Louis Kahn

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KAHN’S DESIGN IDEA

At the start of a new commission, many architects begin their inquiry by studying the program for the proposed project. Facets of this studying might include a review of local building and zoning codes, an examination of the proposed site, including its soil and topographic conditions, and an investigation into the project’s functions, including allotted square footage and adjacencies of different uses. The client’s requests regarding the project are also considered. In short, the design process begins with a serious and studies inquiry into the project’s ‘facts’. Louis Kahn did not begin his design process in this manner. To be sure, he eventually did all of these things which other architects do. He felt, however, that such inquiry into a proposed project’s program-its ‘facts’- was not the appropriate place to begin a design. He said, ‘Architecture is the thoughtful making of spaces, not the filling of areas prescribed by a client.’ Elsewhere Kahn said, ‘It is the world of the architect to indicate those spaces which have never been and could not have been thought of by the client, but for which the client really wants you. The great client wants the architect to tell him that the fullness of the environment must be presented, from it true choices can be made.’

For Kahn, design was a two-step process. The first step was to consider the particular ‘institution’ to be designed (in this instance, a library), while the second step was to come to terms with the project’s ‘facts’. Kahn believed that all institutions had almost elemental meanings that were far more critical to a design’s success than mere functional issues. He argues that these institutions possessed ‘forms’. Rather than meaning physical forms, however, Kahn meant that the institution possessed a spiritual form which would be based on men’s and women’s experiences of using it. This form gave the building an ‘existence will’- the desire to be something. Thus, when Kahn began to design he asked himself, ‘What does this building want to be?’ Regarding the onset of a library’s design, he said, ‘If you were given the first commission before libraries were ever built to build a place where these books can be, what would you do? That is the thought you have about its nature when you are given the privilege to designing a building.’ Following this rational, when Kahn received the commission for Exeter Library, he began by asking himself what the library wanted to be. ‘What is a library?’

What is a library?
Kahn said, ‘A man with a book goes to the light. A library begins that way. The carrel is the niche which could be the beginning of the space order and its structure.’ Elsewhere Kahn said, ‘I see a library as a place where the librarian can lay out the books, open especially to selected pages to seduce the readers. There should be a place with great tables on which the librarian can put the books, and the readers should be able to take the book and go to the light.’ This seemingly simple idea is the driving force for Kahn’s design, and with this issue behind him he was able to produce a general diagram of the guiding form. After the completion of the first step, Kahn introduces the project’s ‘facts’ to his design process. The program for Exeter Library asked for the final design to include consideration for a variety of issues. First was the issue of context. The school wanted a building which would conform to the existing qualities of the campus. At the same time, because the school felt recent buildings had been too derivative of the campus’s style, they wanted a building that would be distinctive. The school also had specific guidelines for the library’s interior. “The building would house 250,000 books, current periodicals, fiction, and a rare book collection, as well as two seminar rooms, a suite of staff offices and work spaces, and outdoor reading areas in the form of ‘a green garden, or shaded terrace’....
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