Architectural Dooz-Gest: Louis Kahn, Pisces

By Alla Kazovksy –

 

In a horoscope, your Sun represents how you perceive yourself in the world. It conditions the choices you make, the choices based on your inherent needs. I’d like to explore what they are for Louis Kahn, a Pisces.

Louis Isadore Kahn, a child of poverty-stricken Jewish immigrants was born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky on March 5 [O.S. February 20] 1901 in Kuressaare, Estonia. At age three, enchanted by the shimmering light, he reached for the coals under the stove and set himself ablaze. His father thought he is better off dead; his mother, on the other hand, interpreted the accident as a sign of predestined greatness. Shortly before his death, Lou said to his wife that he could’ve been a great composer. Instead, he was one of the most luminous architects of all time.

Louis Kahn, portrait

Astrologically speaking, you are your Sun sign as it reflects the way you feed your creative vitality.

Lou Kahn, a Pisces Sun, mused: “A great American poet once asked the architect, ‘What slice of the sun does your building have? What light enters your room?’ — as if to say the sun never knew how great it is until it struck the side of the building.”

Kahn’s attunement with the Sun is evident in his buildings. He passionately engaged it, like that little boy, fascinated with the glistening sparks. For instance, the split-at-the-top concrete vaults of the Kimbell Art Museum (1966-1972) were designed to animate the art on display with the ever-changing natural light. The Sun was invited inside through “a narrow slit to the sky.” In architecture, the Sun is lived through a building, in astrology —through a zodiac sign, a prism (one out of twelve) that colors and defines it.

Every zodiac sign is a reaction to and an extension of what was started in the previous sign. Whereas Aquarius is so confident in its views, so full of conviction and so intent on finding the truth, Pisces, as symbolized by impenetrable ocean, knows that the truth is relative and rarely what it seems.

“I feel fusion of the senses. To hear a sound is to see its space. Space has tonality, and I imagine myself composing a space lofty, vaulted or under a dome, attributing to it a sound character alternating with the tones of the space, narrow and high, with graduating silver, light to darkness.” Sunset. Travertine-clad central plaza of Kahn’s Salk Institute merges with the Pacific Ocean and the golden sky reflected in it. Cradled, deep in meditation, I sense that this is as close as I can be to the heavens…

Sue Tompkins in The Contemporary Astrologer’s Handbook explains: “…Containing as it does the seeds of all the preceding signs, Pisces is capable of being just about anything at all…” On archetypal level, she compares Pisces with “the high priest of the temple.” How spot on! As if she was writing about Louis Kahn specifically. Vincent Scully, a Sterling Professor of the History of Art in Architecture at Yale University said this about Kahn’s oeuvre: “God is in the work. …It has to be perfect. …It can’t be impatient; it’s timeless.”

Since my student years, I have imagined into Louis Kahn as someone with access to the deepest spiritual truth. Thus, I immersed in his buildings and drowned in the transcripts of his talks as if they were gospel. Recently, I found myself absorbed in the documentary by his son Nathaniel, titled My Architect. It helped me gain substantial insight into that incomprehensibly fluid matter Kahn was made off. And now, I am attempting to penetrate his intensely emotional view of the word using astrology as a mode of exploration. You are welcome to my distillery: astrological signs owe a great deal of their meaning to the fact that each one is a unique combination of its element, modality, polarity, and orientation.

Louis Kahn Egypt Sketch

 

Element: Water

Astrologically, an element becomes the basis for a person’s over-all view by dictating general behavior patterns. A key to someone’s potential as well as possible conflicts, it informs their spontaneous reactions and methods of operation. Pisces is a water sign. Water has a cleansing, purging, healing energy. All three water signs (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces) orient themselves to the world in the same way; they react to things based on whether they are pleased or displeased with them.

When flooded with emotions, water signs experience instability, not as a weakness, but a manifestation of empathy.

“Venice is an architecture of joy. I like the place as a whole where each building in Venice must think in terms of sympathy; working on my project, I was constantly thinking as if I was asking each building I love so much in Venice whether they would accept me in their company.”

Louis Kahn National Assembly Building of Bangladesh

Louis Kahn National Assembly Building of Bangladesh

Pisces soaks up the pain of others. Lou even talked to buildings with compassion. In fact, Kahn’s largest project Bangladesh National Capital (1962-1985) is located in one of the poorest countries in the world. Architect Shamsul Wares, who worked under Lou on it, remembers: “He gave us an institution for democracy. …He was our Moses. …He did not care how much money he was getting. …He could not say no to anything. He worked all the time.” And if he was too tired, he would roll out a little carpet, sleep for a while, and continue working. Pisces becomes incredibly helpful to those who seem weak or helpless in any way.

 

Modality: Mutable

Each sign of a specific element has its own modality, which helps it to function when confronted with a problem. Modality pertains to specific conditions a sign has to create before addressing a stressful situation. A mutable sign needs to move in a restless, chaotic, non-linear way. In case of Pisces, images or feelings start rushing around — aimless and unstructured. In fact, Lou remained in a constant state of flux. His passport had his home address crossed out. He never felt settled anywhere. Very secretive, he would just disappear; no one would know where he was or what he was doing.

Pisces knows everything, and yet seems so naïve.

“Silence to Light

Light to Silence

The threshold of their crossing

   is the Singularity
   
is Inspiration”

Kahn reflected on poetics of construction — the threshold between Silence and Light. Navigating by means of his buildings, he yearned to find room for both of them within.

Kimbell Art Museum

 Kimbell Art Museum

An architect and a mutable water sign, Kahn, was clearly fascinated with the archetypal meaning of the threshold. He felt the need to orchestrate its transitional quality. Thus, the experience of the proverbial doorway or a point of departure was thoroughly addressed in all of his projects. For instance, the gallery space of the introverted Kimbell Art Museum is approached in a very deliberate manner. The processional entry sequence takes a visitor past sunken sculpture gardens and reflecting pools with sheets of cascading water, under a vaulted loggia, through a gravel-floored courtyard defined by a grid of trees.

 

Polarity: Negative, Feminine or Yin

Water signs are the most yin. Instead of acting, they wait and react to the events outside. From early on, Kahn receptively embraced the notion that each building material has its own way of expressing itself and that the architect should not impose his own ambitions or will on it. This kind of “feminine” sensitivity was most unusual.

A commitment-shy Pisces escapes from what it perceives as a limitation. He can desire or feel aversion and will accept or reject people, objects or circumstances based on his feelings.

“It is much better not to cover anything up but to show the full nature and relationship of part to part, including the present condition of each which is a record of how it got that way.”

Yale University Art Gallery

Kahn lectured that it is ”intolerable” to bury “tortured ducts, conduits and pipelines.” As the integral parts of the organism, they deserve recognition and their own well-engineered service zones. In the Yale University Art Gallery (1951-1953), Kahn chose to expose how the building was made by intentionally leaving hollow tetrahedrons of the concrete ceiling immediately visible. The hard-working structure was revealed and glorified.

 

Orientation: Transpersonal

The twelve signs neatly fall into three sectors of four. The first four (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer) are preoccupied with basic survival. The next four (Leo, Virgo, Libra, and Scorpio) concern themselves with relationship issues.  And the last four (Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces) are focused on the matters of the collective. Pisces is the most unworldly of them all, the one with the weakest sense of self.

Pisces desires to transcend ordinary reality.

“You plan a library as though no library ever existed.”

Exeter LibraryLouis Kahn Exeter Library

Kahn infused cultural institutions with a sense of high purpose and gave them a central place in our society. His Exeter Library (1965-1972) is the heart of a school community. Kahn envisioned it as a sacred place that evolves based on the way it is used. He divided the building into three layers conducive to the process of selecting a book and then going toward natural light to read it. Its entrance hall, the place of the initial encounter with vast creativity and wisdom treasured therein, is colossal. Powerfully formed by the ceiling and roof overhead, it is one of the most evocative rooms ever built. It reminds me of the interior of Rome’s Pantheon.

Signs that oppose each other share a central theme, which they approach from two complementary points of view. Both humble and kind, Virgo and Pisces accommodate. For Virgo, it’s personal service; for Pisces, it’s surrender to universe itself.

[It is] “the architect’s job, ...to find those spaces ...where availabilities ...can have better environments for their maturing into.”

When medical bacteriologist the inventor of the polio vaccine Dr. Jonas Salk first came to Kahn to discuss Salk Institute project (1959-1965), he spoke of it as the kind of place where Picasso could be invited to meet the scientists. He got something even better… Something very spiritual.

Salk Institute

In the final scheme, ten free-standing towers housing two scientist’s private studies each, march on either side of the central court set high on the cliffs facing the ocean. Concrete 45-degree diagonal walls in each study tower produce triangular, full-height bays with views. At the ground level, the walls act as an open arcade, giving shade to the stone-paved public space. The towers and the laboratories connect at every other floor where Kahn inserted open-air balconies. Each one serves as an outdoor meeting place — a middle ground convenient to both labs and studies. In keeping with the spirit of Salk’s desire for fluid exchange of ideas, Kahn equipped these passageways with wall-mounted slate blackboards. Furthermore, at the level of the studies, openings between concrete walls were filled with teak window panels. Each panel contained a pocket that received three sliding fenestration components — glazing, screen, and louvered shade — preparing for every possible condition.

Interpreting the client’s program, Kahn designed the towers as “architecture of the oak table and the rug” and the laboratories with scientific equipment made of stainless steel were conceived as “architecture of air cleanliness and adjustability.”

For Pisces, becoming aware of the personal desires and giving form to them is often a slow and painful process.

“I do not believe that beauty can be deliberately created.”

Louis Kahn made an incredible impact on the world by surrendering his life to an ideal and enlivening others with it. In addition to realized work, Kahn’s legacy is in a staggering number of unbuilt projects. At the time of Lou’s death, Mayor Kollek had just written to the architect of his eagerness to start the building of Hurva (‘ruin’ in Hebrew) Synagogue, calling it “a world synagogue,” as it was sited near the two of Jerusalem’s most important religious monuments, the Muslim Dome of the Rock Mosque and the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Indeed, the textbook Pisces, Louis Kahn was the pilgrim on the solitary holy journey.

 

Alla Kazovksy

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