The Louis I. Kahn Collection at the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania
Kahn’s original drawings, models, and correspondence offer a “view from the drafting room.”By Witold Rybczynski November 14, 2013
The Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania are located in the basement of the Fisher Fine Arts Library. It is fitting that a building designed by Frank Furness, Philadelphia’s leading 19th-century architect, should also be home to the drawings of the city’s leading 20th-century architect, Louis I. Kahn.
When Kahn died unexpectedly in 1974 (he was 73), he left $470,000 in office debts. The estate’s only asset was his drawings, but for Kahn’s friends and colleagues, selling the drawings off individually to different museums and collectors would have been a tragedy. Thanks to their lobbying efforts, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed a bill (by one vote!) appropriating half a million dollars to acquire the drawings, which are now on permanent loan to the University of Pennsylvania.
This story is recounted to me by Bill Whitaker, who is in charge of Penn’s Architectural Archives, and is the co-author, with George H. Marcus, of the recently published book The Houses of Louis Kahn (Yale University Press). “Saving the Kahn drawings was part of the historic preservation ethos that had grown up at that time,” he says. “Today architectural archives are reaching a wider audience than ever thanks to the Internet.” The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, for example, has scanned its entire collection of Paul Cret drawings, and Syracuse University has a Marcel Breuer digital archive that includes not only drawings but also photographs and correspondence. Such full-scale digitizing is costly and rare, however, and most archives have only representative samples of their collections online.
Whitaker emphasizes that while it is important to make materials available to those who can’t travel, the physical experience of an archive remains invaluable. “When people come here they immerse themselves in the environment,” he says. “That includes contact with curators, meeting other researchers, chance encounters and, of course, the opportunity to handle the material.” He compares examining an original Kahn drawing to standing in front of a Vermeer. Reproductions, even digital reproductions are OK, but there’s nothing like the real thing.
The Kahn Collection comprises more than the 6,000 drawings in the architect’s own hand. There are also development and working drawings by his office, models, photographs, slides, and extensive correspondence. In addition, researchers have access to oral histories: interviews with Kahn’s employees, clients, and contractors. “An archive can cast a fresh light on what influences an architect’s thinking,” Whitaker explains. “This concern has shaped our collection.” An architect by training, Whitaker calls this approach to curating “the view from the drafting room.”
Kahn is sometimes portrayed as an outsider who only came into his own in 1953 with the Yale Art Gallery. As the Kahn archive demonstrates, this is a gross over-simplification. Kahn’s earliest house, the little-known Oser House (1940-42), bears comparison with Gropius and Breuer’s contemporaneous houses, though Kahn eschewed International Style ribbon windows and white stucco in favor of rugged stone and oiled-cedar clapboard siding. The simple materials and open plan were unusual for the time, and the Oser House was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, House and Garden, and Architectural Forum.
The later Fisher House (1960–67) is surely one of Kahn’s most compelling residential designs, with beautiful woodwork, inside and out. Construction took three years. “We interviewed the foreman,” says “Whitaker. “He hated the job, It was more like cabinetwork than carpentry.” Kahn’s concern with building quality was not a personal quirk but was grounded in his Philadelphia experience with architects such as George Howe, Oscar Stonorov, and especially Kahn’s teacher and mentor, Paul Cret.
Sometimes an archive can help unravel little architectural mysteries. The Esherick House, a tiny jewel in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill, was built for a single woman, Margaret Esherick. She was the niece of Wharton Esherick, the famous woodworker and furniture maker, and asked him to design and build the kitchen, the stair, and several built-ins. Shortly after installing the organically sculpted kitchen, Esherick withdrew from the project. The popular explanation is that the furniture maker and the architect had a falling-out. “We mentioned that in our book,” Whitaker tells me. “But only three weeks ago, I came across a letter in our files from Joe Esherick [Margaret’s architect brother] that suggests there was actually no conflict.” Whitaker speculates that the two men, who had worked together before, simply decided that this time their collaboration wasn’t working. The evidence for this interpretation is a cambered and slightly warped oak beam that was part of Wharton Esherick’s unbuilt stair. Kahn, normally fastidious to a fault, made the joint between the beam and the wall unexpectedly crude, as if to leave a trace of the interrupted collaboration.