The architecture of Louis Kahn has brought into sharp focus an attitude that raises fundamental questions regarding the nature and purpose of architecture itself. This attitude is neither an extension nor a resolution of the debate on the nature of architecture, which has engaged us for the first half of the century. Rather, it is rooted in one man's intense desire to transcend time. Obviously, Louis Kahn is not an isolated event outside the mainstream of modern architecture. His buildings are accepted as examples of modern architecture. But we do not have the proper theoretical and historical perspective with which to view his thought and work. It is the purpose of this essay to offer one such perspective.

Even though the theoretical manifestations of modern architecture have taken many forms, there is one powerful attitude that seems to permeate all; an attitude that holds "reason" as a supreme human value. Though rationalism itself, as a philosophical schema, has been in existence since the 17th century, it was not until the end of the last century that it began to penetrate architectural thinking. Within a generation, it had not only taken hold of the entire spectrum of architectural activity, but also, in large measure, modified the very nature of that activity.

The work of Louis Kahn is guiding a shift of emphasis, a change of locus, away from rationalism. Therefore, it is important at this point to see his work in the context of rationalism. We have tried to do this by briefly articulating the main features of rationalism in architecture and viewing the emphasis in Kahn's thought against this background. It is not our intention either to evaluate one in terms of the other, or to compare the two attitudes.

There have been a number of parallel, and occasionally contradictory, developments in architecture in this century. One can list these as 1) Universalism, 2) Civic Accountability, 3) Unification of Visual Arts, and 4) Integration of Industrial Vocabulary. All of these developments seem rooted in rationalism.


Universalism began in the desire among architects to legitimatize their work in relation to other, more "objective" activities of man, such as technology. For this, architecture has to be founded on the most objective and the universally acceptable attributes of man. Reason is held to be such a universal attribute of the human species. While the concept of reality may be a product of cultural variables, the basic patterns of thinking are believed to be common to all civilizations. It is the awareness of this universalism that is at the heart of Auguste Choisy's interpretation of architecture in his Histoire de la Architecture, which appeared in 1899 and exercised a tremendous influence on two generations of architects. Choisy's theme was that expressive form was only a logical result of technique, and that it undergoes similar choices and follows similar laws with every people. Choisy's thesis was well received by the next generation of European architects. The two prominent European movements, "Bauhaus" and "De Stijl," were universalist in essence, though their interpretations differed. Bauhaus began with a belief in an objective approach, coupled with a vigorous use of reason in its pursuit of a more "humane" architecture. The search for an aesthetic authenticity led to an intellectual discipline until then unknown to architecture. Standardization was introduced and accepted in an attempt to establish a relationship among matter, form, and process. It was this discipline which led Oskar Schlemmer to write for the first Bauhaus Exhibition in 1923: "Reason and science, 'man's greatest powers,' are the regents, and the engineer is the sedate executor of unlimited possibilities. Mathematics, structure, and mechanization are the elements, and power and money are the dictators of this modern phenomenon of steel, concrete, glass, and electricity. Velocity of rigid matter, dematerialization of matter, organization of inorganic matter: all these produce the miracle of abstraction. Based on the laws of nature, these are the achievements of mind in the conquest of nature."

De Stijl, unlike Bauhaus, never abdicated the responsibility for stylistic resolution. Though both groups represented space on the principle of its divisibility and relativity, the sense data - the raw information -remained the link between the image and reality. Both the Rietveld chair and the Mies chair had universalist aspirations. The differences and contradictions were not those of attitude but of style.

Universalism was not limited to Europe alone. In fact, it was at the very foundation of American society. The clarity and simplicity with which a causal relationship was established between form and function, between image and purpose, was typically American. It was also typical of America to proclaim an "International Style," for the architecture that resulted after the transplantation of Bauhaus and De Stijl in the United States was to be based on reason and objectivity, the universal attributes of man.

Civic Accountability 

Civic accountability is a natural ally of universalism. The universality of reason implies an essential equality among men. It is not surprising, therefore, for reason itself to become an emotional issue among the middle class, though the meaning and application of reason has changed with the changing needs of the time. It was used against the church by science and philosophy and for social change by the Marxists. The implications of holding reason as the supreme value are threefold. First, nature and society are viewed in a deterministic way, as rational systems essentially determined in their evolution by natural laws. Second, nature and society are comprehensible by human reason and, therefore, changeable by purposeful actions of man - meaning that man's relationship with society and nature is essentially that of control. Third, rationalism patterns not only social life but the individual as well on the model of nature, subject to the law of predictability. Society is seen from the point of view of social contacts and variously formulated patterns of associations. It is precisely for this reason that rationalism has never been able to escape worshipping the utilitarian values of efficiency and rational productive organization. Architectural thinking had to be revised and modified in order for it to participate meaningfully in the new social and economic outlook of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; this was done in two ways: On the one hand, all acts of man were seen as meaningful only to the extent that they exercised man's prerogative to control and change social reality, which was seen to be oppressive. Architecture was judged for its commitment to equality for all men. Architectural vocabulary was vigorously purged of all elements seeking to express anything but utilitarian and functional values. Inherent in this approach was the danger of changing the nature of architectural activity into something other than art. This danger was met by re-evaluating the nature of art itself.

Commenting on the "De Stijl" Manifesto V, Van' Doesburg and Van Eesteren wrote in 1923: "We have to realize that art and life are no longer separate domains. Therefore, the idea of 'art' as illusion unconnected with real life has to disappear. The word 'art' no longer means anything to us. Leaving this concept behind us, we demand the construction of our environment according to creative laws derived from a fixed principle. These laws, linked with those of economics, mathematics, technology, hygiene, etc. lead to new plastic unity."

On the other hand, the rationality of the thinking man as the ultimate basis of a rational organization of society was interpreted to mean that man, the creator of universal concepts, was necessarily free; this freedom, in turn, was interpreted as providing the basis for subjectivity. This approach, unlike the first, refused the criteria of social commitment and civic accountability of architecture and sought to reaffirm the expressive nature of art.

Piet Mondrian wrote in "De Stijl" journal under the heading "The Rationality of Neo-Plasticism": "The man of truly modern culture lives in concrete reality, which his mind transforms into abstractions; his real life moves into the abstract - but, in turn, he makes the abstract real."

The ability of this approach to accept the new social reality was dependent upon its ability to transform and conceptualize that reality. This was done much later after the period of the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (ClAM) when the principles of "change" and "growth" of social organizations were articulated and transformed into spatial organization.

Urbanism was a logical step in the direction of expanding the scope and scale of architectural activity to make it more accountable to changing social realities. In fact, cities began to demand architects' attention more and more as it became apparent that a reciprocal relationship existed between the institutional structure of a society and its built environment. However, in the true fashion of rationalism, the new city was viewed as a neatly packaged system of functions. The 'Athens Charter' of ClAM lists these functions as housing, work, recreation and traffic.

Unification of Visual Arts

The unification of all the visual arts under a single vocabulary of primary categories was an inevitable response to the new technological and socio-economic conditions. It was felt that in order to meet the new demands, the very nature and purpose of art would have to be revised; this required a radical change in language from figurative to abstract and non-figurative.

The idea that the visible world becomes a real world only through the operation of thought implies that reality is comprised only of those categories in which thought is capable of comprehending, and which can be subjected to rational analysis. These were assumed to be the primary Newtonian categories of space, time, mass, and motion. It was obvious that the iconographic and symbolic aspects of art were sacrificed in favor of the pure plastic vocabulary of planes, lines, right angles, and primary colors - making the differences between the visual arts almost nonexistent.

Ironically this new design consciousness, made possible en masse by industrial production methods, created a good-mannered middle class who demanded an equally good-mannered architecture. This may have been one of the built-in conflicts of rationalism, for the new clientele effectively resisted attempts to make architecture more responsive to social conditions. The new aesthetic demands made the link between image and purpose passive.

Integration of Industrial Vocabulary

Logic came to be consciously viewed not only as an element of control but as an element in its own right in organizing the image. Corbusier wrote of a "mathematical lyricism" as being superior to mere sense perception. Inevitably, machine and the products of machine emerged as epitomes of this new lyricism.

The problem of the renewal of architecture to correspond to the new lyricism was thought to be simply a problem of a new language, complete with a new grammar: a language that would answer the cannons of rationalism. The formal images produced by the machine and industrial methods of production provided the vocabulary.

Industrialization, however, meant not only a new formal language borne out of industrial processes, but also the introduction of a whole new set of conceptual images and a new attitude toward the places of man. This included concepts such as "standardization," "beneficial concentration," "mass production", "modular components," etc.

The prime criterion of industrial processes, efficiency, penetrated architectural thinking and became a powerful tool in making architecture available to the new clientele. However, efficiency and optimization have only a utilitarian value; and standardization and modular coordination of components are a result not only of the mass production inherent in industrialization, but also of an attitude, equally inherent, which equates order with unity of style.

Industrial method is essentially a process involving a) analysis of the nature of components, and b) their synthesis into a problem solving the whole. This process, appropriate as it is to problem-solving, has only a limited role in architecture. There is no human activity, including that of the architect, in which every component can be subjected to rational analysis. Nor can they all be reduced to simple, Newtonian categories.

It is obvious, therefore, that if the rationalistic approaches displayed basic indifference to those emotions and contradictions which, once admitted, would reveal human nature and its frailties, it is only because the limitations of the method - chosen a priori - limited their range of perception.

This is inevitable where "method" is understood to be an independent, free-standing concept. The limitations of the instruments of observation and communication limit the phenomena which we can observe or communicate. We have, therefore, been urged to look for the content of architecture outside of human nature, where it supposedly has an existence independent of human phenomena.

The above has necessarily been a brief outline of the major developments in modern architecture. These developments have not only shaped contemporary architecture but have formed our intellectual environment. It is against this background that we view the work of Kahn.

If rationalism and formalism were fundamentally indifferent to the circumstantial aspects of reality, the work of Kahn begins by recognizing those aspects. To be sure, he is neither the first nor the only man to have done so - James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Bergson and Schopenhauer all challenged the claim of reason as the supreme human value. But architecture fell behind developments in other fields, primarily for want of a vocabulary that could translate the immeasurable world of the psyche into the measurable world of buildings. Louis Kahn sought to develop such a vocabulary. Art is, by its very nature, ambivalent; only so can it express the dynamics of life and reality. The rationalistic view of reality is deterministic and is based on a world of objects in which form and shape are indistinguishable, interchangeable concepts. This view of reality does not admit ambivalence. Instead of resolving the tension between the universal and the particular in a way that will tl express this ambivalence, the problem itself is often ignored. The reality of Louis Kahn, as he expressed it in his distinction between form and shape, exists at once on the universal and on the particular levels; the universal, instead of being taken for granted as an abstract entity existing outside of human phenomena, is constantly being tested and reaffirmed by the particular. The "form" of the building comes from realizing the inherent nature of the institution which demands presence. "Form" is universal in the sense that there is an inevitability to its realization and that the possibility of such a realization is common to all men. The "shape," on the other hand, is a product of an intensely creative act which transforms the universal by subjecting it to trial by circumstances. The building, therefore, is an affirmation of the multiplicity of life.

An important element of Kahn's thought is his conception of man. The validity of architecture lies not only in what a building looks like, or how well it performs, or what symbols it articulates, but also in what life it addresses itself to. After all is said and seen, one will remember Frank Lloyd Wright, Gropius, Corbusier or Boullee for the vision of life and man they pursued throughout their creative career.

Kahn's view of man suggests that man is neither rational nor irrational but, for lack of a better word, "integrated." In order to view man thus in his totality, it is necessary that he be freed from determinism and the principle of causality with which we view nature and to which natural phenomena are subjected. The dangers of viewing man on the model of nature have become obvious in the past few decades; these dangers stem from the fact that man, thus modeled, is only partial man.

Kahn's assertion that man is not nature but is made by nature forces a re-evaluation of our concept of man. He sees the man/nature dichotomy at once on two levels: man the species and man the human. Though made out of the substances of nature and being subject to the laws of nature, the human psyche has a reality essentially independent of nature, though not necessarily antagonistic to it. This non-antagonistic relationship between man and nature is in direct contrast to the view which sees this relationship as essentially that of control of one by the other. It is non-antagonistic because it strives toward an ultimate unity of man and nature based not on sameness of form but achieved only through the creative act of man, which requires a sympathetic appreciation of nature and its active participation.

This reciprocity of perspective in which man and world mirror each other demands a certain structure of constants in human nature and, by implication, a re-evaluation of the concept of history, since history, with evolution as its theme, has left man devoid of any constants and prerequisite attributes. History, by attempting to arrange the apparent variables of cultural diversity in a temporal and evolutionary frame, has sought to explain away this diversity as mere stages of human evolution.

Traditionally, the direction of history has been from primitive to civilized man, which is to say from pre-rational to rational man. It is evident that history has been used by rationalists to construct a philosophical system justifying reason as the supreme value and goal. Whether one views history as dialectical or analytical, we have no choice, as Levi-Strauss has pointed out, but to see it as a process of evolution. The only way to get around this dilemma without negating history altogether is by limiting the ties between history and man, to the extent that history is an indispensable tool in cataloging the elements of any structure, human or non-human. The answer, then, regarding the essential nature of man lies not in the course of history but, rather, in the beginning. Kahn has expressed his perception of this eloquently: "It is my desire to sense Volume Zero. Volume minus one. A search for the sense of beginning, because I know that the beginning is an eternal confirmation. I say eternal because I distinguish it from, let's say, universal. 'Universal deals with the laws of nature and 'eternal' deals with the nature of man." The two concepts most prevalent in Kahn's thought are order and validity. Kahn suggests that even though order is a precondition of all existence, architecture is concerned with more than merely duplicating the harmonious relationships always present in nature between objects. The order of human endeavors is linked to the consciousness of man: "Nature does not do things consciously, while man does," Order, then, is a "level of creative consciousness, forever seeking a higher level". (Consciousness is defined as a totality of man's thought s and feeling. The higher the level of integration between thought and feeling, the higher the level of order. This integration, in turn, leads to the realization of what Kahn calls the "existence will" of a particular architectural element -what it wants to be or what its essential nature.

Architecture has always sought to relate to nature by mirroring the sublime qualities of nature. The relationship between architecture and man, on the other hand, has always been more elusive; at the most, it has remained at the utilitarian level. The terms "designing for man" or "humane architecture" have proven to be good revolutionary slogans but not much else. The intense identification between man and architecture demanded by Kahn as a prerequisite for the realization of architecture's essential nature makes it necessary to consider that relationship anew. It also calls for a fundamental re-evaluation of the problem of form, content, and structure.

Like order, Kahn's "validity" is also an extension of the man/nature duality: Nothing in nature comes into existence and is sustained unless it has validity: a purpose and a place. This is physical validity. It is built around and controlled by the laws of nature, which are universal. The validity of the work of man, on the other hand, is fundamentally different from, but not necessarily antagonistic to, physical validity; in fact, architecture belongs to that in-between zone where this duality finds a resolution. It is where the universal and the eternal coexist.

The term "validity" as used by Kahn is, in fact, very close to his concept of truth. This may seem strange to us, since in the Western intellectual tradition validity implies only relative truth - that which is relevant in a particular situation. In a culture that has articulated the universal patterns of thinking, the distinction between cognition (which can be justified by the application of universal rules of logic) and relevance (which cannot be justified without relying on tradition and cultural criteria) is inevitable. However, if cognition and relevance are not inter- changeable, the relationship between truth and validity which they have come to imply is altogether different. Truth and validity are not opposed to each other; in fact, truth is the very essence of validity. To say that truth is ill based on reason and is, therefore, universal, while validity is based on spatial, temporal, and cultural circumstances, is bound to lead one to a dilemma of commitment.

Relevance has become a magic word for architects. It implies a certain urgency to belong. This is only another form of the concern for civic accountability. However, forcing a choice between truth and relevance limits the very purpose and content of architecture. By preferring the term "validity" over relevance and by distinguishing among physical, psychological, and spatial validities, Kahn has come closest to resolving this dilemma. His reasoning is fundamental rather than historical; his discoveries of new forms of expression are based on the inherent validities of such forms rather than on our immediate needs for them. There are no such things as "modern" materials or "modern" architecture; the spirit of architecture, like the spirit of poetry, transcends time and history. The clue to that spirit resides in the eternal beginning, when the demands for presence meet the instruments of expression.

Architecture is an idea; its constituent elements are the institutions it serves. A building has not only a unique organization of institutions but also a unique conception of "organization" itself. Every spatial element in Kahn's buildings is dedicated to an institution. It is in this "making of a room" that the essence of his architecture becomes evident: the "room" derives its appropriateness - its size, shape, light, etc. - from the nature of the institution it serves, and its architecture evokes in us a sense of the beginning of that institution. Kahn's concern for the identity and integrity of these "rooms" is manifest in the composition of the buildings. The apparent discontinuities and articulateness in the plan form are the result of a desire not to compromise the integrity of any of these elements. The continuities come from the way the elements relate with each other through an idea.

The personal character of Kahn's vocabulary manifests itself in the fact that his philosophy is not a simple and direct extension of the architectural thought that has dominated the larger part of modern history. Kahn seeks to go beyond history, to the beginning, in search of an entirely new set of conceptual images that will better suit his sense of reality, and for which the present vocabulary is insufficient. His work, therefore, besides being highly personal and deeply felt, involves a fundamental re-evaluation of the nature and purpose of architecture.