Home > Architecture & Urban Design, Exhibitions, People, Things I Like... > Louis Khan at the Design Museum

Louis Khan at the Design Museum

We went to the Design Museum over the weekend to see the new Louis Khan exhibition.

The architecture of Khan is an acquired taste. His work is not immediately beautiful nor classically elegant whilst the scale and simplicity of his best works gives them an almost intimidating air. His later drawings and sketches are somewhat rudimentary and if you’ve seen the film made by his son My Architect, his personal life was complicated especially his attitude to non architectural people.

But without doubt he had something. Moving on from the stylistic limitations of modernism, Khan defined a new monumentality, developing theories around “servant and served” spaces and producing visually unforgettable buildings that seem to take inspiration from some future civilisation, echoing the ruins of forgotten megastructures adrift in alien landscapes…

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Khan was a huge fan of geometry (although not necessarily symmetry), finding an innate satisfaction in it’s rigor and ordered structure. He was also something of a philosopher. When I was learning to be an architect, I was quite taken with Khan’s writing. He used words like no other architect I’ve come across either then or since. Sometimes naively suggesting a conversation between himself and a brick as to what the brick wanted to be, or making bold statements about how the sun was nothing until it had a building to shine on…

Often he would make statements that on the face of it were simple, yet had a profound effect if you thought about them for any length of time.. “Consider the momentous event in architecture when the wall parted and the column became” or “Architecture is what nature cannot make”  or “Design is not making beauty (it is) the reaching out for the truth”…

Although Khan was a natural artist and got the calling to become an architect whilst at college, it wasn’t until he was into his 50’s that his first major building, the Yale University Art Gallery in 1951 was completed. And with that, his style was set: a preference for solid planes rather than glass panes, expressed structural elements, simplicity of and truth to, materials and above all an innate understanding of natural light and how large spaces would be experienced once complete.

Over the next 20 years or so, until his death in 1973, Khan completed some truly inspiring buildings. I’ve never managed to experience any of them first hand, but after seeing this exhibition, the desire to do so has certainly been rekindled…

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There’s one final twist to the Louis Khan story, and that is his death. Khan died of a heart attack in a New York City train station toilet in 1974, and like that great eccentric Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, his body lay unrecognised and unclaimed for several days. It was later found that despite his apparent success and status as one of America’s most respected and influential post war architects and academicians, his architectural practice was over half a million dollars in debt (and that’s 1970’s dollars…)

Well worth a visit if you’ve any interest in understanding where the spirit of architecture might be found and what it must be like to be gifted and driven. There are images, ideas and photos here that have stayed with me long after I left the gift shop…

A huge thanks to SB for making it happen, much appreciated.

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  1. August 14, 2014 at 17:35

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