The space of human agreement: louis kahn and the room

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Dr Peter Kohane, Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture, Faculty of the Built Environment, University of New South Wales, Australia, 2052.
Two people are shown conversing in a sketch from 1971 by Louis Kahn, which he titled The Room1. They are seated beside a fireplace and window. The fire contained by the hearth is a symbol of human gathering and interaction2, its warmth emphasized by the glimpse through the window of the cold outside. The human beings are sheltered within a space defined by its dome and a frame; the latter’s several ribs evident, although Kahn included only one accompanying column. The trees also have a protective function: they seem to surround the interior to delimit external space. With the distant view closed, our gaze returns to the two figures, the conversants.
These people are pivotal to the conception of the interior. For instance, we can readily see how Kahn sketched them rapidly, linking their postures to the animated outline of the window. The curve of the right person’s back is even replicated in the right side of the window and the rib of the dome beside it. I will view this kind of formal play as one of several strategies contributing to Kahn’s wide-ranging and idiosyncratic reinterpretation of a traditional theoretical principle, the analogy between the body and architecture. My argument is not just relevant to The Room, however, because the analogy had a substantial, if rarely so forcefully acknowledged, role in his influential critique from the mid 1950s of the free plan and universal space.
Architects and scholars are well acquainted with Kahn’s sketch. It was included in the 1971 publication of his American Institute of Architects Gold Medal acceptance speech, delivered in June of that year, and has subsequently appeared in several books and articles on his work.3 Interpretations of The Room can be guided by ideas outlined in both his lecture, ‘The Room, the Street and Human Agreement’, and brief hand-written statements around the illustrated interior.
The comments that have intrigued scholars to date are those from the drawing pertaining to light.4 My interpretation of natural light, however, is based on Kahn’s lecture, where an interior is deemed to have a ‘spiritual aura’. The significance of this informed his following statement, that ‘Of all the elements of a room, the window is the most marvelous’. Rather than a mundane opening, the window in The Room frames the conversants, surrounding them with a halo or aura of light. The location of the figures is also critical in my analysis of the larger structural frame. While Kahn’s lecture reiterates his notion that ‘the structure of the room must be evident in the room itself’, the drawing offers a reason for this: the column and ribs have a robust, anthropomorphic character to firmly embrace the figures. This facet of The Room shows that Kahn conceived the structural frame in relation to the human body, a principle ignored by scholars stressing his debt to the French Rationalist tradition.5
Kahn’s texts on the drawing are invaluable because they highlight the interaction between the conversants. Having introduced his general belief that ‘The room is the place of the mind’, he shifted attention to the more specific situation, where thoughts emanating from the two figures intersect. His comments, which have yet to be studied by scholars, refer to ‘vectors’ that meet and the ‘generative’ powers of what is surely the conversation. He was fascinated by a discussion that results in the ‘human agreement’ referred to in the title of his lecture. The conversation, along with the attendant ideas and physical gestures of its participants, has implications for generating the forms of the interior.
Various and overlapping definitions of the human body can be identified in The Room. One casts the figures in the role of beholders, Kahn illustrating their responses to architectural form. He implies that the two people have moved to the light, choosing to sit by a window whose shape then influences their postures. At the same time, the conversants have had a more active role in the unfolding of the design. No longer subjects, their bodies are construed as the objects of Kahn’s study and imitation, his procedure comparable to that of a classical architect, for whom the ideal body is a type that generates the form of the orders or an overall building. In Kahn’s drawing, the type refers to the two figures and their conversation, while the imitation is the interior. Such an argument, however, requires clarification, as Kahn had cautioned against an explicit or mechanical copying of things, whether these are historical buildings or natural forms, including the body. Despite his depiction of the figures and traditional architectural elements like the column, the body analogy of consequence to The Room is not literal. Indebted to ideas and practices steeped in the romantic tradition, Kahn sought a connection between the human being and architecture on the grounds that both have an outer form and inner nature.
The people in The Room are therefore valued for their physical action and other attributes or powers. Speech, for instance, is visualized through the particular gestures of the two figures. Kahn drew two individuals, relating their unique identities to emotional or spiritual states. This involved sketching the figures in a lively manner and locating the more animated person by the fire, a source of light that, like the daylight from the window, was imbued with a spiritual significance.
Kahn’s definition of the human body is central to my essay. On this, five themes are crucial. The first argues that he reformulated the classical theory of proportion, so that the body remained central while its representation shifted from the traditional orders to what he called a ‘hollow column’.6 In keeping with modern interpretations of classicism, Kahn was interested in the relationship of the body to space.7 Several of his design projects, along with travel sketches of buildings like the Temple of Apollo in Corinth, suggest that the anthropomorphized classical column underlies a fascination with an open, light-filled one, ultimately scaled for human habitation. The body is integral to Kahn’s transformation of a column into a hollow one, and then a room.
My second theme is the spiritual meaning attributed by Kahn to the nuances of color in daylight. The reference in the American Institute of Architects lecture to an aura is informed by a sensitivity to color, which he shared with abstract expressionist painters of his generation. For painters, who were indebted to Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1913), an aura is the body’s spiritual existence, expressed as fields of color on a canvas.8 In The Room, the physical presence of the conversants is complemented by their aura, which is the space filled with daylight. In this spiritual sense, the body and delimited space are indistiguishable.
Third, the vitality of line characterizing Kahn’s depiction of the conversants and their interior has its source in another facet of twentieth-century expressionism relevant to the body analogy. The creative act of sketching with a pencil or pen is explored as my third theme, the body of consequence now that of the artist, Kahn. Drawing rapidly, he assumed that his feelings and physical vigor would be imparted to the conversants and, through their own expressive action, to the surrounding architecture.
While the interior in general therefore has a life-like character, the forth theme looks closely at two distinctive forms, the window frame and the larger frame comprising the ribs. Indebted to the theory of empathy, he showed how these make an impact on the figures.9 Kahn was attentive to their postures and gestures, recognizing that the knowledge of one’s body – specifically the action of the skeleton, tendons and muscles, as well as accompanying feelings – is the basis for a perception of loads transmitted by structural forms. This kind of empathetic projection informs Kahn’s belief that the brick frame of the Phillips Exeter Academy Library (Andover, 1965-72) seems to ‘groan’ at the lower levels and ‘dance’ as it tapered upwards.10 Such an interpretation of architecture is evident in The Room, where the conversants are related to their embracing frames, a visual analogy consolidated on the grounds that both the body and structure resist gravitational forces.
My final theme argues that the people in The Room are involved in an ‘inspired ritual’. Kahn probably coined the term in response to the historian Frank Brown, who believed that the ancient Romans developed and participated in highly organized rituals, which subsequently determined the shape of architectural spaces.11 Such a formative role of ritual was acceptable to Kahn if its modern participants act as individuals, their movement in space purposeful but not constrained. Control is irrelevant because one’s actions relate to the fulfilment of desires. This concept is explored in The Room, where the two individuals have entered and walked across the space, both drawn to the light of the window. The inspired ritual, which includes this movement and the ensuing conversation, is illustrated by Kahn in accordance with such notions as the desire to ‘meet’, reach an ‘agreement’ and create an ‘institution’. The Room illustrates the space of ‘human agreement’.
The five themes in my essay place the body analogy within the context of Kahn’s philosophy.12 This assumes the existence of a vital principle, evident in the macrocosm, the human being, natural light and inorganic matter, including architectural structure. Kahn therefore drew the conversants as inspired individuals, their presence related to lively built forms and the shifting effects of daylight. The analogy between the body and architecture is established because both can be defined in terms of proportion, light and real or implied movement.
This formulation was indebted to the romantic tradition. Esoteric colour theories of many authors, including Goethe and Kandinsky, provided the background to Kahn’s account of the body’s affinity with daylight. Kahn focussed on the flux of light within a delimited space, its aura the manifestation of a world spirit that is inseparable from an individual’s spirit. Romanticism also underpinned Kahn’s idea of an animate universe that linked the human body to architectural structure. One could not help but empathise with forms that were also apparently alive to the task of transmitting gravitational forces. In addition, the body’s relationship to an interior was based on proportion. From the nineteenth century, romantic theorists have stressed that proportion, as elaborated within a classical tradition, is based on fixed rules. Freedom of expression is curtailed. While Kahn would endorse such a criticism, The Room illustrates a flexible interpretation of classical proportion, whereby the vital human action generates its appropriate space. Like an aura, proportion belongs to both the body and an interior, the analogy again deriving its authority from speculation about the macrocosm. Kahn surely knew of the traditional account of the human body’s proportions conforming to those of the cosmos; and therefore governing the design of the anthropomorphized columns of classical architecture. He respected this idea when linking the body to the flexible space of a hollow column or room. Kahn promoted a fluid, indeed romantic, theory of proportion.
The Room is a setting for two inspired individuals who interact: they think, speak, gesture and also seem to have an emotional or spiritual disposition. For Kahn, a delimited space ‘is the beginning of architecture’ because its proportions, light and structure accord most profoundly with his definition of the human being.

1'The Room' drawing is discussed in A. Tyng, Beginnings: Louis I. Kahn's philosophy of architecture, New York: John Wiley and sons, 1984, p. 131.

2The ancient author Vitruvius had described the significance of fire to the making of architecture. In the nineteenth century, Gottfried Semper argued that the hearth was the ‘moral core’ of a building. Kahn would accept Semper’s position; and ‘The Room’ can be compared with the ‘Carribbean Hut’ from Trinidad, on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, which Semper used to illustrate his theory. See G. Semper, Der Stil in technishen und tektonischen Künsten, oder praktische Aesthetik, vol. 2, Munich: Friedrich Bruckmann, 1863. Semper's life and works are analysed in H. Mallgrave, Gottfried Semper. Architect of the nineteenth century, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996.

3 The lecture was published as ‘The room, the street and human agreement, A.I.A. Gold Medal Acceptance speech, Detroit, June 24, 1971’, A.I.A. Journal, 56 (September, 1971).

4 For instance, see D. Brownlee and D. De Long, Louis I Kahn: in the realm of architecture, New York: Rizzoli, 1991, 126-7.

5 The main interpretation of this is K. Frampton, “Louis Kahn and the French connection”, Oppositions, 22 (Fall, 1980): 21-53.

6 There is no thorough investigation of this form in Kahn’s work. Its importance is clearly spelt out in the letters he wrote to Anne Tyng in 1953 and 1954. See A. Tyng (ed and commentary), Louis Kahn to Anne Tyng. The Rome letters, New York: Rizzoli, 1997.

7 On Renaissance spatial ideas, the writing of Rudolf Wittkower is particularly noteworthy. See, H. Millon, “Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural principles in the age of humanism: its influence on the development and interpretation of modern architecture”, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 31 (1972): 83-91; A. Payne, “Rudolf Wittkower and Architectural Principles in the Age of Modernism”, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 53 (1994), 322-44. The literature on the analogy of the body to the theory of the orders is vast. Important recent studies include: Lawrence Lowic, "The Meaning and Significance of the Human Analogy in Francesco di Giorgio's Trattato", Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 42: 4 (1983), 363-66; John Onians, Bearers of Meaning. The Classical Orders in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988; Ostwald Mathias Ungers, "Ordo, fondo et mensura: the Criteria of Architecture", in H. Millon ed., Italian Renaissance Architecture from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo, London: Thames and Hudson, 1994, 307–17; Joseph Rykwert, The Dancing Column. On Order in Architecture, Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 1996

8For an interpretation of Kandinsky’s theory, see Sixten Ringbom, The Sounding Cosmos: A study in the Spiritualism of Kandinsky and the Genesis of Abstract Painting, Abo: Abo Akademi, 1970.

9 A valuable recent work on empathy is H. Mallgrave and E. Ikonomou, Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-93, Santa Monica, Ca: Chicago University Press, 1994.

10 P. Kohane, “Louis I. Kahn and the Library : Genesis and Expression of ‘Form’”, Via, 10 (1990), 118. The quotation is from an interview, published in L. Huxtable, “New Exeter Library: Stunning Paen to Books” New York Times, October 23, 1972, 33.

11 Frank Brown, Roman Architecture, New York: Braziller, 1961, 9-11.

12 For discussion of the sources of Kahn’s philosophy, see J. Burton, “Notes on Volume zero. Louis Kahn and the Language of God”, Perspecta, 20 (1983), 70-90.

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