interior volume, it feels\nlike your own personal ziggurat. Perhaps there was a programmatic reason for it\nonce\u2014now lost in an archival footnote that I never found (although I tried)."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Today, though, that tiny room exists for no other reason\nthan to exist. Maybe it demonstrates the \u201cexistence will\u201d that Kahn held\ndear\u2014\u201cof a form, of a need, that one feels,\u201d as he defined it in 1959. I\u2019m sure\nthere\u2019s a metaphor there about our own lives: We exist because of our wills, or\nour wills exist because we do\u2014some play on Descartian logic\u2014but I\u2019m not bright\nenough to discern it."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"What I "],[0,[0],1,"can"],[0,[],0," say for certain:"]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"Standing in that tiny chimney room and looking out\nonto the south fa\u00e7ade of the library as the afternoon sun throws the weathered clinker\nbricks into modest relief, that was a pretty good first job\u2014all thanks to Louis\nKahn."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[0],1,"William Richards is the senior director of digital content for the AIA."]]],[1,"p",[[0,[],0,"\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n \n\n\n\n\n\n"]]]]}
Philadelphia may claim him but Kahn defined a N.H. town
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Kahn’s library sits adjacent to his Elm Street Dining Hall (1972), a building that’s often neglected by historians but integral to understanding the architect’s contribution to the Phillips Exeter Academy campus.
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