The separate realm of Louis Kahn.

Lotti always explained to people in a faux-serious routine 'What you have to understand is that modern architects are a tribe, they are the Architecture People,' she'd say, 'in the same way that gypsies are the Romany People, both are world wide tribes, both a bit at odds with the modern world. They all have Eames chairs or Aalto furniture, and most have made pilgrimages to Falling Water and the Villa Savoye. They usually have a strong preference for the music of J S Bach and cool jazz, and they all take the same sorts of photographs, they're very keen on arcades, courtyards, and townscape sequences.'

 Extract from, 'The Architecture People' a novel by Don Gazzard 2011.

 For whom do architects design building?  For the client who is paying their fees, or the users who will eventually live in or work in the building. Or the public who may simply visit the building or walk past it in the street?  Or, as is often alleged, are they really designing for themselves, to win awards, get published and win the plaudits of their peers, or some odd combination of all of these?

The book Architects' People* is about this very subject, and a chapter written by Robert Gutman titled 'Human Nature in Architectural Theory; The Example of Louis Kahn, turns a sympathetic but sharp eye on Kahn and his attitudes to this question.  Gutman had previously written an excellent book on the architectural profession in the US called 'Architectural Practice: A Critical View'(Princeton University Press 1988) so he is clearly sympathetic and understands 'the architecture people' better than most critics and observers.

Gutman's chapter focuses on one building, the Richards Research Laboratories designed by Louis Kahn for the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and completed in 1961.  Kahn claimed that scientists were like artists and wanted 'open studios', and he eschewed the standardparti(basic organizing principle) of providing large undifferentiated spaces to be divided up into individual labs, by articulating the space into 'served' and 'servant' areas, concentrating all the mechanical plant, pipes, ducts, stairs, toilets and so on into brick towers (which he called the servant spaces) that left the studio floors in the seven storey laboratory towers (the served spaces) completely open without any partitions or false ceilings, and with the attractive precast concrete waffle floor structure exposed. Kahn, who had a great way with words, wrote about the way the open layout and design would encourage creative scientific co-operation and the cross fertilization of ideas. 

However Gutman uncovered indisputable evidence that the Richards building didn't work the way Kahn had intended, and that for some strange reason this fact has never entered the architectural zeitgeist. As he explains;

'Kahn's hope that his building would encourage the use of lab space in the way he envisaged was not confirmed in practice.  The open studio encountered more opposition from the future users than any other single feature of the design.'………

'Instead of exhibiting the generous spirit and altruism with which Kahn aspired to endow it, the scientific enterprise is highly competitive.  The average scientist does not like to reveal real discoveries before his or her claims to authorship have been clearly acknowledged by colleagues.'……….

It is ironic that Kahn, an advocate of freedom and autonomy for artists and scientists should have used a laboratory form that facilitated a bureaucratic rather than a collegial type of research organisation.'

Kahn clearly hadn't taken into account the all-too human medical researchers in the US in the Sixties. The scientists weren't the ideal citizens of the collaborative science world of Kahn's imagination, they didn't want to share what they were doing, they wanted to keep it quiet until they'd made a breakthrough, published the work and gained all the credit.  It would take too long to explain all the things that went wrong as a result of the basic non-acceptance of Kahn's open plan concept by the users; it was a disaster further compounded by an old story, the higher than expected cost of the equipment created pressure to reduce the building cost, and this was exacerbat-ed by poor management from the university side.

The Chairman of the Department wrote to Gutman with heavy irony;
'I suspect that nowhere in the history of 20th century architecture could one find a better example of a edifice which hasenhanced the stature of its creator in the eyes of his profession (students of architecture swarm around the building like Beatle fans at a rock festival), AND seriously impeded the progress of medical science because of its gross inadequacies from the viewpoint of those who have to use it.'

The Chairman, a distinguished Fellow of the Royal Society, left Penn for another university after five and a half years claiming that his major reason for moving was his frustrations in dealing with the problems of the Richards building.  Gutman spells out how their dissatisfaction with the open floors led the scientists to take things into their own hands and install partitions and false ceilings, and these changes led to problems with pretty much everything else about the way the building worked, particularly the HVAC system. 

Kahn was a brilliant teacher much beloved by his students, and had been persuaded to leave Yale and join the architecture faculty at his old alma mater by the lure of the Richards commission. So it must have been devastating for him when his commission was terminated and a firm of engineers was hired to try and fix up the building. He was never given another design commission on campus. 

Is there a broad moral attitude somewhere in this story? On my first day as a first year engineering student (before I saw the errors of my ways and switched to architecture) we were shown a film of the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Suspension Bridge in a high wind.  It was enough to make your blood run cold, and the clear underlying message was that this is what happens if you don't get it right, so if you wanted to be an engineer you had better take it all pretty damn seriously, that there can be no 'opinions' about getting it right and wrong! 

The consequences of architectural failure are not as dramatic perhaps, but I couldn't help wondering what impact Gutman's chapter would have on aspiring young architects?  Would it make any difference to their way of thinking in the way the collapse of that bridge impressed itself on my young mind?  After all, Kahn himself never acknowledged any problems and till the day he died continued to talk about the building as though his open studios had all worked out the way he had intended; clearly in his eyes it was the scientists who had failed by not living up to his ideal!  One can quite understand Kahn keeping mum about his dismissal and the politics of it all, but I feel that in the right situation years later he could well have speculated with professional colleagues on the way the design went wrong and why, without going into all the gory details. 

Gutman explains that, 'I spoke with Kahn on three occasions about the response of the users.  Each time Kahn admitted there were problems, indicated that he thought they had been exaggerated, and quickly turned the conversation to other topics.'

Not a bad response; what else could Kahn say knowing Gutman was going to write about the building.  However it's interesting that when Kahn designed another laboratory group in California shortly afterwards for Dr Jonas Salk, he didn't repeat the Richards model. 

There's nothing wrong with being honorably wrong of course, but instead of maintaining that the earth is flat, a scientist in a similar situation would have accepted that his or her current hypothesis of how something worked was not sufficient to explain all the new facts that had been revealed, and they would have modified their position accordingly; it's called the scientific method. 

Gutman summed up by saying; 'From the perspective of someone situated outside the world of architects, it may be surprising that the innumerable problems that the client and users have had with the Richards building have not shaken the architectural community's attachment to the building or diminished in any way their reverence for Louis Kahn.  I think this assessment can best be understood by what I said earlier about the separate realm in which architecture and the architect dwell, not only in terms of discourse but also in standards of building evaluation.'

The book 'Architects' People' was published by Oxford University Press in 1989 and I bought my copy sometime in the next decade, but had only read a few chapters before some pressing problem diverted me, and it was only recently in preparation for a book I propose to write, that I started to reread this book and chanced on Gutman's chapter on the Richards building.  Talk about things you don't know you don't know!

For me Gutman's case study raises all sorts of moral issues about what he calls 'the separate realm in which architects dwell'  and whether this has any relationship to the way the architects' role is slowly diminishing and often reduced to being designers of fashionable facades.  It concerns me that I've only just found out this sad history and that my architect friends also knew nothing about it. I'm a voracious reader and I don't remember ever seeing this book reviewed, or ever reading anything critical about the Richards building in the Architectural Review (UK) a journal that is open to architectural controversy and debate and unafraid of taking on so-called starchitects as they did recently about Renzo Piano's unfortunate buildings crowding around Corb's church at Ronchamp.  How did it happen that the Richards history has never been widely revealed and hasn't impinged yet on the collective consciousness of the architecture people?  How else can we learn from experience?

The Richards building was completed and occupied in the winter of 1960-61, and Gutman published his evidence in 1989.  Yet the architectural world is apparently so enclosed in it's own separate realm, that for over 50 years the architectural profession has continued to see this building as one of the triumphs of modern architecture, rather than learning lessons from an admirable attempt to break new ground that simply didn't work.  We still have something to learn from the openness and omniscience of the scientific method!

The Stalinist way the building's history has been treated made me curious.  The most recent 'complete' book on Kahn is a 485 page magisterial, door stopper of a book written by Robert McCarter, an architect and educator, that was published in 2005 by Phaidon Press.  The Richards building is described without any mention of problems and the photographs were clearly taken as soon as the building was finished as there is no evidence of the newspapers, aluminium foil, bamboo shades, and vertical blinds that Gutman records started to appear all over the building once it was occupied to reduce the glare; after the open plan, the next most objected-to aspect of the building was glare!

Kahn died in 1974 so his executors would have made the photographs available as the same pics appear in all the publications I've seen.  The use of the same photographs is not surprising; as soon as buildings are completed it's common for architects to get good photographs taken from the viewpoints they think show the building to advantage (mostly without people as critics are always quick to point out), and then to make them available to interested architectural magazines and writers and enter them for awards.  John Gollings, the eminent photographer, told me once that my old boss Harry Seidler went further and cut up the negatives of the pics he didn't like to ensure that only the authorized images could ever be used!

I'm surprised that this author didn't find out about the true history of the building, or did he know but choose not to mention it?  McCarter uses a phrase however, that makes me wonder when he writes,
'When originally occupied, the building provided an unprecedented level of service flexibility and an extroverted character-exactly opposite to the typically compartmentalised, chaotically serviced, introverted laboratory.' 

Does this sentence imply that the building is no longer as it was when it was 'originally occupied', and that it isn't being used as it was meant to be used?  Has there been a conspiracy of silence about the building because Kahn has become such an architectural folk-hero?  What else is there that we don't know we don't know? 

Gutman asserts that even before the building was occupied Kahn knew that some of the open studio spaces would be partitioned.  It disappoints me that Kahn didn't face up to the fact that his theory about the way people would behave in his building didn't have legs. The fact that there was opposition to the open plan from the start, isn't that unusual. Every experienced architect learns that people are often slow to adopt innovative ideas and that you have to persist and give clients time to get used to the design and not give up too quickly in the face of any initial resistance; it's a hard position for architects to take and this unwillingness to agree with the client who is paying the fees, must seem like know-it-all arrogance to the client. 

And the architect doesn't always win of course.  I designed some tall residential towers at Edgecliff in Sydney that were round in plan in order to reduce their silhouette, and the conventional real estate pundits convinced my client that people wouldn't pay as high prices for apartments in a round building.  That was sufficient to can the design as there's usually no arguing when it comes to money!  However we considered it to be such a good design that when we were asked to design a 33 storey apartment building on the Gold Coast some years later, we dusted off, improved the Edgecliff design and when it was built, sold very successfully.

In my opinion Kahn shouldn't have been so in love with his design concept as to continue assuming he was right when the opposition was so strong and wouldn't go away. Leaving aside his underlying views on architecture with a capital A, it wasn't as though on the practical level there was any great moral principle at stake between whether the laboratories were open or partitioned, it's a what's-so situation! It's clear that Kahn wanted the studios open for aesthetic and architectural reasons and used the idea that it would encourage scientific interaction as a plausible reason to help get his way.

Not unusual, we all adapt the arguments to the person.  No point talking about architectural philosophy with the developer of an office building when it's more persuasive to talk about percent efficiencies and clever cost savings rather than aesthetics!  And because the client was the university Kahn was able to persuade them about his grand view of open studios and ignore the criticisms of the scientist-users.

It's always a good principle that our optimism of the spirit should be tempered by a pessimism of the intellect!  He should have been quicker to spend more time with the scientist-users and to have really listened to them, but the facts appear to show that he really didn't want to know, he just wanted it open regardless of the facts and never admitted otherwise.  Shades of the architect in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead blowing up his design rather than allowing the client to alter his masterpiece! 

In a similar situation the underlying lesson of the Tacoma bridge failure would have prevented me from adopting Kahn's position whatever the consequences.  After fighting to establish that there are real practical user concerns, not just uninformed prejudices, I've always taken the (not always justified) optimistic view that an even better concept and design might come out of making it all work better for the users. Some architects of course would simply say not-to-worry, that the clients and users will eventually learn to love the building once it's built and attempt to crash through.  Others with real concerns about protecting the interests of the eventual long term users of the building sometimes come into conflict with the client, particularly when he's only concerned about keeping the first cost down and doesn't give a fig about future environmental problems or high energy costs once he's sold all the apartments, or let all the offices and sold the building on to an insurance company. 

As a profession we are also fond of saying, a bit tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but also with a certain throw away arrogance, that our aim after all, is not to give people what they want but what they need!  Rather than this being seen as insufferably elitist, I think it should rather be seen as an admirable declaration of utopian intention.
But it's only OK, of course, as long as we reallydoget it rightabout what is really needed!  Lou Kahn didn't get it right but was absolute-ly sure he knew what they needed, and he must have beenvery persuasive. A later chapter in the McCarter book about the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, records that: 'Salk went on a tour of the Richards building with Kahn, and was so taken with Kahn's description of the thinking behind the design that he decided to hire him! 

The 'thinking behind the design' was already erroneous at this stage of course, and Kahn knew this, but it clearly helped to persuade Salk; after all Kahn was absolutely convinced that he was right and he probably thought the scientists were morally wrong to take the attitude they did to his great design!  I worked with an architect once in London who was a member of the Plymouth Brethren sect so I think I understand what Kahn's attitude must have been like. There was no arguing with this colleague about certain things; he was sure he was right because God had told him so!  Gutman ends his chapter laying out Kahn's family background of old German Rabbis and Jewish mystics, and finds a similar explanation for Kahn's almost religious certitude:

'Kahn was aware of the complexity of the relations between the demands of architecture and the requirements of the modern building task.  It was not easy for him, as it is not for any contemporary architect, to cope with the competing demands of the architectural tradition, clients, users, advanced building technology, contractors and construction managers. 
I believe that a way out for him was the belief that his designs were the product of supra-human and extra-terrestrial forces for which he was the spokesman and the draftsman.  These convictions were the source of the well known mystical quality in Kahn's architectural belief system.

'By making Richards into an emblem of his view of the nature of man and social institutions, Kahn became a cultural hero among architects and elevated a medical research laboratory into the architectural canon.'

 On a more mundane level of course, most of the time when something goes wrong in a building the client probably says 'what can you expect from bloody architects,' and if it's not major the way it was at Richards, either fixes whatever isn't working as best they can, or lives with it.  Architects are usually never made aware of what didn't work and why, so there is no chance for the scientific method to apply and our experience and understanding to be broadened! 

To counter this there's a technique called Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE), where the architect goes back a year after completion and talks to everyone, the workers, the cleaners and the maintenance people as well as the foreman, the managers and the tea lady (if they still exist) in order to understand how well the building works from their different view-points, susses out the issues and makes suggestions to solve any problems. Clients never want to pay for this service of course, it may only take a day or two but it all adds to the architect's job cost at a time when fees levels are being eroded so it isn't used much.

I POE'd once on a small building that had been altered to be a community theatre-dance workshop space, and found that a new manager, hired after the building had been handed over, had completely changed the brief we had been given and the way they were using the building, and some of the things we'd done therefore didn't make much sense or work very well.  It was all easily fixed but if I hadn't made an inspection they would have lived with it for the rest of their lives saying 'bloody architects', and I would never have known to watch out for this sort of thing in the future!

Despite the 'failure' of the design concept for the Richards building, Lou Kahn was, without doubt, a great architect. I haven't seen the Richards building but I have visited the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and the Indian Institute of Management Building in Ahmedabad in India and they are among the best buildings of the last hundred years.  Among other buildings the art museums at Yale, the Exeter library, the Salk Institute at La Jolla, California and the Capitol Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh should certainly all be included in the canon.

But it makes you think; who ARE architects designing buildings for?

Don Gazzard LFAIA
February 2013

Architects' People,
   edited by Russell Ellis and Dana Cuff
   Oxford University Press 1989
   See Chapter 5:  Human Nature in Architectural Theory:
   The Example of Louis Kahn,
   by Robert Gutman, School of Architecture, Princeton University
   and Department of Sociology, Rutgers University.

 

 

 

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