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Abstraction, Empathy, and Form: The Architectural Theory of Louis Kahn in the Context of Abstract Expressionism

Part 1 Dissertation 1998
David SAXBY
University of Bath Bath UK
Architects and academics, often seeking to justify their own beliefs, have previously presented the work of Louis Kahn in terms of established architectural traditions. However, the determinism of this process has only managed to emphasise the discreet links between Kahn’s work and various precedents, rather than to find the insight that allowed Kahn to reconcile conflicting categorisations.


A personal acquaintance of Kahn commented that “Somehow Lou managed to totally consume a grapefruit, drink Aquavit, follow football, fail to drive a car, play the piano and serve Architecture all from a single page in his own thought bound book of principles”. Accordingly, by the time of Kahn’s death, his design philosophy did not limit itself to an understanding of buildings, for his famous notions of Silence and Light can be read as being analogous to the Creation itself. It was with this holistic view of life that Kahn distinguished what, to him, constituted the “meaningful” in architecture.


As a teacher, Kahn advocated the questioning of accepted knowledge, and as a lifelong student of architecture, he sought to find an architectural “truth”. Whether his buildings are regarded as classical or organic, rational or romantic, their consistency suggests he saw a unity in their conception. Therefore, I propose an astylar reading of Kahn’s work that acknowledges the metaphysical preoccupations that became explicit in his statements on architecture. To achieve this, it is necessary to re-examine Kahn’s publications in their broader context. Of particular relevance in this respect is the art movement known as Abstract Expressionism and the work of the Colour-field painter, Mark Rothko. Although Rothko cannot be listed among the personal acquaintances of Kahn who can be seen to have had a direct influence on his work, a deep commonality of thought can be shown to exist between these two men. Thus, through investigating the similarity in thinking between Kahn and Rothko, I aim to show how such a relationship can elucidate the current understanding of Kahn’s work and ultimately give further insight to his notion of Form.

David SAXBY


Abstraction, Empathy, and Form: The Architectural Theory of Louis Kahn in the Context of Abstract Expressionism by David Saxby


This dissertation is a fluently written and engaging attempt to show an affinity between the work of the architect Louis Kahn and the painter Mark Rothko. Saxby’s approach may be summarised by two quotes, the first taken from the Introduction, and the second from the Conclusion:


1. ‘I propose an astylar reading of Kahn’s work that acknowledges the metaphysical preoccupations that became explicit in his [Kahn’s] statements on architecture’.


2. ‘Therefore, I propose that the conflicting categorisations of Kahn’s buildings, which stem from the physical aspects of their Design, are transcended by a more important consistency in the metaphysical appropriateness of their Form’.


The vehicle for the development of this argument is to take a parallel (but not directly connected) development in contemporary avant-garde painting - Abstract Expressionism - and relate analyses of that movement, and in particular the work of Rothko, to Kahn. Thus, like Rothko, Kahn is seen to be striving to express fundamental human values and aspirations through his work rather than to be just solving specific design or technical problems.

1998
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