Bringing Louis Kahn’s houses to light at the Kroiz Gallery

The exhibit currently on view at Penn’s Kroiz Gallery of the Architectural Archives, “Brought to Light: The Houses of Louis Kahn,” is the first to showcase the houses designed by the world-renowned architect.

Permanently housed at Penn—where Kahn received his architectural degree and held the first Paul Phillipe Cret Professorship in Architecture—the complete Kahn archives were the catalyst for the University’s larger collection, which was one of the first and is now one of the largest architectural archives in the world. Penn’s Kahn collection, most of which is currently on loan for a major retrospective in Europe, continues to draw international attention to an architect hailed as one of the most influential of the 20th century and the father of a branch of Modern architecture that diverged from the norm.

At a time when the reigning architectural trends were “cold, formless, and mechanical,” to borrow the words of architect Frank Gehry, Kahn was doing something very different: creating buildings that invited a poetic interplay of people and light while paying homage to the naked beauty of local materials. These characteristics often found expression in his private houses before making their way into his larger commissions, according to William Whitaker, Architectural Archives collection manager and visiting lecturer in the Historic Preservation and History of Art departments.

Whitaker says his guiding principle in assembling the drawings, models, and photographs on view in the Kroiz Gallery was to show how Kahn was “doing things that were very experimental in the house designs, very, in a sense, radical, trying things out for the first time, when, for many years, the houses were seen as something lesser. But there’s a general consensus now that they are equally important, and give us much to learn.”

This general consensus has come about due to the efforts that Whitaker and other faculty and staff have made over the past 20 to 30 years in nurturing relationships between the Architectural Archives and Kahn’s clients, some of whom still live in the houses. For Whitaker, these clients are at the very heart of the exhibition—just as they were at the heart of Kahn’s designs. The panel discussion, “Open Houses: Kahn and his Clients,” held on the exhibition’s opening night, was a clear demonstration of this focus.

Client voices, says Whitaker, “are voices that are not typically heard, especially at a school of design—and are fascinating. Time and time again, I was struck by how much their experience of the houses added to the depth of my understanding.”

In viewing the drawings, visitors can see how empathetic Kahn was to the people who would make these houses their homes. Within his precisely measured charcoal rooms and outdoor spaces can often be found figural sketches of clients engaged in some domestic or social activity. Other items in the exhibition echo this humanistic, lived-in spirit. For example, a large, full-color photograph of a fire blazing in the tiled hearth of the Oser House welcomes visitors into the gallery, giving them an immediate sense of what it’s like to call a Kahn house “home.”

Of the two-dozen houses Kahn designed, the nine that were seen to completion were all built in the Philadelphia area. These, along with the Richards Medical Research Laboratories on campus, are, according to Whitaker, “the great legacy of Louis Kahn that we have in our region.”

Along with this legacy comes the responsibility to protect it.

“[The Archives] hold tremendous resources that help inform stewardship and restoration and preservation efforts, but we can’t do it on our own,” says Whitaker. “The more people who see these houses as being a valuable part of our cultural heritage the better, and given their amazing range of expression of Kahn’s artistic development, it’s an important thing to put forward.”

In terms of restoration and preservation, he says, “Penn is doing the right thing, Larry Korman is doing the right thing, the Fisher family’s done the right thing. The Esherick house just sold for a premium as a work of art, but there are other Kahn houses that aren’t protected and are very fragile—some that are for sale, some sitting on valuable land."

Whitaker, a PennDesign alumnus whose teachers included former students of Kahn, says he feels fortunate to be part of Kahn’s rich legacy at Penn and to play a part in helping to preserve the significance of Kahn’s work.

“Kahn continues to be part of our imaginations and part of our discussion about the future of architecture because his buildings have that timeless quality that draws us back as teachers to tell our students they must learn from this,” Whitaker says. “Some 35 years after Kahn’s death, he’s still very much a part of the dialogue.”

“Brought to Light: The Houses of Louis Kahn” runs at the Kroiz Gallery, located behind the Fisher Fine Arts Library, through May 23. For further reading, the exhibition’s full-color companion book, “The Houses of Louis Kahn” by William Whitaker and George H. Marcus, can be found at the Penn Bookstore, in libraries, and online.

Kahn House