“The Power of Architecture”

SDMA welcomes the opening of Louis Kahn retrospective

Originally published in San Diego Jewish Journal, Dec. 2016 issue

By Natalie Jacobs

“I did not follow the dictates of the scientists,” Louis Kahn said to Heinz Ronner when the two were discussing the architect’s process on the Salk Institute building design for Ronner’s book “Louis I. Kahn Complete Works 1935-74.” Kahn quickly realized that the Salk Institute’s biological scientists who had been working in trailers on the now famous plot of land that rests 350 feet above the Pacific Ocean didn’t get out much. For lunch, they simply moved their test tubes out of the way and sat on benches in their makeshift laboratories. “Terrible” noises buzzed about them.

“I asked them: was it not a strain with all these noises? … Everything was terrible including the noises of the air-conditioning system. So I would not listen to them as to what should be done.”

But from those conversations, Kahn dreamt up a concrete campus that separated the study rooms from the laboratories and divided those areas by a vast outdoor deck that is so calm yet incredibly enticing from the windows that rest two floors above it.

“When one knows what to do,” Kahn said, “there is only little time one needs for doing it. It is only when one does not know what to do that it takes so much time. And to know what to do is the secret of it all.”

Kahn received the Salk commission in 1959. By 1966, the 27-acre site was built, just eight years before the renowned architect would die of a heart attack in a restroom at Manhattan’s Penn Station. It is in those eight years that he produced the work that would keep him living in stone for ages.

Between 1959 and 1974, Kahn worked on increasingly more public and international buildings, after spending the early part of his career on homes and urban planning in the Philadelphia area where he earned his architecture training at the University of Pennsylvania. A traveling exhibition of his life’s work is showing in San Diego at the Museum of Art in Balboa Park. The massive exhibition explores in chronological order the six central themes of Kahn’s work, from his early efforts in science and engineering to his houses in Pennsylvania, the inclusion of landscape architecture into his projects, to his “interest in the public role and social responsibility of architecture,” which, according to the exhibit introduction, culminated in Dhaka, Bangladesh with his last project, the Bangladeshi Parliament building.

The exhibition, “Louis Kahn The Power of Architecture” is up at the SDMA through January 31 and features more than 200 objects related to Kahn’s life’s work. This includes architectural models (both miniature and large scale), wood blocks and linoleum prints, original drawings and paintings, photographs of his completed buildings, timelines of his accomplishments and business correspondence between Kahn and his clients. It’s an in-depth and slightly overwhelming look into the sprawling career of a modern master.

In conjunction with the show, SDMA will screen “Cathedrals of Culture: The Salk Institute” on Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. The Museum will also host an architectural photography workshop led by architectural photographer Anne Garrison on Dec. 10 at 10 a.m.