Louis I Kahn: Unbuilt Ruins

Book and Exhibition

The Book
Louis I. Kahn: Unbuilt Masterworks
by Kent Larson 
Monacelli Press,  October 2000 
Introduction by Vincent Scully 
Afterward by William J. Mitchell 
125 computer graphic color plates
165 b&w illustrations of archival material
224 pages 

U.S. Consulate for Luanda, Angola (1959-62)
Meeting House of the Salk Institute (1959-65)
Mikveh Israel Synagogue (1961-72)
Memorial to Six Million Jewish Martyrs (1966-72)
Hurva Synagogue, 1st Proposal (1967-68)
Hurva Synagogue, 2nd Proposal (1972-73)
Hurva Synagogue, 3rd Proposal (1974) 
Palazzo dei Congressi (1968-74)

“I thought of the beauty of ruins...of things which nothing lives behind.... and so I thought of wrapping ruins around buildings.”     Louis I. Kahn

The story is well known.  Kahn, having built little of note by the age of fifty, spends four months as Architect in Residence at the American Academy in Rome.  During this time he experiences the great ruins of the ancient world and resolves that "the architecture of Italy will remain as the inspirational source of the works of the future."  He returns in 1951 to immediately execute his first major commission, and struggles for the next 23 years to incorporate into his work the lessons learned in Italy, Greece, and Egypt.  In the process he redefines modern architecture and becomes the most important architect of the second half of the 20th Century.  He dies at the height of his career after building many of the masterworks of our time: the Kimbell Art Museum, the Laboratories of the Salk Institute, Exeter Library, the Yale Center for British Art, and his monumental projects on the Indian Subcontinent.

Between 1959 and 1961, Kahn used a series of fascinating unbuilt projects - particularly the American Consulate in Angola, the Meeting House of the Salk Institute, and Mikveh Israel Synagogue - to work out and test his new ideas.  At the end of the 60's he developed what is perhaps the clearest expression of this link to the old world - the Hurva Synagogue for Jerusalem.  In these projects, Kahn developed elements later found in his built work: a configuration of space as discrete volumes, complex ambient light and shadow, a celebration of mass and structure, the use of materials which have both modernist and archaic qualities, monumental openings uncompromised by frames, and Kahn's concept of “ruins wrapped around buildings.”  Finally, the unbuilt Palazzo dei Congressi in Venice prefigured a significant change in direction, as evidenced by his last major built work, the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven.

These digital images of Kahn's unbuilt strive to capture the essence of his genius: the ability to incorporate the spirit of the archaic and a deep understanding of fundamentals into a timeless, styleless architectural vision.  (excerpt from preface) 

The Exhibition
Louis I. Kahn: Unbuilt Ruins

The exhibition features four-hundred, ten-foot high hyper-realistic computer graphic renderings and animation sequences of 8 unbuilt masterworks of Louis I. Kahn.

Although the exhibition incorporates sophisticated digital technology  (computer graphic simulation, 3D printing of digital models, radio frequency identification tags, and computer vision tracking), the user is not directly aware of any computational devices or wires.  Physical models are moved like chess pieces to trigger the projection of high-resolution imagery.

Physical Arrangement

A table, 54 inches to a side, is placed in the center of the exhibit.  3D printed physical models of each of the 8 unbuilt projects, on bases 3" x 3", are located two to a side at the perimeter of the table. Four 6'-8" wide x 10'-0" high rear projection screens are placed to define the central exhibition space.  The exhibition takes up an area of approximately 40 feet by 40 feet.


Each model has a digital radio frequency identification tag.  When a model is placed at the center of the table, a sensor identifies the building to be studied, and causes four ten-foot high conceptual images to be projected on the enclosing screens of the central space – and an image of its schematic floor plan to be projected onto the table.

The schematic plan projected on the table contains graphic symbols indicating camera positions. A computer vision system allows viewers to select the available camera positions by moving a glass cylinder over the floor plan, thus projecting the front, rear, left, and right views as seen from that position.  An abstract (wireframe) animation sequence terminates at four hyper-realistic images. The vanishing point of each is approximately at eye-level, providing the viewer with an appropriate sense of scale.   Each of the four mated images is 4096 by 2731 pixels, for a total of 44,750,000 pixels per position.

Visitor Participation
Negotiation is required by viewers to select both the building to be visualized (through the placing of the physical model into the central position) and to choose the views (by selecting the view symbol). This results in an interesting degree of unpredictability and interaction among the exhibition visitors.  The exhibition gives visitors the means to take control of their exploration of these building.  If no view is selected within one minute, the system automatically scrolls through views of the selected project until a new view or building is selected. 

Example of four-axis view from a selected position (The Meeting House of the Salk Institute, La Jolla, California, 1959-65)

Meeting House of the Salk Institute, 1959-65 (unbuilt)
Radiosity-based Rendering 

Meeting House of the Salk Institute, 1959-65 (unbuilt)
Radiosity-based Rendering 

U.S. Consulate for Luanda, Angola, 1959-62 (unbuilt)
Radiosity-based Rendering 

Mikveh Israel Synagogue, 1961-72 (unbuilt)
Radiosity-based Rendering 

Hurva Synagogue, 1st Proposal, 1967-68 (unbuilt)
Radiosity-based Rendering 

Hurva Synagogue, 2nd Proposal, 1972-73 (unbuilt)
Radiosity-based Rendering 

Hurva Synagogue, 3rd Proposal, 1974 (unbuilt)
Radiosity-based Rendering 

Memorial to Six Million Jewish Martyrs, 1966-72 (unbuilt)
Radiosity-based Rendering

Palazzo dei Congressi, 1968-74 (unbuilt)
Radiosity-based Rendering 

Copyright Kent Larson 2000