George H. Marcus
William Whitaker
Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2013, English
Nonfiction, Architecture
9.25 x 10.5 inches, hardcover, 280 pages, 100 color and 150 black-and-white illustrations
ISBN: 9780300171181
Suggested Retail Price: $65.00

From the Publisher. Louis Kahn (1901–1974), one of the most important architects of the postwar period, is widely admired for his great monumental works, including the Kimbell Art Museum, the Salk Institute, and the National Assembly Complex in Bangladesh. However, the importance of his houses has been largely overlooked. This beautiful book is the first to look at Kahn’s nine major private houses. Beginning with his earliest encounters with Modernism in the late 1920s and continuing through his iconic work of the 1960s and 1970s, the authors trace the evolution of the architect’s thinking, which began and matured through his design of houses and their interiors, a process inspired by his interactions with clients and his admiration for vernacular building traditions.

Richly illustrated with new and period photographs and original drawings, as well as previously unpublished materials from personal interviews, archives, and Kahn’s own writings, The Houses of Louis Kahn shows how his ideas about domestic spaces challenged conventions, much like his major public commissions, and were developed into one of the most remarkable expressions of the American house.

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Witold Rybczynski

Between 1940 and his death in 1974, Louis Kahn designed more than 30 private residences. The majority of these commissions did not come to fruition, although eight went as far as construction drawings. But nine, all in the Philadelphia area, saw the light of day. These houses have not attracted much attention. The reason for this neglect may be, as George H. Marcus and William Whitaker write in The Houses of Louis Kahn, their elusive character. “Kahn’s houses are difficult to grasp at once,” the authors write, “for they were designed not as architectural manifestos but as buildings that express the circumstances of their creation.” In other words, for Kahn, houses were not an opportunity to experiment, but rather a considered response to the site, the program, the budget, and the (patient—Kahn sometimes worked slowly) client.

In this exemplary study, Marcus, who teaches art history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Whitaker, who is curator of Penn’s Architectural Archives, which house the Louis I. Kahn Collection, document all four aspects in detail. Introductory essays examine the ideas behind Kahn’s domestic designs, both built and unbuilt, as well as the life experiences that influenced the architect’s idea of home. The authors also write about a previously ignored subject: Kahn’s approach to furniture. Unlike his friend Eero Saarinen, Kahn did not design any chairs, but Marcus and Whitaker describe his built-in seating as well as tables and cabinets. In early houses he used furniture by Aalto, Bruno Mathsson, and Saarinen, but later abandoned midcentury modern and encouraged his clients to purchase pieces by local furniture-makers such as Wharton Esherick and George Nakashima. He also favored antiques.

More than half of this book is devoted to a detailed description of the nine built houses, all extant, all but one lived in (the Esherick House is currently empty and for sale). The three oldest houses, which all demonstrate considerable architectural ambition, predate 1950 and undermine the idea that Kahn discovered his true architectural self only when he built the Yale University Art Gallery (1950–51). The detailed descriptions of his domestic commissions show that Kahn, despite his reputation as a philosopher-poet, was an experienced professional, responsive to clients’ requests, concerned with the details of construction, driven by practical considerations. This interesting book is full of such aperçus. While it contains photographs of the houses, it also includes archival material such as design sketches, details, and construction drawings. If you thought you knew all there was to know about Kahn, read this splendid book—there is still more to learn about the greatest American architect of the second half of the 20th century.

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