Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Inside Louis Kahn

Yale University Art Gallery by Louis Kahn, renovated. Photograph by Elizabeth Felicella.

How to update buildings designed with nothing to hide? Tales from the renovation architects who know Louis Kahn best

I do not like ducts, I do not like pipes. I hate them really thoroughly, but because I hate them so thoroughly, I feel that they have to be given their place. If I just hated them and took no care, I think that they would invade the building and completely destroy it.
bq. Louis I. Kahn in World Architecture, 1964

Reyner Banham quotes Kahn in The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969), a book that marks a critic’s first attempt to grapple with the technological innards of the building, his hand forced by an architect’s insistence on giving them form. Banham points to Kahn’s Richards Memorial Laboratories (1961), at the University of Pennsylvania, as the project that has caused him to retrace the steps of modernism, looking for poetry in radiators, overhangs, and curtain walls. “Effectively,” he writes, “what Kahn has done is to provide the laboratories with monumental cupboards in which the services he hates can be forgotten because [they are] outside the plan of ‘the building.’”

What Kahn could not put in a cupboard—faced in brick and grouped to form a protective carapace around the windowed labs that were the primary purpose of the building—he threaded through the concrete trusses of the ceilings, correctly assuming that most would be so distracted by the structure, they wouldn’t mind the spaghetti.

Banham continues, “This solution was taken to be universal and general, and imitation was so instant that Colin St John Wilson had to enquire (Perspecta VII) “Will ‘servant spaces’ be the next form of decoration?” And lo, they were, with the Centre Pompidou’s facade of pipes and ducts as chief example.