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.