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The Math of Kahn: BAM exhibit examines the life and work of master builder Louis Kahn

Architect Louis Kahn and Jonas Salk, the man who developed the polio vaccine, examine Kahn
Architect Louis Kahn and Jonas Salk, the man who developed the polio vaccine, examine Kahn's never-built City Tower design. Kahn designed the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California.
— image credit: Sue Ann Kahn

If you’ve had the opportunity to examine a modern day architectural rendering, the experience can be… How should this be put?

Disturbing. That’s the word. There’s just no way to say it politely.

It’s in the combination of disjointed details, to be sure. The bland, geometric shapes that make up the building itself. The hastily sketched landscape details. Maybe worst of all are the copied and pasted photographs of people “enjoying” the theoretical building disproportionately sized, defiant of depth and damned to forever occupy a hell that resembles Roger Rabbit’s Toontown in reverse.

And maybe these renderings are a disquieting reminder of the way in which modern educational models and the cult of STEM have trained us to organize our mental faculties by arbitrary (read: false) divisions of “left” and “right.” Math is math, art is art, and never the twain shall meet.

So to see the work of an old school master like Louis Kahn is to breathe deeply of an integrated mind, one that could understand the fundamentals of materials science, geometry and nature, then extrapolate them into sprawling works of functionalist art.

“He saw things in their smallest fundamental building blocks and geometric forms,” said William Whitaker, the curator and collections manager for the University of Pennsylvania’s Architectural Archives.

The latest exhibit of the Bellevue Arts Museum, “Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture,” features the life’s work of the master builder responsible for the Kimbell Art Museum, the Salk Institute and Bangladesh’s parliamentary building the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban.

Organized by the Vitra Design Museum in collaboration with the Netherlands Architecture Institute and the Architectural Archive, the exhibit begins with Kahn’s childhood as an Estonian immigrant in Philadelphia, moves on to his early artistic portfolio and moves on to his work as an architect culminating in the construction of the Jatiyo Sanghad Bhaban, widely considered his magnum opus.

As arranged on BAM’s third floor exhibition hall, “The Power of Architecture” is breathtaking. The first sight upon entrance is a one-story scale model of Kahn’s never-built City Tower design. A zig-zagging, complex structure, the City Tower was intended to herald a futuristic direction for Philadelphia’s cityscape.

Every selection from Kahn’s portfolio shows the level of art and detail he put into his work, whether he was designing a sprawling complex, a family home or a community center’s bath facilities.

Though a genius to be sure, Whitaker acknowledged that Kahn benefited from a pre-computerized era a time when architects didn’t face intensely “compressed” deadlines that forced them to move from building to building to building.

Judging from the many quotes which decorate the exhibit, Kahn seemed to have occupied a time when the architect was a sort of philosopher warrior, sussing out the meaning of the past and using it to carve out the appearance of society’s future.

“Schools began with a man under a tree who did not know he was a teacher discussing his realization with a few who did not know they were students,” Kahn once wrote.

“[Kahn’s] idea of the eternal present is that continuity with the past,” Whitaker said.

“Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture” will remain on display through May 1.


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