Louis Kahn was teaching all the time ... in school, in the office, at the building site and in conversations. There was hardly a time when he was not talking about his values, attitudes, realizations, and architectural philosophy, conveyed in simple terms. Never a formal student of Kahn’s, my learning occurred in the course of work and friendship during the years from 1964 to 1974.
At the time he was working on the Dacca Assembly building, Kahn loved to talk about Islamic architecture, particularly the Cairo Mosque or the built elements in Shiraz and Isphahan, in Persia (now Iran). He was delighted in showing us plans and diagrams, indicating how they were built. He also admired the architecture of the Ottoman Turks, particularly that of Sinan who built mosques in Turkey, during the 15th century. Kahn would talk endlessly about such buildings as a singularity of thought and its image, how they transcend material and bring one face to face with the experience of room-making. Hagia-Sophia was a fantastic room for him. The centre of the worship space in Ottoman architecture was another room. Invariably, the discussion would drift to the magnificent rooms of Gothic architecture.
In the course of these room-making discourses, Kahn would often talk about light, how light defines and characterizes space. Light itself would say ‘this is the domed room and not a flat roofed room’, or an arch, or a vault. Light could enhance the character of a particular space or structure that enclosed this space. These preoccupations of Louis Kahn were the lessons learned. Their manifestations in my work may not be obvious because I like to work with walls and vaults more than the more complex forms of Kahn. The lessons learned lead to a certain amount of restraint because at the heart of any endeavour is an awareness and expression of Order.
Choosing to work for and with Kahn, instead of studying with him provides a clue to a personal orientation towards a pragmatic orientation towards architecture. I am not a theoretician in the sense of Kahn, but think in terms of putting certain ideas to test. The ideas may be hypothetical to start with, but if I find any way possible to push these ideas towards the truth, I begin to work on the development of these ideas in order to discover how far they might lead. With me, it is mainly the making-exercise rather than the abstract-exercise in terms of theoretical content even though I believe theory precedes design.
I first met Louis Kahn when he came to Ahmedabad to discuss the Indian Institute of Management. This project was to be designed at the National Institute of Design (NID) and Kahn had been invited to do it by NID. It was Kahn’s desire, through NID, to meet with local architects regarding their experiences and understanding about the prospect of building in Ahmedabad. Kahn felt that local discussions would be helpful to him regarding the type of building, climatic conditions, the Indian way of life and similar topics. It was in this context that I first met Kahn.
After six months of becoming acquainted with Kahn he asked me whether or not I would be interested in going to Philadelphia to work with him. I thought this was a good opportunity even though I was doing my own work in Ahmedabad. After receiving a letter of invitation of sorts, I went to Philadelphia. Initially, I wanted to be there no more than a couple of years. However, I became deeply involved in the responsibilities given to me in Kahn’s office and remained in Philadelphia for around five years from 1964 to 1969.
Curiously, in the light of my later role in the Indian Institute of Management, I had nothing to do with this project while in Philadelphia. This is because Kahn had asked me to work with him on designing the capital in Islamabad, Pakistan. This project absorbed the first year or so of my stay. Other major project commitments, also about a year each, were made on the Levi playground (a collaboration with Noguchi), the Media convent in a suburb of Philadelphia, and the Interama in Florida, conceived to serve as a place for cultural exchange with Central American countries. Near the end of my stay, I did a little work on the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas.
My role in the office was not unusual. I was given a project and became responsible for taking his instructions and preparing drawings and models for him, which is what he wanted. Through continuous dialogue, he made adjustments to drawings and the making of models at various stages of project development. The early stage drawings were not made to put ideas on trial; they were more accurately a type of conceptual, perhaps schematic, drawings up to the design development stage.
Consequently, a person in my role would not carry a project through to complete construction documentation, but would be reassigned to a new assignment. Sometimes, preliminary cost estimates were prepared at this early stage for Kahn, to develop an awareness of overall costs vis-à-vis the scope of the project. Occasionally, I would carry this work forward into the design development of plans and elevations. For the five years of my stay, most of what I did for Kahn had this preliminary sketchy but somewhat firm character.
To a certain extent, Kahn’s office was international. It was staffed by individuals who came from countries around the world to work for him. Communication was not so much a problem in the office as Kahn’s architectural language transcended cultural boundaries and values. It was not very easy, in a way, to understand Kahn because of the very special words that he used, words we could come to understand through constant exposure.
Kahn was not particularly adept in communicating with ordinary lay people, and one might say that many architects had trouble discerning the meaning of his words. Basically, his language was the language of the art of architecture through which he tried to connect with the tradition, cultural heritage of those who would help him design, build and put his buildings to use. It was hardly conceived or useful for ordinary conversation.
Being around Louis Kahn was itself an intense, though casual, learning experience. At times, I was asked to attend his master’s studio juries at the University of Pennsylvania. On other occasions, I was asked to accompany him while giving desk-to-desk crits to his students. In these ways, I benefited from instruction without having to pay the tab. Even so, the vibrant flow of projects and personal conversations was an additional, continuous source of insight and inspiration.
Le Corbusier was often a topic of conversation. In very intimate discussions, Kahn would talk about the works of Le Corbusier and how these inspired him from time to time. Although Kahn did not work in his Paris Atelier, he still considered Le Corbusier to be his teacher. There seemed to be two main sources of inspiration drawn from Corbusier.
The first deals with monumental nature of architectural work, the eternal spirit of Architecture. In this sense, Kahn came very close to the architectural realization of Le Corbusier even though their design languages were quite different.
The second inspiration appears to be the shared perception of new architecture which blends eclectic awareness with the modern experiences of space and structure. Even though he was much more committed to the making of a building as an expression of geometric structure and its components rather than the plastic architectural expression of Le Corbusier, the work of Kahn’s teacher had a tremendous, oft-mentioned impact.
In many ways, Louis I. Kahn was a philosopher, but not in an academic sense. He could see and appreciate the kinship among Eastern and Western philosophies, without having the need to study them seriously. To an extent, Kahn was metaphysical in that he could transcend cultural values, different images and geographical barriers, an orientation more synchronic than systematic.
He tended to focus on that which was in the forefront of his mind. Philosophically, what seemed most important to Kahn was the singularity of the artist, and he hardly missed an opening to emphasize that architecture is not something made by a committee.
Very often, he would punctuate this conviction with a discourse on how ‘a camel is nothing more than a horse designed by a committee’, or similar such contentions. Of final, far-reaching significance was acquiring an awareness of Silence in the making of architecture. This silence is not a silent silence, but one of an elevated inspirational nature. By Silence, Kahn does not mean peace or quiet or anything of the sort. Rather, it is a particular, extremely active state of mental awareness where ideas are beginning to gel, just before the firm definition needed to give root to form giving.
When beginning to work, Kahn individually pondered over many issues and concepts, a state where thoughts sort of criss-cross the mind, uncertain of true direction. Although active, this particular state is paradoxically a state of rest, where ideas and thoughts are without vectors, without any particular direction. This particular state was to Kahn really Silence, the very opposite of inactivity! It is within this Silence, a state of mind where things have not yet taken direction, that it is possible to realize the content and abstract form of an architectural problem. I think all great architects look for guidance from other great architects, and I don’t think Kahn was an exception to this. However, much of this guidance was more from the past than the present.
Kahn really loved Romanesque and Renaissance buildings tremendously. At the time he was working on the Assembly Building at Dacca, he thought his inspiration came straight from the Thermae of Carracalla in Rome. While working on other projects, he used to think of Carcassone and the walls of Albi Cathedral, and so forth. Islamic and Persian buildings, mentioned above were also extremely inspiring to Kahn. It is important to note that these were sources of inspiration, not discrete forms for direct use in architectural expression.
Of all modern architects, Le Corbusier stands out in terms of influence, examined previously in the text. One could say that Kahn actually avoided reaction to the work of contemporary colleagues and was reluctant to engage in professional-type criticism.
Kahn was intensely involved in his own work, often spurred on by what he perceived as a late start on what he ought to have been doing earlier in his life. He was persistently absorbed in the problems immediately before him. When he found something interesting that held a lot of meaning for him, he simply avoided any mention of it. Frankly, he said he ‘didn’t want to burn his energies’ on the work of others. He also said, ‘Why should I analyse someone else’s buildings? The architect who has made the plan, that particular architect, is the best person to interpret it in all its subtleties. Since I am an outsider, how can I interpret someone else’s mind?’
Thus, in general, Kahn avoided reactiveness and criticism. But when he encountered awkwardness or shortcomings in buildings, he would respond with terse comments such as: ‘Well, it seems certain that these architects have suddenly become aware of sculpture’, or, more seriously, ‘How could these architects forget the content of the real life behind the building?’ It was Kahn’s concern that a distinction should be drawn between that best left to circumstances and a greater awareness of people whose particular buildings are intended to serve, their patterns of behaviour and reactiveness. It was these kinds of issues that Kahn was most interested in and willing to discuss. Most interested in and willing to discuss.
There are several important lessons that I learnt from Kahn. The first has to do with the nature of an architectural plan. It takes a tremendous effort to make a plan because it is an abstract document within which a given architectural programme may be seen. It requires an ability to synthesize the programme in terms of plan elements so that there is a potential of place-making rather than merely space-making. It is this lesson and effort of placemaking that is reflected in most of my work from time to time.
The architectural plan and building being made should have a proper sense of order appropriate to, and inherent within, the choice of materials and their structural expression. If there is a stronger order within a plan, it leads towards the exercise of making of openings, the thoughtful making of openings instead of just making openings that do not arise out of architectural or structural order.
This naturally leads to another major lesson learned, that of the light and handling of natural light in regard to the making of rooms; room-making in the broad sense of the term as buildings that have a sense of completion, was another basic tenet of Kahn’s architectural philosophy.
Undated, from interview tapes