Was the Philadelphia School of Architecture a radical movement?
They say Kahn’s work is “timeless,” which suggests that its popularity and cultural resonance arise from some kind of pure expression of material or evocative connection to antiquity. Kahn had a unique ability to tap into some kind of universal aesthetic, they tell us, and as a result his buildings are often treated more like aberrations in history than products of their time.
Kahn himself encouraged this view. Star architects don’t like to give credit to anyone but themselves, and Kahn was no exception. He liked to speak in mystical terms about philosophical concepts he invented and seemed to suggest that design ought to arise magically out of the materials at hand. In fact, a close look at Kahn’s designs reveals a much more concrete origin: the city of Philadelphia, and a particular notion of modern architecture that developed locally.
Both Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management and the Exeter Library echo the monolithic brick factories of North Philly; his Kimbell Art Museum recalls the great train shed of Reading Terminal Market (and the long-since-demolished Broad Street Station); the open axes of his Salk Institute and newly completed Four Freedoms Park in New York City recall the endless vistas down our gridded streets.
Despite the prevailing view of Kahn as singular genius working in classical geometries carried forward from his Beaux-Arts education, a different and potentially conflicting description of him has also stuck around over the years—that of Kahn as a member of the “Philadelphia School.” First introduced in a 1961 article in Progressive Architecturemagazine by editor Jan Rowan, the term was never clearly defined—it referred mostly to a general sense that Philadelphia was a place where important things were happening. Within the “congenial atmosphere” of urban renewal, Rowan wrote, a group of architects were seeking to create “a new architecture; new in the sense that it attempts once more to be primarily architecture.”
Rowan quite correctly described Kahn as the movement’s “spiritual leader,” but it is important to note that Kahn’s Philly School contemporaries—most prominent among them Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Ehrman Mitchell and Romaldo Giurgola, Robert Geddes and John Bower—were no copycats.
It was Philadelphia School architects who did commit to a deep notion of honesty in architecture: an explosion of the myth that buildings are stable, simple, and refined. In its place, they offered a new, more open form of expression that, despite its commitment to the honest ethic, proved far more flexible and adaptable than its counterparts elsewhere. Long after modernism was declared dead and the showy postmodernism of Michael Graves and Philip Johnson emerged as its proclaimed replacement, Philadelphia School architects continued to thrive with the principles they had developed in the 1960s.
It’s those principles, inherited from the industrial culture of a city where beauty was to be found in seeing how things were made, which most fundamentally unify the Philadelphia School and make it a bona fide movement on par with the better-known Chicago School of the early 20th century.