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T h e G i f t o f L i g h t
A curious little three year old child saw something that attracted his eye. This child of a Jewish artisan in stained glass, was attracted by the color of coals burning green rather than red or blue. He proceeded to reach into the fire and pull some out into his apron. Suddenly the coals flared up, setting the little boy almost on fire. The flames seriously burned his face and hands, leaving him permanent, disfiguring scars. His mother, an educated woman in art and tradition, strongly believed he had been touch by his great destiny. This little boy grew up to become on of the great leading architects of the twentieth century, with designs founded on geometric forms rising up through functional and spatial harmony. Quintessential in his designs was the concern for relation to the human and the integral role of natural light, Louis Isadora Kahn is considered one of the pivotal architects who bridged the gap between modernism and post modernism. With successful designs that more than stood the test of time but stood as a model for others to learn and be inspired from, Louis Kahn, as believed by his mother, had truly been touched by “the gift of light.”
Growing up in Philadelphia, Louis Kahn faced many obstacles which ironically developed his artistic talent. Other kids would always contribute in mocking and teasing him for his scarred face. Always made conscious of this disfigurement, Louis found his escape through art. His teachers recognized his gift for drafting and gave him many chances for him to show his talent. He gained self-confidence by utilizing the skill which set him apart. Private philanthropy saw to it that he received lessons in painting after winning city-wide art competitions. During his senior year in high school, he took a class in architectural history which changed the path of his life. Inspired by what he saw, he decided not to continue his studies as an art major, (even though he had received a full scholarship to a prestigious school), but instead study in the field of architecture. But he would never lose grasp of the art.
At the University of Pennsylvania, Louis Kahn studied the Beaux-arts program for architecture students which has shaped the foundation of his work for rest of his life. With a great emphasis on different techniques of drawing, he learned fundamental steps in a design process. After completing his Master’s at University of Pennsylvania, he took a European tour of architectural sites. Instead of visiting the modern sites of that time, Louis Kahn opted for the classical French city of Carcassonne. This experience by far had the most influence on him in all his studies and he would continue to compare and come back to this style of design and thought. He stated with enthusiasm, “It was a great architectural event, centuries ago, when the walls parted and the columns became. The column is the greatest event in architecture, the play of shadow and light , of infinite mystery, The wall is open. The column becomes the giver of light.” This experience for Louis Kahn was where he discovered the power of the gift of light.
The power of light and its function in his structure is not just the simply notion of having a large window to allow light. Instead he integrates it through two different building aspects; the division of space and geometric forms .
The division of spaces into master and servant areas is the organizing principle behind Kahn's Richardson Medical Laboratory (1957-1965) at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the most important trend setting buildings of the 1960’s. Observing how scientists work and the variety of experiments and devices used, Louis Kahn said, “No space you can devise can satisfy these requirements. I thought what they should have was a corner for thought, in a word, a studio instead of slices of space.” Believing that design is based around humans, he set out to create comfortable spaces to which the scientists can efficiently work. And a room with the warmth of natural lighting can provide the necessary needs. So his solution was the creation of three great stacks of studios and attach them to the tall service towers which would include animal quarters, mains to carry gases and liquids, as well as ducts to vent the air out through the top of the building. The levels of studio laboratories, dramatized by their projecting reinforced concrete cantilevered floors, seem indeed spaces for free decisions.
The same values of human's ultimate inclination toward light was applied to the Salk Institute (1959-1965) at La Jolla. The work area was again divided into two parts- one for the work in hand, one for active investigation and one for contemplative analysis of the work in hand, one for scientist and one for the human being. The result a set of laboratories in an enclosed concrete housing and a set of offices or quarters for evaluation and formulation. Each of the quarters was designed with a large rectangular facing the ocean which allowed sunlight to enter the and bring the fill the room. Perhaps nowhere else has Kahn’s concern for the whole of the human experience been so carefully and patiently realized.
Louis Kahn also expressed light through designs that are bold in geometric forms. One of his early buildings the Yale Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, he focused on the distribution of light in a low interior space. His solution was a ceiling formed of joined tetrahedrons and serves as space for lighting conduits which Kahn said to “better distribution of the general illumination without any diminishment of the opportunities for specific illumination.” Often imitated, this successful design gave strength to the structural system allowing him to do away with interior supports.
The second example of strong geometric form is are the government buildings at Dacca in Bangladesh (1962-1974). Here, Louis Kahn applied another strong building element he is noted for; the brick. His strong brick forms allowed the Hostels for the National Assembly to have walls reach new heights and at the same time appear light in weight. Here light enters through geometric shaped windows allowing natural light. The arch brick designs present here, similar to those in the Philip Exeter Academy, allow a dramatic presence of light.
In retrospect, Louis Kahn’s foundations in the classical designs emphasizes the great mystery of light. Through a spatial division concept and bold geometric forms, he was able to bring light successfully into his designs. This strong notion for the need of natural lighting stemmed from his studies in the Beaux arts and his foundational classical inclinations. Louis Kahn, one of the great architects of the twentieth century, in the end, took that gift of light that scarred him as a child and in turn used it to make the world beautiful.
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