LOUIS I. KAHN:  ARCHITECTURE AS THE EMBODIMENT OF MYTH

William J Conklin

Although the basic concept of ARC assumed, and assumes today, continuing conversations between artists and theologians, in reality, theologians have done most of the talking.  Amongst artists, however, the great architect, Lou Kahn was an exception.  He loved the conversations of ARC and liked to think of himself as a philosopher, rather than as someone at the carpenter end of architecture.  Although he was not amongst the earliest of ARCs Fellows, it was his presence and reputation that attracted other architects, such as Michael Graves, Robert A. M. Stern, Peter Eisenman and others,  and although his language is not that of a theologian, he played an important role in modern architectural theory, shifting it from a kind of machine-inspired aesthetic and a detailed functionalism to a myth-inspired aesthetic, a shift in accord with Halverson’s visions.

We will not see Kahn’s work today, but will hear him speak briefly.  The occasion is an ARC Wine Cellar discussion in 1967  in which I functioned as host, and Emery Valyi, an engineer and ARC Fellow, whose roots were in the Vienna of Freud and Mahler,  provided an introduction. Valyi begins with conversation about ARC and project orientation.  At that time in ARC, Fellows were not to be just talkers, but were to develop projects and propose solutions.  After Valyi, we hear Lou Kahn speaking of the way in which he began to incorporate ritual and myth into his architectural concepts:

I am designing a theater for Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and every year I’ve learned something new in which I had to take a position of humiliation, because I don’t know the problems and mechanics and I tried things which proved to be not correct.  Every time I was told it wouldn’t  work, it wouldn’t work -- then finally I had a design that I thought was very good.  It looked pretty,   and I was satisfied -- until one day I realized when I went backstage, everything was chaos;  it was like the passing of Napoleon when he conquered Europe -- the dressing room, the rehearsal room, the green room -- and I thought that nothing remained that could honor the action. 

(Conklin  now summarizes the rest, since the tape is difficult to hear):  Lou Kahn  comes to the psychological importance of the actor (always male at this time in the world),  and he thinks that the attitude and the ambience for the actor is really critical to his performance.  This backstage chaos was the worst possible environment for him to be in at this moment prior to his appearing on the stage. And so he makes this architectural proposal:  that he is going to build a house for the actor, and it is going to be out in the country in a serene world.  The actor who is about to perform goes into this house and thinks about the great thoughts of his life, looks out at the scenery, and while he is in that mood, the house itself is moved into the public plaza and attached to the back of the theater.  Then at the appropriate point, when he is called to perform, he just walks in a stately fashion from his place of abode and thought down into the stage and performs.

As you can imagine, the theater didn’t get built exactly that way, but one can clearly understand what  Kahn had in mind: architecture as the embodiment of myth.

                          

             

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