Louis Khan is one of the most influential architects of the 20th century while also being one of the least talked about. A lot of people cite him as their inspiration but very few actually talk about him. But this is what should expected from a man that eschewed conventional methods of working and thinking. We find it difficult to classify his work as any single genre of architecture. He drew deep inspiration from classic Greek and Roman architecture as well as more the modern Brutalist, Metabolist, and Arts and Crafts movements. He considered architecture to be more than a discipline of space and material but also of light, shadow and mystery. Khan considered his work to be constructed of light and shadow as much as brick and concrete. Layer on top of this his penchant for wrestling with the more universal truths of humanity’s spirit and soul and you have a man not easily understood much less categorized. This is precisely why he can be so inspirational and oblique simultaneously.
He is often seen as a modernist architect, but what makes Khan’s work so essentially different is its rootedness in place and culture. Traditionally, modernist architecture in practice and principle is autonomous of its surroundings, physical and cultural. That is to say that it can be placed in any geographic or cultural location and it will stay to true to its core aesthetic and functional concepts. This is not so with Khan’s work. He makes use of modernist ideals while at the same time utilizing the local cultural history, environmental requirements, and readily available materials. His National Assembly Building of Bangladesh in Dhaka is a prime example of this. It has an amazing story and presence. Andrew Kroll has written a fantastic article on it here if you would like to know more. This aspect of his work alone deserves respect and admiration, but this is only one facet of his approach. He goes on to use natural light and shadow as tangible mediums to inspire silence, awe and a sense of humanness.
“Silence, the unmeasurable, desire to be, desire to express, the source of new need, meets Light, the measurable, giver of all presence, by will, by law, the measure of things already made, as a threshold which is inspiration, the sanctuary of art, the Treasure of Shadow.” – Louis Khan
This quote is as abstruse as any of his architectural work, but there is a sense of wrestling with truth that I think is rousing. Like us, he is a man that appreciates and values materials and their materiality; he merely includes light and shadow as materials.
“All materials in nature, the mountains and the streams and the air and we, are made of Light which has been spent, and this crumpled mass called material casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to the Light.” -Louis Khan
Sorry for another esoteric quote but it is about this quote that Thomas Schiekle (of archdaily.com) says, “For him, light is the maker of material and material’s purpose is to cast a shadow.” This makes me think that Khan’s value and love of material stems from his understanding of not only its physical tactile properties, but also its interaction with time in the form of the movement of light (think sundial) and maybe even the eternal sense of mass and energy being interchangeable (think e=mc2). Things get convoluted quickly when dealing with Khan, especially when using his own quotes. In the end I guess there is just too much to really condense into a short blog post. I find Louis Khan’s work amazing and inspiring. I would like to think this is because I am human and Khan through architecture, materials, light and shadow spoke to the human spirit as much as to human need. Perhaps more.
See more here: