Louis I. Kahn: Unbuilt Masterworks. 
By Kent Larson.  (Monacelli Press, $60.) 

Book Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
Architecture, Editor's Choice: 
The 10 best books of 2000 
December 3, 2000
by, Martin Filler

Of all the many applications to which the computer has been put in the design and construction of architecture – Frank Gehry's celebrated Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao could never have been built without it – none is more intriguing than the work of Kent Larson, an architect and research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Using plans left by Louis I. Kahn, who died in 1974, Larson has created startlingly convincing computer models of the master's unexecuted projects.  Aside from Kahn being the greatest architect of the last half-century, his New Brutalist style is ideally suited to this representational method.  Composed of strong, simple geometric forms, with unornamented concrete or wood surfaces and dramatic natural illumination, Kahn's grandly severe and intriguingly layered architecture masks the limitations of computer graphics that would be cruelly exposed in trying to simulate a curvaceous Rococo chapel swarming with plaster putti.

Most moving of the eight schemes visually reconstructed here are the Mikveh Israel Synagogue of 1961 – 72 in Philadelphia and three successive versions of the Hurvah Synagogue in Jerusalem, on which Kahn worked from 1967 until his death.  Both the American and the Israeli shuls are unquestionably lost masterpieces, especially poignant in a period that has produced very little distinguished religious architecture.  Perhaps Larson's lifelike depictions will inspire donors to resurrect these compelling schemes and to give Kahn's fellow believers houses of worship equal to the finest churches of Christendom.

Book Review
By Thomas R. Vreeland
Yale School of Architecture

Louis I. Kahn: Unbuilt Masterworks
By Kent Larson
Introduction by Vincent Scully
Afterward by William Mitchell
The Monacelli Press, New York, 2000
224 pp., 275 ill, $60.00

Kent Larson, an architect and principal research scientist at MIT, has produced through the magic of the computer a book filled with virtual photographs of Louis Kahn's unrealized projects: the Salk Meeting House, the Palazzo die Congressi in Venice, the Glass Monument to the Six Million, and many others.

As any scholar of architecture is aware, extant buildings, through which we can walk and directly experience their architects' intentions, make up only half of the history of architecture.  The other half, equally important and influential in determining the direction of architecture, is comprised of building that have come down to us either as ruins of former buildings or-having never been built-as drawing of verbal or numerical descriptions.  Larson addressed these trajectories in this splendid new book.

The idea of ruin plays a major role in Larson's explication of Kahn's unbuilt projects.  Six of the eight projects he presents were directly inspired by Kahn's admiration for ruins of Italy, Greece, and Egypt that he studies during his tenure in 1950 as architect-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome.

From the Luanda Chancellery building of 1959, through the Salk Meeting House of 1961, the Mikveh Israel Synagogue of 1962, and the three schemes for the Hurva Temple of 1968, 1969, and 1972 respectively, runs a common theme: wrapping ruins around buildings.  As Larson quotes Kahn, from Perspecta 7 (1961), "I thought of the beauty of ruins, of things nothing lives behind, and so I thought of wrapping ruins around buildings; you might say encasing a building in a ruin s o that you look through the wall which has its aperture as is by accident.  I felt that this would be an answer to the glare problem.”  These wrapped buildings are the bulk of his unrealized work because of the inordinate expense of double wrapping.  Only the student residences in Ahmadabad and the Assembly Building in Dacca – both built in countries where labor is cheap, and mechanical and electrical equipment are dear were built.  Now thanks to the magic of Larson's “camera,” we can climb through those interstitial spaces between inner and outer shells that Kahn, recalling his earlier Beaux-Arts training, aptly dubbed “hollow poché.”

Larson concentrates his “camera” on the voids of the square-within-the-circle and the circle-within-the-square of the Salk Meeting House, on the empty cylinders of the Mikveh Israel Synagogue, and on the circulation space between the outer pylons of Jerusalem stone and the inner concrete shell of the sanctuary of Hurva Temples 1 through 3.  Larson's exquisite technique gives these unorthodox spaces of Kahn's invention the reality and vividness that our previous conjecturing from the drawings and models had always fallen short of doing.

Kahn, as a student of the Beaux-Arts at Penn, would have been very familiar with the reconstructions of antique buildings done in drawings often reached a high level of art.  Larson has cast himself into a similar role.  His recreations of Kahn's unbuilt projects are the closest thing we have today to those beautiful watercolor renderings of all-but-vanished buildings from an earlier “golden age,” and they fulfill much the same purpose.  His control of line, light and shadow, texture, and color equals and possibly exceeds the work of the gold medallists in giving a “reality” to a group of buildings that, although not built, may occupy a position as important in the history of architecture as the ancient monuments.

Both Kahn and Larson share a fascination with and skill at handling light.  Kahn is transfixed by light: “The sun never knew how great it was until it struck the side of a building.”  To Kahn not only is light the principal descriptor of architecture, but all matter (the material of architecture itself) is spent light.  Kahn intuitively understood what the physicist today acknowledges, that light (plasma) is the fourth and final state of matter after solid, liquid, and gas.  Kahn's architecture is intended to control, modify, and prevent light from destroying the life inside.  By wrapping ruins around buildings, as in the Luanda Chancellery or the Salk Meeting House, Kahn intended to modify the glare and humanize the light.

It is not a coincidence that Larson's medium is also light: photons bombarding the face of a cathode tube.  In his visual descriptions of Kahn's projects, after having established the desired perspective his art consists of determining the angle and intensity of the sun and the degree of absorption or reflectivity of light on each surface to capture the reality of a physical building.  In this he has been inordinately successful.  Anyone flipping through the book quickly at a store would be convinced that the photographs are of real buildings.

Larson's text clearly exhibits that he has mastered and understood the existing Kahn literature.  His book is an essential addition to it, filling an important gap.

--Thomas R. Vreeland

Vreeland is an architect and an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of California Los Angeles.  He studied under Kahn at Yale and worked for him in Philadelphia for five years.

Architectural Record
December 2000
Louis I. Kahn: Unbuilt Masterworks 
by Kent Larson 
Introduction by Vincent Scully 
Afterword by William J. Mitchell
The Monacelli Press, 2000 

Impossible Photographs: Kahn Buildings that Never Were
By Sara Hart 

Louis Kahn died in 1974 at the height of his career, having created some of the 20th century's finest architectural masterpieces: the Kimbell Art Museum, Phillips Exeter Academy library, Yale Center for British Art and Studies, and Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He also left several commissions designed but unfinished. When a genius of Kahn's stature dies, the mystery of his greatness dies with him, leaving us mere mortals to wonder what might have been.

That was the case until now. Kent Larson, an architect and principal research scientist at MIT, spent seven years sifting through the vast archive of documentation that Kahn left for several projects: the U.S. Consulate in Luanda, Angola; the Meeting House at the Salk Institute; the Mikveh Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia; the Memorial to Six Million Jewish Martyrs, in New York City; three proposals for the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem; and the Palazzo dei Congressi in Venice. After assiduous analysis of drawings, sketches, correspondence, and transcripts, Larson built intricate computer models of what these projects would have looked like. 

A presumptuous undertaking in the hands of a less meticulous investigator, but Larson's rigorous scholarship and dispassionate interpretations give these stunning photorealistic images a credibility down to the texture of the concrete and the mysterious nuances in Kahn's use of light. This book is an important contribution to the history of architecture in general, and a deeper understanding of Louis Kahn's genius in particular. 

The New York Times, A Spiritual Quest  Realized, but Not in Stone, Paul Goldberger, Sunday, Arts and Leisure.

“A computer simulation of the synagogue interior, done by Kent Larson, an architect, demonstrates in surprising detail, even showing changing lighting conditions, what it would have been like to walk through this building.   The Hurva simulations are astonishing and utterly convincing.” 

Time Magazine, “The Best Design of 1993, #5”, Kent Larson: Louis I. Kahn's Hurva Synagogue 

“a stunning act of digital cyber-architecture by architect Larson...uncannily realistic views on a Silicon Graphics Workstation.” 

The Chicago Tribune, “Out of the Blue (prints), Virtual Reality” (Cover Story, The Arts, Sunday Edition), by Blair Kamin

“Kent Larson used virtual reality to produce strikingly lifelike, two-dimensional pictures...the product is a luminous representation of daylight.” 

ANY: Architecture New York,“Electrotecture: Architecture and the Electronic Future”, editorial by Cynthia C. Davidson

“One of the more dramatic examples of (“electrotecture”) is New York architect Kent Larson's recent “construction” of Louis Kahn's Hurva Synagogue....Larson used Silicon Graphics hardware....to “build” seemingly tactile, three dimensional, light filled spaces.   Simultaneously a re-creation and a creation, a simulation and a reality, this “landmark” would seem to force architecture to consider questions that even in the electronic age it continually turns away from.” 

Progressive Architecture, “A Virtual Landmark, Hurva Synagogue”, introduction by Vincent Scully, Sterling Professor of the History of Art at Yale University

“It is hard to believe that Kahn would not have loved Mr. Larson's computer graphic projections of his drawings for the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem.  They bring us with startling fidelity into the space that Kahn wanted to make, most of all into its light, and there Kahn might have seen that the kind of light that he associated with Jehovah and hoped to shape for him might have been there after all.” 

I.D. The International Design Magazine, “Virtual Architecture: Digitally Revisiting a Modern Master”, by Julie Trelstad. 

“Now it is possible to look inside the building in a re-creation of the synagogue generated by New-York based architect Kent Larson on a Silicon Graphics workstation...a leading proponent of using high-quality computer-imaging techniques for architectural purposes.” 

OPEN: The Electronic Magazine, Redefining Creativity in the Digital Age, “Inside Virtual Walls” 

“The poetry in Larson's images comes from his artistic interpretation of Kahn.  The scrupulous care Larson took to select exactly the right materials and lighting conditions make them convincingly realistic.”