Louis Kahn's life and legacy at Exeter
Philadelphia may claim him but Kahn defined a New Hampshire town, as well
Little was what it appeared to be with the man born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky on Feb. 20, 1901. Estonia was Russia then, making him culturally Estonian but nationally Russian—although no person, least of all Louis Kahn, would cite any other city besides Philadelphia as his real home. February 20 is also only half right; it’s the Julian calendar date. Russia would not switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1918. And, as his son Nathaniel Kahn’s 2003 biopic My Architect unfolds, his personal life was anything but straightforward.
To be sure, Philadelphians certainly continue to claim him. And how could they not with his Philly rhotic and Joe Lunchbucket gait, his rumpled suits, and matted hair? Half of his two dozen realized buildings still stand there; the other half are scattered to far-flung cities and towns—with each local population claiming him just as vociferously.
In La Jollians know exactly where their Salk Institute sits and will tell you the best time of day to visit according to the sun or the mist. Those who live in Dhaka, Bangladesh, won’t just tell you where to find their National Assembly Building— they’ll take you there. In a traffic lull, New Havenites can stand in the middle of Chapel Street and with barely a head swivel direct you to either the Yale Center for British Art or the Yale University Art Gallery.
Those from Exeter, N.H., as I am, are also proud of their Kahn. With a slightly rounded north-of-Boston Brahmin accent and lexical efficiency, they will tell you: Head west, away from downtown’s bandstand, and you can’t miss it. Kahn’s library there—a brick sentinel, the tallest building for miles—is a constant presence. It sits on a low hill along Front Street, which perfectly cleaves the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy, cattycorner from a Ralph Adams Cram church to the west and scarcely 20 feet from Kahn’s Elm Street Dining Hall to the east.
It was also where I had my first job, at the age of 14, as a “computer lab proctor”—a glorified babysitter for whirring machines and, pre-email, word processing endeavors. As first jobs go, it was less glamorous than lifeguard and far more sedentary than paperboy. But I was in heaven. I spent 480 hours in the library computer lab that summer—and countless more studying in a carrel a few years later when I was a student at Exeter.
That’s the official record. The unofficial one: I probably spent more time wandering around, neglecting my work, and learning every inch of the building. It couldn’t be helped. Cosseted by a million clinker bricks—uneven and craggy, the final lot harvested from the Exeter brickyard on the west side of town before it closed—it felt like my private world.
Ascending to the fifth or sixth floor and peering down into that central space is surely the most satisfyingly urban experience you can have in Exeter, but it’s also the most terrifyingly sublime. That interplay between intimate stacks, study spaces, and a death-defying prospect is an incongruity, but it works—just as the blonde oak paneling throughout the building works with the black, brown, and burgundy bricks; or the brick shell works with what Kahn called the concrete “donut” of the atrium; or as the tallness of the building works with the relative squatness of the campus and town beyond.
At Exeter, it’s not about discord with Kahn, though. There and elsewhere, he doesn’t jar your sensibilities so much as he creates singular environments that have an internal logic driven by his sometimes simple, sometimes maddening use of language.
The stories that architects and historians like to tell about Kahn’s design thinking are mythical—about “silence and light,” about timeless and elemental forms, about a brick “wanting” to be an arch. Even in his own lectures and writing, Kahn ducked and weaved like a prize fighter, speaking in everyday terms about the experience of architecture and, in the next paragraph, invoking what can only be described as spiritual essences that center on Platonic ideals like Nature or Art.
On one hand, he could speak and write eloquently about hierarchy—“servant” and “served” spaces come to mind, a useful dichotomy that anyone can perceive in the organization of a building. On the other, a phrase like “existence will”—an amorphous “spirit” or “character”—breaks the clarity and we’re stranded in a conceptual funhouse, wondering how to connect words to building.
One of the interesting things about Kahn is, publicly, he had little regard for the liminal areas between served and servant spaces. Corridors, he noted on a few occasions, weren’t “worthy” in the larger enterprise of creating architecture. But if we believe, as he did, in the definition of architecture as “total harmony,” then his hallways or passageways, his vestibules or vestries, are not only worthy—they are some of his best spaces.
Think about the Kimball’s portico, the Salk’s exterior arcades, the Trenton Bath House’s corner baffles, the double-height recesses outside of Rochester’s First Unitarian Church. Or think, as I often do, about the Exeter library’s mezzanines, which are an integral part of the building but exist outside of proper floors in a zoning loophole. It’s in these spaces that you find lounge areas and desks tucked away, neither served by any official function of the library, nor servant to anyone but the lucky person that stumbles upon them, clutching a book to read.
As interstitial spaces go in Kahn’s work, the little-known dining hall that Kahn designed for Exeter has one of the most peculiar ones on the outside of the building: a small room in the west “chimney tower” accessed through a single opening with no lintel and no semblance of a door, seemingly cut out of the brick with a surgeon’s precision. As with his writing, the clarity of Kahn’s dining hall—its medieval massing, its union of program and form—is interrupted by this moment of whimsy. Standing inside the barely 10-foot-square room, and looking up into the interior volume, it feels like your own personal ziggurat. Perhaps there was a programmatic reason for it once—now lost in an archival footnote that I never found (although I tried).
Today, though, that tiny room exists for no other reason than to exist. Maybe it demonstrates the “existence will” that Kahn held dear—“of a form, of a need, that one feels,” as he defined it in 1959. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there about our own lives: We exist because of our wills, or our wills exist because we do—some play on Descartian logic—but I’m not bright enough to discern it.
What I can say for certain:
Standing in that tiny chimney room and looking out onto the south façade of the library as the afternoon sun throws the weathered clinker bricks into modest relief, that was a pretty good first job—all thanks to Louis Kahn.
William Richards is the senior director of digital content for the AIA.