Louis Kahn: Notes on a Scrap of Paper

By Brian Carter

Louis Kahn (1901–1974), design for a new building for the Tribune Review Publishing Company, 1958. Ink on paper. Courtesy of the Design Archive of Special Collections, University of Buffalo.

This scrap of paper, perhaps scooped up from the floor or a waste basket in Louis Kahn’s studio on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, shows a single sketch – spidery lines outlining a modest block and strange openings. Beginning drawing in 1958 Kahn searched for a design of a new building for the Tribune Review Publishing Company.

Six giant t-shaped openings highlighted in the sketch were the beginnings of large windows cut emphatically in the building’s masonry walls. The north facing wall, seen as non-load bearing, was consequently opened by generous windows that offered the promise of plentiful natural light and views to surrounding woodlands. By contrast, openings considered for a west facing wall that extended between beams and load-bearing piers were drawn as long single lines to depict narrow slots. These contrasting lines, and the different types of openings they suggested, characterize this drawing. They also mark a significant moment in Kahn’s work and register his pre-occupations with light, material and structure.

Inspired by earlier visits to Egypt and Italy he made other sketches that sought to explore relationships between light, material and structure. These pastel drawings were radically different and projected swirling clouds of colour to capture bright sun, conspicuous shadows and the massive weight of ancient buildings in Karnak, Ostia and Pompeii.

Together these drawings record one architect’s search for contemporary architecture embedded in historical forms, structure and light that uncovered roots and traced routes to a modest new building in Pennsylvania.

The scrap of paper arrived at the Design Archive of Special Collections at the University at Buffalo almost fifty years after the first line was drawn.

Notes

The sketch from the office of Louis I. Kahn is in the Design Archive of Special Collections at the University at Buffalo. It is part of a larger collection of drawings, documents and artifacts given to UB by Professor Emeritus William S. Huff, who first met Kahn at Yale in 1951. The Design Archive at UB Special Collections houses drawings and documents from a diverse group of architects including work by Frank Lloyd Wright, the designer of numerous significant buildings in the city.