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    Keep cool: the concrete castles of Louis Kahn

    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

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    An architectural frieze is the icing on the cake, for a building

    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