PHILADELPHIA -- Seventeen years after his death, Louis I. Kahn remains one of the most respected American architects of this or any century. In a 1991 American Institute of Architects poll of the greatest architects of all time, he ranked fourth, behind only Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and H. H. Richardson (and ahead of such luminaries as Eero Saarinen, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and I. M. Pei).
But of all the 20th century architects who are considered great by fellow practitioners, Kahn (1901-1974) is perhaps the least well known or understood by the public. He didn't build as much as many of his contemporaries, and much of what did get built was in far-off places such as Ahmedabad, India, and Dhaka, Bangladesh. His work can't be quickly summed up with a glib catch phrase such as "Less is More" (Mies) or "Less is a Bore" (Robert Venturi).
For eyes accustomed to postmodern gingerbread, his thick masonry walls and hard, geometric forms may come off as heavy, brutish, even (dare one say it?) ugly.
It is the uninitiated, those not already strong admirers of Kahn, who have the most to gain from "Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture," the first major retrospective on the life and legacy of the modern master, which runs through Jan. 5 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Presenting 56 projects in a variety of media -- including scale models, photographs by Grant Mudford and drawings from Kahn's own hand -- the exhibit helps explain who Kahn was and what he strived for and why he had such a passionate following among the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University architecture students he taught from 1947 to 1974.
As made clear by the depictions of landmarks such as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the Richards Medical Research Building in Philadelphia; and the National Assembly building in Bangladesh, this was a man who took a much different approach to design than many of today's "star-chitects." He was not concerned about fashion or self-promotion or the marketability of his buildings. They do not strike a pose like one of Madonna's voguers. He cared instead about the way his buildings were put together, what materials were used, how the light came in. The result is that his buildings were often dark, brooding monoliths placed like giant sculptures in landscapes set aside just for them.
The exhibit also shows why Kahn is considered the poet who gave modern architecture a soul. Though he was a modernist to the core, he enriched buildings with his expressive use of materials, including pleasing juxtapositions of such unlikely neighbors as poured concrete walls and parquet oak floors. Believing that buildings ought to be about something, he let their purpose shape their character. "What does the building want to be?" was his constant refrain.
Above all, he was instrumental in bringing architectural history, banned by the international style modernists, back into the design process. Instead of cribbing from the past, though, he searched for subconscious associations of past civilizations and created abstract forms to evoke them.
If there is any drawback to this exhibit, it is that despite the remarkable compilation of archival materials, it cannot fully convey the experience of walking inside the Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire or overlooking the Pacific Ocean from the plaza of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. And although it is full of graphic information, the exhibit lacks some of the basic text that would have made Kahn's work easier to comprehend; the scanty captions accompanying many of the photos and models provide little information about the scope of various projects, the design advances they represented or, in many cases, why they remain unbuilt.
A case in point is the lone Baltimore project in the show, a massive Inner Harbor development planned for the site now occupied by the Hyatt hotel and C&P office building. Kahn worked on the project for the Hammermann Organization from 1969 to 1973, when he was replaced by Pietro Belluschi and others. According to Walter Sondheim, former head of Baltimore's downtown development agency, Kahn simply could not "crystallize" the project and eventually had to be replaced.
That may have been a sign that he was less interested in commercial projects than with the nobler university and museum commissions that came his way, or that he struggled with large urban design projects. But the exhibit offers no explanation for his failure to pull it off.
The exhibit raises a number of other questions as well. How would Kahn have functioned in today's more market-driven design climate? What would he say about the controversial additions proposed for the Kimbell Museum and the Salk Institute? What accounts for the gap between the the critical acclaim he has received and the less enthusiastic popular reaction to much of his built work?
Despite the questions it leaves unanswered and its somewhat confusing layout, this traveling exhibit, by virtue of its sheer scholarly depth and breadth, is a fitting tribute to Kahn, who let
his buildings speak for themselves.
'Louis I. Kahn'
Where: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway
When: Tuesdays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (to 8:45 p.m. Wednesdays), through Jan. 5.
dTC Admission: $6 adults; $3 children, students and senior citizens.
Call: (215) 787-5431.