Louis Kahn (1901–74) was an architect who designed buildings that looked like castles; this was true whether they were small Philadelphia villas or vast institutions such as his parliamentary complex in Dhaka. His style – which he arrived at only in his fifties – is characterised by what look like thick fortified walls of massive masonry pierced by simple geometrical shapes and sometimes topped with turrets, as if they have been designed by a necromancer or numerologist in the 13th or 14th century. The architectural historian Vincent Scully, an admirer, thought these buildings an intimation of divinity, and much writing about Kahn is overblown: ‘inventive power’, ‘personal discovery’, ‘fundamental geometry’ – that sort of thing.
Alongside this lies the fact that he was a charismatic teacher given to gnomic utterances – a stream of consciousness about bricks, for example, went thus: ‘The brick was always talking to me, saying you’re missing an opportunity. The weight of brick makes it dance like a fairy above and groan below but brick is stingy…’ It means nothing, but students in Kahn’s circle were entranced: Anthony Wade, a young British architect, returned from studying under Kahn in Philadelphia to design Eliot College (1965), a large residential building on a Kahnian plan at the University of Kent in Canterbury.
Nearly 1,200 of Kahn’s present-day admirers, some in the top tier of architectural academia and practice worldwide, signed a letter at the end of last year protesting against the proposed demolition of dormitory buildings at his Indian Institute of Management complex in Ahmedabad (IIMA) in India. The IIMA has rowed back, for the time being, but the episode demonstrated the power of his incantations: the construction of his wonderful library at Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire – blatantly a castle keep – seems to have been accompanied by a continuous flow of these characteristic aphorisms.
Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter, New Hampshire (1965–72), designed by Louis Kahn. Photo: © Cemal Emden
He looked the way he sounded: in Native Stone, Edwin Gilbert’s Yale-based roman-à-clef of 1956, the Kahn character is ‘an almost gnome-like figure encased in an oxford-gray suit’. And there was occasionally a sense of incredulity, too, at Kahn’s challenge to puritanical, mainstream modernism. The front elevation of his performing arts centre at Fort Wayne, Indiana (1961–73) has a funny face with explicit eyes, nose and mouth, a fact that modernist critics could never address directly.
Kahn’s career as an independent architect began in the late 1940s but the turning point in his life had come 20 years earlier, when he travelled to Italy and made beautiful atmospheric drawings and paintings of buildings. What Kahn and the Kahnites called his ‘tartan grid’, a mesh of ‘master’ and ‘servant’ spaces, was his updated response to Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand’s Précis of the Lectures on Architecture (1802–05) and Beaux Arts planning. So there too he was consciously reaching back into the past, something that no other heroic-period modernist ever admitted to; and as modernism is increasingly re-evaluated in architecture schools today, his work provides a useful illustration of the ways in which traditional forms can be constantly updated and referenced. Philip Webb, who in English architectural history was similarly revered by contemporaries, looked back to find an ‘Idea’ – that is, a historical building type – for each original new building; Kahn likewise re-envisaged medieval monasteries as an assembly of distinct volumes that recall chapels, halls and cells.
The IIMA could be seen as either a monastery or a collection of castles; it has barbicans, defensive walls and outer forts – those being the threatened dormitory buildings. At La Jolla on the Californian coast, Kahn designed for the Salk Institute for Biological Studies – founded by the polio-vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk – what looks like a single massive defensive wall that has been cleft down the middle, each half placed either side of a rill that runs towards the Pacific. The basic elements of the design appear to be frozen as though in a balletic tableau. This equilibrium had appeared in a group of open, atavistic temples that form part of Kahn’s first ‘Kahnian’ project of 1954–58, a Jewish community centre in Trenton, New Jersey, and towards the end of his career at the barrel-vaulted Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (1969–72). Here the vault is split lengthways with a rooflight running down the middle; it’s not really a true vault, although it resembles one. All Kahn’s completed buildings are visually stunning, and have been recently captured by the photographer Cemal Emden in a book published by Prestel this month.
A dormitory building at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (1962–74), designed by Louis Kahn. Photo: © Cemal Emden
Kahn’s design for the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem was never built, but this too would have reached out towards the elements, in the manner of the sublime – in this case upwards and downwards rather than outwards as at La Jolla. Denys Lasdun’s successor scheme for the Hurva was not built either, and thus Ahrends, Burton and Koralek’s somewhat Kahnian Nebenzahl House of 1972 has remained the only building of any architectural quality whatsoever built within the Old City in the 20th century.
The British architect James Stirling met Kahn in Philadelphia in 1959, and Kahn immediately became a hero: Stirling thought his work was ‘very English’, though in fact Kahn told I.M. Pei that his inspiration had been Scottish castles. Stirling’s own WZB Social Science Centre in Berlin is planned in the form of a monastic dormitory, an amphitheatre, a chapel and a castle keep (unbuilt), and seems to be derived from an early scheme for Salk’s institute. Stirling shared Kahn’s imperious attitude to everything and everyone other than the building itself, which in Kahn’s case included a failure to recognise the work of engineers who made his buildings possible: August Komendant, for example, who designed the cycloid section that made the Kimbell’s vault stand up, was omitted from the building’s published credits.
The reason for the IIMA dormitories’ demolition, according to the institute’s board, was that their unsatisfactory construction had become a danger to residents – a point that the signatories to the objecting letter notably failed to respond to. What is a leaking roof, however, when a building speaks of the mysteries of the universe?
Essential Louis Kahn by Cemal Emden and Caroline Maniaque will be published by Prestel in April.
From the March 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here. More
If you have ever approached Termini station in Rome, you may have noticed a frieze on the edge of the slender canopy. It is quiet and subtle, a discreet touch of abstract ornamentation on the leading edge of a slice of otherwise unadorned and exquisitely mid-century modernism.
Think back to The Godfather Part II, and you may remember a silent, unsettling character who acts as bodyguard and hitman for Michael Corleone. Seen wearing only a black hat and black rollneck, the taciturn assassin cuts a sinister figure. He was played by Amerigo Tot (1909–84), a Hungarian artist (he was born Imre Tóth), part-time actor and one-time Italian resistance fighter who was responsible for sculpting the frieze on the front of Termini.
There is something flamboyant about a frieze. It seems appropriate that Tot, who also appeared in Fellini’s Satyricon and Mike Hodges’ Pulp, should have had a sideline as an actor. But Tot’s frieze for Termini also gives the lie to the misconception that friezes somehow died out with the ancients and the neoclassicists who built the rest of Rome.
Photomontage of Amerigo Tot (1909–84) and the plan of his frieze for Termini station in Rome, created by Cosimo Boccardi in 1949. Photo: © Amerigo Tot Foundation
The frieze has been a recurring feature in the history of architecture. But it is also true that since the end of brutalism, sometime in the early 1980s, it has almost disappeared from modern architecture. The reasons for its disappearance seem obvious. The frieze originated in classical architecture with its trabeation (columns and beams) and decorated the beams above the columns and the tympanum within the pediment. Its appearances on Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Aztec, Mayan, Indian and African buildings suggest that architecture’s flamboyant hatband is an almost universal element. The frieze was the narrative element of the architecture, a sculptural strip that could be read for its mythical themes, or it could just act as decoration. The long controversy over the British Museum’s Parthenon marbles illustrates how the frieze transcends both architecture and art to become a medium in its own right. It can be understood as an artwork yet should probably be rooted in place in a particular architecture and location.
The conventional narrative is that modernism’s enthusiasm for stripping away ornamentation (and its abandonment of the classical norms of columns and pediments) spelled an inevitable death for the frieze but, as the example of Termini shows, this was far from the case.
After the historicist excesses of the 19th century, when elaborate friezes were applied to Greek and Roman Revival buildings as well as to new typologies such as the Royal Albert Hall or Louis Sullivan’s skyscrapers in the United States, the frieze came back in a big way. Art nouveau and Secessionist buildings sprouted fanciful friezes of leaves, vines, wilting maidens, tendrils and whiplash lines. Joseph Maria Olbrich’s Secession building in Vienna (1898) features a frieze of golden leaves, a graphic device that presents the building as a frontispiece for a new art movement. Olbrich had in turn been influenced by the British Arts and Crafts architects, notably Charles Harrison Townsend, designer of the Bishopsgate Institute (1894) with its faience tree-of-life motif.
The Secession building in Vienna, built in 1898 and designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich. Photo: Arcaid Images/Alamy Stock Photo
The frieze found its apotheosis in the decadence of art deco, the exuberant expression of the Jazz Age and the subsequent, more sober responses to the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Stepped, Aztec-inflected towers, movie palaces and exhibition pavilions were crowned with layers of polychromatic motifs, acanthus leaves, rising suns, machine parts, scrolls and zigzags. The Chrysler Building (1930) features stylised tyres and hubcaps (so high up you can barely see them) and the darkly glamorous Richfield Oil Company Building in Los Angeles (1929) had its friezes picked out in gold to stand out against its oil-black cladding. You can still see the same effect in London’s only authentic splash of US deco, Raymond Hood’s and Gordon Jeeves’ Ideal House on Great Marlborough Street, another building from 1929.
The Depression didn’t halt the proliferation of the frieze. Cinemas, hotels, department stores and restaurants continued to use decorative strips and fascias to create a landscape of interest above the shopfronts, and the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project in the US employed thousands of artists to create friezes and murals across the country. The buildings were mostly austere but enlivened by strips of vivid carvings with murals inside. With their scenes of powerful workers, agricultural abundance, technology, trains, cars and planes and with the occasional stylised eagle or wheatsheaf they often appeared unsettlingly similar to the socialist realist reliefs of the Soviet Union and the fascist friezes of Italy and Germany. A typical example might be Vladimir Shchuko’s workers in relief atop the Lenin Library in Moscow (1941), but we might also look at the Casa del Fascio in Bolzano, Italy, designed by Guido Pelizzari, Francesco Rossi and Luis Plattner and completed in 1942. The vast, ugly and stiff frieze The Triumph of Fascism has been a feature of the city ever since, but in 2017 it was overlaid by an LED-illuminated quotation from Hannah Arendt. The words ‘No-one has the right to obey’ are a riposte to the frieze’s ‘Believe, obey, combat’ and the foregrounding of words over images is a welcome relief from the fascist relief behind it. It is also, perhaps, a glimpse of the frieze’s future. The words that move across the facade of Christ & Gantenbein’s Kunstmuseum in Basel (2016) function as both frieze and signage. They also nod to Jenny Holzer’s unforgettable scrolling scripts resembling news feeds or Times Square news tickers.
Post-war reconstruction was rich in friezes celebrating the act of rebuilding itself. Renderings of workers stripped to the waist, cranes, machinery and women carrying buckets of cement can be found in sites from Coventry to Chernobyl. Many of the best are currently under threat, from the brutalist abstractions of William Mitchell in the UK to the crumbling works above museums and monuments in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
Yet despite the apparent favouring of LEDs and mute facades, friezes still pop up in curious places. Richard Deacon’s enjoyably garish work runs across the front of Eric Parry’s One Eagle Place building in Piccadilly, picking up how the colours of the LED advertising in Piccadilly Circus is reflected in rainy London streets. At the Olympic Village in Stratford, Niall McLaughlin turned the Parthenon marbles into a series of repeating friezes for an apartment block, to surprising and amusing effect. The contrast between the cast horses and warriors and the bikes and washing on the balconies is a constant source of visual delight. The frieze is not, perhaps, dead – just a little frozen. It will, surely, defrost again.
From the February 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here. More
This article was published in the November 2020 issue of Apollo. The Pump Room and visitor experience at Buxton Crescent are currently closed due to Covid-19; visitors are advised to check the venue website for further updates.
The 5th Duke of Devonshire was a man with little self-doubt. His vast wealth from the local copper mines bankrolled the transformation of a small town in the Derbyshire Peak District with a source of mineral water into a fashionable spa destination. Buxton would vie with Bath, at least in architectural terms. Built in the 1780s, Buxton Crescent was at the heart of the duke’s grand plan. Now, after a multi-million pound refurbishment, it has emerged as a luxury hotel, spa and heritage centre, allowing it to resume its role as one of the great Georgian architectural set pieces.
Buxton’s sweeping crescent was designed by John Carr of York, who admired the classical urbanity that had been achieved in Bath. In that city the Circus, designed by John Wood the Elder and built in 1754–68, consists of three curved segments of townhouses – described by the writer Mark Girouard as ‘like the Colosseum turned inside out’. The Royal Crescent followed, designed by Wood’s son and built in 1767–75. Made of local millstone grit, Buxton Crescent originally accommodated two hotels and six lodging houses, lavish assembly rooms and, in the ground-floor arcade, specialist shops. Nearby was St Anne’s Well, where warm mineral water from a subterranean geothermal spring bubbled up. (In 1783 Carr designed an elegant drinking well.) Completed in 1789, the crescent proffered a muscular, expressive sweep of masonry – less refined than its golden counterparts in Bath but markedly confident.
Royal York Crescent, Bristol, built in 1791–1820 (photographed in 1999). Photo: English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
A crescent – in which a number of houses are laid out in an arc to form a continuous facade – can refine and enclose an urban prospect or, inversely, embrace a wider landscape or view out to sea. Regency developments from Brighton to Bristol jostled to outdo one another; the Royal York Crescent in Clifton, Bristol – a terrace of 46 houses begun in 1791 – extends to 1,300 feet (Buxton is 360 feet). Yet with grand ambition came financial difficulties; few structures emerged as planned. In 1766, Robert Adam was commissioned by Sir James Lowther, later 1st Earl of Lonsdale, to create a new design for Lowther village on his Westmorland (now Cumbria) estate. Adam’s design on paper was a diminutive urbs in rure, featuring a number of cottages arranged into a Greek-cross shape with matching segments of a crescent forming the central circus. After revisions, a small part was built in the 1770s, including two curved sections, sitting prim but charming in their rural setting.
John Nash made the circus a central element of his vast Regent Street development. Yet only Oxford Circus and two quarters of the intended Regent Circus were built – Park Crescent east and west (continually rebuilt after war damage) remain without their reflections to the north of the New Road. Even so, properly semi-circular rather than elliptical, set upon a ground-floor colonnade, the ensemble was described by Nash’s biographer Terence Davis as ‘perhaps Nash’s greatest single stroke of urban architecture’.
Frobisher Crescent in the Barbican Estate, London, designed by Chamberlin, Powell Bon and built in the 1970s. Photo: Howard Morris; © Greyscape.com
There was little appetite for curves in modernist design. But the long arc of Jewin Crescent in the City of London, heavily bombed during the Second World War, inspired the curved Frobisher Crescent in the Barbican Estate, designed by Chamberlin, Powell & Bon and built in the 1970s. Comprising nine levels, the building was originally intended to incorporate ground-floor shops, with flats above. In the end, it provided offices for local arts and educational institutions. Without shops the rhythmic half-circle of bush-hammered concrete columns became a brutalist feature in its own right. In 2009–10, the top three floors were turned into 69 flats, in line with its planned use.
It is, however, the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill who has seized the crescent as a hallmark, applying it over the decades to sites in France, Sweden and Italy. In the 1980s, asked to redevelop the area behind the Montparnasse train station, he used prefabricated concrete to create a postmodern rendering. Recently, he has monopolised the waterfront in Salerno with a massive arc-shaped structure, drawing loud (and, it seems, justified) local criticism. In opposition to such monumentality is tiny Keystone Crescent, built in the 1840s for multiple occupation very close to King’s Cross in London. Its inner and outer circles lead to complicated geometry. The result is delightfully eccentric and, nowadays, highly desirable.
View of Keystone Crescent in Kings Cross, London, built in the 1840s (photographed in 1971). Photo: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
By 1992 Buxton Crescent had fallen into near dereliction. In 1970, Derbyshire County Council took over the eastern end of the building to use as offices, and a public library was housed in the assembly rooms. The hotel in the west pavilion had closed in 1989; High Peak Borough Council bought it in 1993 and from this point, for the first time, the whole building was in public ownership. Driven by Richard Tuffrey, the conservation officer on High Peak’s council, the tide began to turn over the next decade. In 2003, High Peak and Derbyshire County councils partnered with Trevor Osborne, a property developer with a local heritage background, and plans were made to turn the crescent into a luxury hotel and spa.
The restoration proved complex, dogged by funding problems and delays. The plight of such a significant building persuaded key funders, in particular the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), to grant aid for urgent work. In 2006, the fund awarded £12.5m to the project and another £11.3m in 2014. (The total figure from all public and private sources – including more than £600,000 from Historic England – is around £70 million.) Condition surveys by conservation architect Nicholas Jacob, completed in 2014, revealed a labyrinthine interior, resulting from multiple adaptations over two centuries. A lack of maintenance had led to severe water damage, from above and below, with significant incursions of dry rot. Finally, and inevitably, the building had suffered from vandalism.
Planning permission was granted in 2010 following a seven-year legal battle over licencing of the spa water (involving Nestlé), and since then the project has faced further setbacks, including complex regulations within a Grade 1-listed building requiring public access and, now, the chaos caused by a pandemic. In June, the Buxton Crescent Heritage Trust was awarded a ‘Lifeline’ emergency fund grant from HLF, allowing it to reopen the Pump Room and launch the new visitor experience, which had been delayed by Covid-19, and which takes place in eight of the historic rooms in the restored building. The newly opened five-star hotel and spa return the building to its original use and nod to the duke’s desire to put Buxton on the map. One of the most drawn out and expensive architectural conservation sagas is finally nearing its conclusion.
From the November 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here. More