Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Designer

Louis Kahn, my architect

Lately, I've been doing a lot of thinking about ethics with respect to the designer as an individual vs. collective design. Should an urban designer or architect truly be allowed to impose his will, Moses-like, on so many people?

Louis Kahn once said (and many designers will immediately identify with this sentiment) that when you design anything by committee, the results will always be less than what could be. “If you get direction from a committee”, Kahn once advised corporate leaders about design, “I am positive the product will be less, the expression will be less. If it can be in an individual, it will have such resources that a committee meeting many, many times would never have. The individual has the ability to see it all as a unit. From sketchy first realization mixed with faith in what is realized, can there be exchange of a designer and the man who wants the design made. There can be a fruitful exchange which can make the executive a better executive and the designer a better designer.” In his signature mytho-poetic style, Kahn summed up the corporate client/executive/designer relationship: “It’s humans, human, and a human” (Louis Kahn, “Architecture and Human Agreement”, in The Art of Design Management – Design in American Business, the Tiffany-Wharton Lectures, XVI (New York: Tiffany and Co., 1975) 17-30).

While Kahn was clearly talking about buildings, in his later works, he did not hesitate to apply the same approach to more urbanistic projects, even in the sacred heart of Jerusalem. Largely, I agree with Kahn’s observation of the importance of the designer, but as a designer I am also compelled to be always reflective of the potential ominous consequences that my impositions may affect on the greater social/political context. Design and power have an interesting relationship. I just wrote a paper on Kahn and Post-1967 Jewish Nationalism, which draws on the peculiar ways that Jewish nationalism was impacted by Kahn’s proposal for the rebuilding of the Jewish Quarter. In 1969, Kahn was awarded the reconstruction of the Hurvah Synagogue, which eventually proved unbuildable, largely because of the political sobriety of Israelis. My essay will appear on the forthcoming book, Cities and Sovereignty, edited by Nora Libertun-DeDuren and Diane Davis, which also has a contribution by (my old prof) Larry Vale, by the way, who has much to say on the topic of design and power.

Nonetheless, Kahn had much to say about the ethics of design and responsibility of the architect/artist, which I find absolutely remarkable. Of any architect I admire, he is truly My architect, second only to the one above. As a designer, I must respect all the human of the human, good and bad, innocent and not. I must learn to contemplate the harmful as well as the good in human lives--this is the lesson of the parable of the wheat and tares…only the angels (not humans) should reap, because if I destroy the tares, it is human nature to also mightily damage the good.

Below is an article that I translated from the Hebrew with the HUGE help of my friend Danny Kopp (an American expat who grew up in Jerusalem), describing something of Kahn’s design ethic…which I feel has valuable lessons for designers. This article has never been published in English before (parts of it are still missing since my photocopy of it was a poor quality)…If anyone out there would want to republish this in print just send me a note and I'll get you the reference info.

Louis Kahn versus Architects "Whose Religion is Solel Boneh"

by Dan Mirkin; Published in Ma'ariv July 29, 1968

Translated (primarily) by my friend Danny Kopp

Note: due to the crumpled state of the article in the Kahn Collection at the University of Pennsylvania, not all the pieces were able to be translated (hence the lacunae below). It remains for an enterprising soul to find the complete version elsewhere.

An old Arab, Suma (Musa?) Wafisa(?), sat on a stone fence near the Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean Dessert and waited for the Greek monk to open the iron door and hand him his daily meal.

Louis Kahn, an elderly American Jew (of eastern European origin) sat on the same stone fence and waited for them to open the heavy metal door to let him come inside. Just before he rushed in, he leapt towards the top of the mountain and observed the monastery attached to the cliff. "Those are interesting arches that support the wall", he mused, "I would like to see from within what exactly they support."

He descended down the pathway and waited by the gate.

Despite the heavy heat that I am not used to, I didn't know who of the two of us was actually younger. It seams the quality which characterizes Kahn, one of the gods of modern architecture, is his undiminished energy.

This is the same teacher from architecture school (UPenn) who became one of the greatest luminaries of his profession; who completed the design of an entire city in Pakistan, the Salk Laboratories in Philadelphia, buildings in India. And now he has completed the plans for a building to be erected on the "Hurvah" of Rabbi Yehuda the Righteous, which will incorporate a section of the ancient ruins. He doesn't believe in the word "restore" or "renovate".

The second quality which characterizes Kahn is the very, very picturesque and exact definition. It seems, that if he hadn't been an architect – he would be a poet.

I sat with him for a full evening in the company of young architects, one of whom constantly spoke and explained how the demands of the religious should not be overly respected and cast before him expansive theories of the modern restoration method of ancient cities. Louis answered him, "The basis of all art is respect". Respect and generosity towards the other; respect that is dictated by a specific creation. "Art", he said, "is likened to gold flakes which an artist collects from a certain situation."

Afterwards he explained to me how he planned the lighting to reflect from behind the stone pillars that narrow at their ends and surround the new building over the "Hurvah". Pointing with his hand towards one of the buildings he added, "The purpose of the concrete and stones is to let the light reach the right spot. The concrete is the silver whereas the light – is the gold".

As for the ruins, whose design he saw as his life's great work, he explained that the goal was for a prayer or a visit would be a highlight for a pilgrim.

Therefore the "Hurvah" would be built in layered fashion, a type of central hall and around it an area which could serve additional people, a women's court, and around the twenty meter high square building would be very wide stone pillars.

Those who are not among the regular worshipers [doing prayers] could draw inside. The worshipers could enjoy the "innerness" of the great hall, while the visitors could enjoy the innerness inside the alcoves and no one would be more "inside" than the other and no one would "outside".

One of Kahn's phrases is, "Never coerce the material". During his visit to Arab villages in upper Beit Horon, he looked at the buildings like a believer who watches the prophet's tomb. Looking at one of the public institutions at the southern exit from Tel Aviv he pronounced, "Resembles a little piece of furniture, like most of the buildings here." He saw new apartments in southern Jerusalem in which the architect had stuck red bricks in concrete plates, and he explained why you should never use bricks if you want to build with concrete. "Whoever builds a wall with bricks [building blocks] must build an arch" he explained. "You must ask the brick – What do you want?" And you must ask the stone its will. Therefore the large pillars around the "Hurvah" would be thin at their extremities because one must consider the bottom stones that are baring the weight of the top stones, while the pillars would appear to be wind blown, as if the wind had tilted them inward.

Kahn is not comfortable with the thought of [artists?] who are always trying to solve problems. […] participated in architectures congress in Israel and told how he delivered a speech to one of the […] and relayed information to him that can […]

Regarding engineers he said, their role is to solve problems that the architect presents before them. But they don't have the courage to demonstrate problems. "Building is not a solution" he explained, "It is nothing but a way to present the problem. The problem remains – and it's art."

A good question is better than a solution, because the problem set before an artist is not "How to do?" but "[What] to do?"

On the way we passed by the most ugly apartments. I explained to him that there was a need to bring in immigrants and therefore they didn't clarify the means.

The answer left him unsettled in thought. Suddenly he said to me, "Had the people who built the apartments been religious, any religion (whatsoever), and not necessarily a religion of ceremony but rather a faith of the heart, they would not have built such buildings. It's their tragedy, that they had the religion of "Solel Boneh".

After speaking at length about the use of stone, I asked Kahn what he thought about the Israel Museum. He replied that he did not want to express his opinion which could hurt the attempts of others [such as] these. But about the buildings built on Mount Scopus, designed by the well known architect (Erich) Mendelsohn he said, "What straight, simple […] buildings".

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