As with our ancestors, our buildings hold the stories of our age. Architect Alan Keane explores time and the narrative of our civilisation with the help of an old master.
In 1974 Louis Kahn died of a heart attack in a restroom at New York’s Penn Station. His 73-year-old body went unclaimed for some 3 days. Louis was fortunate: in his life he had a moment which still lives. But it was not a sudden revelation; it took nearly 30 years.
In 1928 Kahn toured Europe predominanatly visiting medieval strongholds. It was on this tour the weighty bulwarks of Scottish castles to make their deep impression. After, he practiced Modernism unremarkably. In 1950 Kahn returned to Europe. From the American Academy in Rome he visited ancient ruins in Egypt, Greece and Italy, and watched the sunlight move across olden stones.
The slow crescendo was culminating. Amongst the dignity of the ruins Louis learned the significance of time. He was well educated in an architect’s temporal responsibility from his university days and by the prevailing Modernist zeitgeist. Now in his 50’s the language of Kahn’s work changed. Much is admired of his material mastery, his geometrical cleverness, and the crafting of light of his last 20 years. But the crucial lesson of Kahn is not these outward expressions. They are manifest of something else, something acute and penetrating: his relationship with time, or rather timelessness. For Louis’s buildings are not aged by conceding to the present, lost by imitating the past, or redundant by predicting the future: they transcend all of those.
Kahn perished, but his process and his search for clarity have passed into myth. All architectural theories are, of course, myths. They are stories that tell us something about ourselves that cannot be otherwise measured. Louis’s moment was when he took the longer view.
Image: The Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
Fleeing Ireland, Benandonner the giant ripped up the stone bridge to cover his retreat. Myth making around physical forms offers a means of understanding and a system to operate within.