Friday, February 3, 2012

Architectural Training: Penn in the 1950s with Louis Kahn

Richards Medical Research Laboratories, University of Pennsylvania, 1965, Louis Kahn, architect.

A while ago I stumbled across this book by Herbert Bangs (1928-2010) who was the architect and principal planner for Baltimore County. Bangs had an undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins, received art training in New York and then attended Penn, earning a Master's degree in Architecture.

The book itself gets involved in matters spiritual as well as geometrical bases of aesthetics, fields largely outside my ken. What interested me was his take on architectural training in the 1950s, when modernism was at high tide and postmodernism was waiting in the wings. Two factors (among others) fueling my interest: I took first-year architectural design while an undergraduate at the University of Washington, and I later attended Penn, though in a different field.

The following quotations are from pages 37-38:

On the one hand, the rational, scientific analysis of structure and space is what is taught, while on the other the work is evaluated and graded on the basis of so-called aesthetic appeal. When I studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s, this factor of aesthetic appeal tended to dominate the proces of design, even though its existence could not be logically or scientifically justified. The studio courses were, in fact, directed largely to refining what was considered to be a subjective and individual aesthetic intuition. To the critics [assembled to evaluate student projects], a design either looked good or it looked bad, and students were supposed to learn to recognize the difference by a trial-and-error referral to their own aesthetic sensitivity.

There was, however, no theoretical discussion of "aesthetics" itself, and what it might be, or, oddly enough, of beauty either, although that was presumably what architecture was about. Neither was there any unifying vision on the part of the various critics or masters that could relate the material, utilitarian-functional aspect of our work to the mysterious aesthetic sensitivity, or even provide some simple understanding of what the aesthetic sense might be. This was not the result of negligence on the part of the instructors; I do not think they ever considered the matter, or thought it necessary to do so. They simply assumed that the direction
initially established by the Bauhaus and the "Modern masters" was the right way to go and were content to swim with the flow. We students were also remarkably incurious and did not raise the question either, although in retrospect it is apparent that the issue is vitally important, even essential, to an understanding of architecture.

The idea that the practice of architecture was primarily a scientific and technical discipline seemed, without exception, to be accepted by all of our regular faculty members. Louis Kahn, for instance, who was just beginning to acquire a name for himself at the time, took his responsibilities as a teacher seriously, and met with groups of students in the evening to talk about architecture and what it meant to him. It appeared, from what Kahn said, that even the powerful geometric forms that he intuitively sought, and that made much of his work of lasting significance, were not valid in themselves, but were accepted only if they could be logically justified in terms of some utilitarian requirement.

This analytical, rational aspect of Kahn's thinking sometimes led to dreadful results when carried to conclusion....

[Visiting critic Lucio] Costa told Kahn that what he had been asked to review was not architecture, but something deadly, and destructive of the human spirit. Two attitudes were thus seen to be opposed: the logical, scientific attitude responsible for new and daring technological forms and the older humanism that was primarily concerned with enhancing the lives of those who would inhabit the buildings. Costa's remarks were not well received by the dean and the other jurors and he did not return.

And in a sidebar on page 38:

Kahn, even then, had completed a number of famous buildings. Modest and unassuming, he was completely devoted to architecture as an art and was venerated by many of his students. When I worked on a studio project under his direction, I was disappointed to find that he encouraged a slavish imitation of his own buildings, not so much from simple egotism as from an absolute conviction that his way was the only right way.


dearieme said...

In Cambridge, Churchill College was built to honour the wartime PM but was built in the fashion of the day i.e. as a series of ugly shoeboxes.

A few years later Robinson College was built to honour a philanthropist who'd made his fortune from renting TVs to the masses. It's a stylish, attractive building.

So appearance tells you nothing about the relative standing of the two men but lots about architectural fashion. C'est la vie.

dearieme said...

Here we are.

dearieme said...

And lastly, how to incorporate What Is Already There into architecture. Or vice versa.

Donald Pittenger said...

dearieme -- Universities with a traditional architectural heritage and pressures to be "modern" or "with it" -- often the result of possessing a school of architecture -- have, as they say, a tough row to hoe.

Here is a post I wrote on 2Blowhards dealing with how the University of Washington is coping with that tug-of-war.

dearieme said...

Has UW got anything quite as awful as this?

Donald Pittenger said...

dearieme -- Oh, yes. But not in such a garden setting. As I think I mentioned in the 2B post, the core part of campus is keyed to the Collegiate Gothic style built there before WW2 and the newer stuff is towards the edges -- though there are a few eyesore exceptions close in.

DPLblog said...

Yeah, makes you wonder - now that "Post-Modernism" is already 50+ years old and looks dated, egocentric and forced, how can Modernism be considered relevant? I have to think once you get a movement with "-ism" stapled to the end, you're pretty much done for. A loss of relevance is inevitable.