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A look at Louis Kahn’s graphic work shows that his search for abstract monumentality, which culminated in his works of the 1960s, began decades earlier in his abundant drawings, travel sketches, and landscapes.

In works such as the Jonas Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, or the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, Kahn (1901-74) created an architecture of abstract geometry, in which the interplay between natural light and simple brick and concrete masses was raised to heroic status. This discovery of abstract geometric forms and their monumental potential came after decades of experimenting with the glass-and-steel architecture of International Style modernism. Judging from his buildings alone, Kahn’s late work appears as a radical departure, virtually unheralded by his earlier projects. The exhibition suggests that Kahn’s spare travel sketches were the cradle of some of his most powerful architectural ideas.

The studies, travel sketches and landscapes shown in the exhibition – such as his intimate landscapes from Gaspé, where he regularly vacationed during the 1930s and 1940s – are intriguing as graphic works in their own right. At the same time they are a vivid and highly personal pendant to his professional career, restlessly exploring the same themes and problems as does his architecture. A tireless experimenter, Kahn worked in many media, switching from gouache to graphite, from water colour to pen and ink. Some of his most stirring work was done in pencil, which he held nearly flat and applied in broad, horizontal strokes – his favourite technique during a European trip in 1928. Based not on outline and silhouette, but instead on volume and texture, these drawings express basic mass and form at the expense of detail. Only decades later would Kahn be able to achieve such abstract monumentality in his built architecture. Similarly, several studies from the 1950s of Egyptian pyramids and the archaic Greek temples at Paestum show Kahn’s renewed interest in history as a source of architectural inspiration.

An Architectural Odyssey: The Travel Sketches of Louis I. Kahn is curated by Michael J. Lewis, CCA Historiographer.


Michael J. Lewis, CCA, exhibition curator