Louis Kahn, the influential designer who inspired Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei and others — and is the subject of his son’s documentary “My Architect” — gets a major retrospective at BAM.
Meet Louis Kahn, the modern architect you know the least about.
While not a celebrity cultural figure, like Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe, Kahn (1901-1974) is considered by students of architecture to be one of the most influential designers, urban planners and teachers of the 20th century.
Now, a major retrospective titled “Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture” is making its U.S. debut at Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM) through May 1. Organized by the Vitra Design Museum in Germany and including dozens of models, drawings, photos and other artifacts, the exhibition attempts to communicate Kahn’s significance to a broader public.
‘Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture’
Through May 1, Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue; $5-$12 (425-519-0770 or bellevuearts.org).
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Kahn created a handful of striking and idiosyncratic buildings that weren’t exactly minimalist, nor brutalist, nor prototypically postmodern, though he had a deep influence on architects who worked in and around those “isms,” including I.M. Pei; Renzo Piano; Robert Venturi (best known to Seattleites as the creator of Seattle Art Museum’s original downtown home); and Frank Gehry (EMP Museum). Gehry has said that his first works came out of his reverence for Kahn.
Kahn’s most famous buildings — The Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh — show a fascination with pleasingly layered geometric shapes, touchable materials and human scale. They reveal a creator less concerned with making sculptures to be admired from afar than making spaces in which people can experience light and motion as it unfolds over time.
In this regard, Kahn could be called a humanist; but he was also a deeply flawed human being. An Eastern European immigrant, permanently scarred at age 3 from a fire, Kahn was an outsider — not the smooth social operator that Wright was. But like Wright, his finances were shaky and his love life was complicated at best, unprincipled at worst.
The exhibition begins with an introduction touching on this biography and continues through six thematic sections dedicated to urban planning (specifically related to his adopted home, Philadelphia); science and engineering; landscape and nature; residential design; public commissions; and Kahn’s architectural legacy.
You exit with a basic understanding of who Kahn was, what he did and how he did it. (Several sketches and models — notably 3D mock-ups of the wonderful library at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire — reveal his ideas literally taking shape.)
What the show doesn’t provide is a sense of the buildings as they were meant to be experienced, in actual daylight and actual space. This is an inevitable shortcoming for any architectural exhibit, of course, but it’s emphasized by the hermetic nature of BAM’s upper galleries. More large-scale video might ameliorate the situation; a video of the Kimbell Art Museum, shot from the perspective of an observer moving through the space, is an attempt in the right direction.
(It’s worth noting that Bellevue Arts Museum was designed by Steven Holl, an admirer of Kahn’s and a brilliant architect in his own right, who was working under some limiting program requirements at the time. Among the many enticing related programs BAM offers with this exhibition is a public discussion with Holl and architect/author Robert McCarter on March 5.)
Imperfections aside, “Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture” is a big get for BAM. And the museum is an appropriate home for the show, because it’s so devoted to generating conversation about the impact of design on daily life.
As Puget Sound comes to grips with explosive growth and development, it’s imperative to learn from master builders like Kahn.