Aritist's Work/Artist's Voice: Louis I. Kahn: Further Consideration

The excerpt below is taken from Kahn’s writing about his architectural philosophy. Have your students analyze this text and discuss its meaning.

“A great building, in my opinion, must begin with the unmeasurable, go through measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be unmeasurable. The design, the making of things, is a measurable act. At that point, you are like physical nature itself, because in physical nature everything is measurable—even that which is as yet unmeasured. . . . But what is unmeasurable is the psychic spirit. The psyche is expressed by feeling and also thought and I believe will always be unmeasurable. I sense that the psychic existence-will calls on nature to make it what it wants to be. I think a rose wants to be a rose. Existence-will, man, becomes existence, through nature’s laws and evolution. The results are always less than the spirit of existence.

In the same way, a building has to start in the unmeasurable aura and go through the measurable to be accomplished. It is the only way you can build. The only way you can get it into being is through the measurable. You must follow the laws, but in the end, when the building becomes part of the living, it evokes unmeasurable qualities. The design involving quantities of brick, method of construction, engineering is ended and the spirit of its existence takes over.”

[Louis I. Kahn, quoted in Green, “Louis I. Kahn, Architect,” 3.]

Have your students revisit previous examples of Kahn’s philosophy outlined in his words. Ask your students to consider whether their perspectives or opinions about the built environment have changed based on what they have learned.

Concluding Questions

Put the images of Kahn’s finished buildings featured in this guide side by side and ask your students to compare them.

  • Ask students what kinds of similarities and differences they notice. Have them use visual evidence to back up their assertions.
  • Ask them which designs they like best. Discuss why.
  • Ask your students to make a list of any remaining questions they have about the buildings featured in this guide or about architecture in general. Have them take turns writing questions on the board, and then organize the questions into categories, which may include: historical events during Kahn’s lifetime, and how these factors may have played a role in his career; building materials and technologies; history of a building’s community; economic factors, such as the cost of materials, construction, or land; and climate or natural environment.

Research Projects

Unbuilt Masterworks

Kahn remains an important figure in the history of American architecture. Have your students conduct research projects about his built and unbuilt masterworks. His projects include libraries, art museums, schools, memorials, parks, places of worship, and residential buildings in the United States and abroad. Consult the bibliography section of this guide for a list of research resources. In addition to Kahn’s works, detailed texts of his lectures and writings are available for consideration and reference.

Art Museums

As well as the buildings included in this guide, Kahn designed and built several art museums in the United States. These include the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Yale Center for British Art and the Yale University Art Gallery, both in New Haven, Connecticut. These buildings have been recognized in the architectural community for the excellence of their designs. Have your students research these sites for in-class discussion.

Adopt an Architect

Contact your local chapter of the American Institute of Architects or a historic preservation group in your area, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Ask if they can arrange for a local architect to visit your school and partner on a participatory design project with your students.

Walk around the Block

Conduct a walking tour of the neighborhood around your school. Have your students find examples of buildings that incorporate some of the styles or features that they have learned about in this guide. Have them document their findings.

Artist’s Work/Artist’s Voice: Louis I. Kahn