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ESSAYS / architecture

Transcending Monumentality.

Breaking The Mould: Of Boullée & Kahn

words:  Jian Yong Khoo

Essay originally written in 2015

Project for remodeling the Royal Library, Étienne-Louis Boullée

Architecture is the embodiment of the arts and sciences, a complex combination which results in an ambiguous whole. What once was just a means of shelter, has evolved into a means of which to communicate and express the ever evolving necessities of contemporary society. The demands of the people coupled with the zeitgeist of the period, more often than not, precipitate a prevailing architectural style, one with which the architects of the period rally to. The rediscovery of antiquity gave rise to the Neoclassical movement in the eighteenth century, a return to more classical forms as a reaction to the elaborate Rococo style. Likewise in the twentieth century, the impact of the Second World War amplified the popularity of the Modernist movement. However, in the midst of monotony, there are individuals who strive to break the mould, challenging the preconceptions of the time. Two centuries apart, Étienne-Louis Boullée and Louis Kahn, through their tireless re-examination of the discipline, have established profound ideologies on the nature of architecture, which remarkably allude to common principles.

Boullée and Kahn, architects predominantly associated with monumentality. Boullée, with his extensive collection of unrealised projects which evoke feelings of grandeur and the ‘sublime’; Kahn, in his later works produced buildings of great enormity and magnificence. To classify both architects merely on the sheer scale of their projects would be superficial. A closer inspection into the work of both architects brings one to understand the ideals and principles which underly the apparent monumentality. Boullée, in his design for a public institution, stated that he was motivated by moral and political views; he believed “national pleasure help to maintain good morals1.” Kahn himself held the personal belief that “bringing people together in domestic or public collective settings would engender social good2.” Both architects sought to redefine the nature of their discipline, establishing that architecture more so than any other art has the role of contributing to and improving society as a whole. In the exploration of monumentality of their time, Boullée and Kahn, seemingly parallel in thought, challenged the conventional notion of space and its implication to society; that space was to be experienced by the inhabitants rather than just used.

Many of Boullée’s theoretical projects could be described as emotionally charged, believing in architecture as a means of expression, a poetic interpretation of the prevailing human condition. He was to perceive architecture as more than just the art of building (as described by Vitruvius), that of which he deemed the scientific side of architecture3. To Boullée, the use of the most primal of geometric forms (e.g. sphere), scaled beyond human proportions, could inherently influence the experience of the user. This belief that architecture has the potential to ascend beyond its utilitarian purpose can also be observed in the work of Kahn. When asked whether he believed form followed function, he replied with a definitive no, believing instead in the psychological function of a building, which made no reference to the conventional brief, but rather addressing the underlying meaning of the institution4. In his process of addressing a brief, Kahn scrutinised the nature of the programme and sought to develop a plan which above all engaged the human experience in the space. It is evident from this that both architects perceive the utilitarian aspect of architecture to be secondary, one which takes a backseat to a more significant, but ephemeral condition: ‘a spark of inspiration’. 

As Boullée wrote in his book, Architecture, essai sur l’art, “In order to execute, it is first necessary to conceive5.”

The opportunities and circumstances of the times would present both men with different fates: constantly refining their craft in the halls of academia, only one would see his ‘monumental’ projects realised. “If there is one project that should please an architect and, at the same time, fire his genius, it is a public library6.” In 1965, Kahn was awarded the commission to design the Phillips Exeter Academy Library, in New Hampshire. This project enabled Kahn to demonstrate his growing belief in the need to return to the origins, in which he questioned the original motives of the library as a space and its role to society. He had previously remarked, “You plan a library as though no library ever existed7.” His persistence on the exploration of the nature of the institution would lead Kahn to three key insights which would dictate the primary design of the library.

In his perpetual glimpses into history, Kahn would find inspiration in the monastic cloisters of old, of which he generated the idea of the potential of the individual reading carrel, which would be ingrained in the support that harboured them. For him, the design was to instinctively evolve from this inspired beginning. His investigation would lead him to his second key insight into the nature of the library: the importance of natural light to enhance the experience of the user.

 “A man with a book goes to the light8.

The understanding of the nature of the library on the ‘micro’ scale would then lead Kahn to identify his third insight on the ‘macro’ scale: the cumulative whole of the library as an institution. It is here that Kahn makes above all the most literal reference to the work of Boullée. He identifies Boullée’s drawing of ‘New Hall for a National Library’, which features a magnificent barrel vaulted ceiling that encapsulates both the books and people in a single space, as having conveyed the feeling and sense of what the library should be. Kahn is drawn to the idea of a great hall, where you are greeted by the sight of books upon arrival. Both Boullée and Kahn held the institution, that was the library, in high regard, as it was the storage place of knowledge, and as such must be respected and celebrated. His insights into the nature of the library as an institution, would flip all preconceptions on its head, the traditional library programme and plan was reversed: reading rooms were now at the periphery bathed in natural light, with the book stacks adjacent within, protected from the light. In the centre, Kahn designed a great top-lit space which made the most important contents of the library immediately visible to visitors upon entry.

Final Section of Phillips Exeter Academy Library, with brick, concrete, wood and metal clearly legible, Louis Kahn

Whilst the ideals that Boullée and Kahn strive for share common parallels, the circumstances of the times which gave rise to these resolute ideas must be understood to further enhance the connection between the two. In the late eighteenth century, Boullée along with his contemporary, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux were pivotal in the suggestion of a new concept of Monumentality that would encapsulate the ideal beauty of Classical architecture9. Unlike many who tended to prioritise structural and utilitarian values, Boullée and Ledoux stressed the ability of form to be used expressively, to convey a thought or feeling. Both men would leave their mark, influencing the discipline in contrasting ways, Ledoux’s work on structuring the means for a new utopian society would motivate spatial organisations of the succeeding centuries, whilst Boullée in his book Architecture, essai sur l’art, argued for architecture as an expressive language which stemmed from nature – this could be seen as a rebuttal against Perrault’s idea that architecture was “a fantastic art that was pure invention10.” Leading on from this, the teachings of Boullée and Ledoux were upheld by Durand, whom drained it of its semantic content, maintaining only its functionality11. Durand developed a permutative method based on the repetition of standard units, a precursor to standardisation of the modern times. However, the prevailing methodology of the succeeding centuries could be said to have emerged in the form of Structural Rationalism, with the likes of Viollet-Le-Duc, prioritising the materiality and structure of architecture.

The early influence of the two contrasting theories of architecture, which emerged in the nineteenth century from the École des Beaux-Arts in France is evident on Kahn throughout his work. First introduced to the opposing theories by his teacher Paul Philippe Cret, Kahn was encouraged to debate the differences which existed, allowing him to synthesise and formulate his own ideas as a collective hybrid of the two12. The work of Kahn in his later years demonstrate his affinity towards the honesty of the use of materials – which could be traced back to Viollet-Le-Duc – as well as his clever engagement of contemporary construction methods. To him, the materials of construction should be left exposed, the sole ornamentation of modern building, which impress upon the story of its construction. Kahn would also state his attraction towards an elemental approach in design13, telling an imaginary tale,

“He chose for the large work a small consistent part or module of a definite shape, which he used to construct block over block, the overall form. From great distances, the work retains a texturally vibrant quality produced by these numerous blocks14.”

It can be observed then that the influence of other theorists was crucial in his work, supplementing his belief of architecture as the poetics of human action.

With the design of the Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Kahn established a concrete design philosophy, a culmination of the re-examination of the nature of the library as an institution and its role to society. The clear direction of the nature of the institute allowed Kahn to develop the tectonic qualities of the building, which can be observed to adhere with the theories and methodology outlined above. The three different spaces identified by Kahn (reading carrels, book stacks, great hall) were treated almost as three different buildings, different materials layered upon each other, each corresponding to a given function. The outermost layer, which housed the double height reading carrels in modular bays was constructed of load-bearing brick; the inner adjacent layer, which housed the single storey book stacks was of reinforced concrete; the central core wrapped by the two outer layers was to rise the full height of the building. The layered design of the building indicated Kahn’s incline towards the hybrid use of materials and methods of construction, in which he engaged both the archaic and the modern. The former for the brickwork, and the latter for the reinforced concrete.

The building even after completion, no doubt intended, shows traces of its construction. Above the entry stair in the great hall, a transfer beam is left open, in Kahn’s words to “dramatise the support15.” The buildings structure left exposed, telling the honest story of the distribution of load in the enormous building. From the outside, the building expresses its mass and weight, anchoring itself to the ground. Kahn does this by cleverly decreasing the width of the brick piers as the building rises, in turn increasing the width of the window openings between them, which as a whole forms a “statistically hierarchical” expression of the load-bearing brick walls16. The simple device employed by Kahn of thickening the structure where the load is the greatest, allows even the uninitiated to understand the buildings inherent structure. Kahn’s personal obligation to honour the nature of the material in construction can only be seen to have enhanced his belief that architecture was not merely just functional, but was a poetic synthesis of the needs of contemporary society.

Kahn’s realisation of the Phillips Exeter Academy Library is an exemplary example of the profound potential of architecture to enlighten the human spirit. The common beliefs shared by Boullée and Kahn in their tireless efforts to elevate their discipline have undoubtedly influenced and will continue to influence society’s perception of architecture. Their buildings, through the exploration of themes which can be deemed modern for their time, justifiably exude ‘monumentality’. Both architects realised the need for architecture to advance beyond the mere satisfaction of a program for a specific use, constantly alluding to a temporal flash of creative genius: ‘inspiration’. Kahn spoke of his emphasis on intuition in architecture, as he described it,

“The initial sketch depended on our intuitive sense of appropriateness. I teach only appropriateness.”

The reinterpretation of the common notion of space, as has been highlighted in the progressive thinking of both Boullée and Kahn, is a recurring theme in architecture, and one which will continue to surface in the the ever-present debate of the discipline.

1  Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos, Theoretician of Revolutionary Architecture (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), 41.

2  Robert McCarter, Louis I Kahn (London: Phaidon, 2005), 28.

3  Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos, Theoretician of Revolutionary Architecture (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), 37.

4  Robert McCarter, Louis I Kahn (London: Phaidon, 2005), 223.

5  Étienne-Louis Boullée, ‘Architecture, Essay on Art’, in Boullée & Visionary Architecture, ed. Helen Rosenau (London: Academy Editions, 1976), 83.

6  Étienne-Louis Boullée, ‘Architecture, Essay on Art’, in Boullée & Visionary Architecture, ed. Helen Rosenau (London: Academy Editions, 1976), 103.

7  Robert McCarter, Louis I Kahn (London: Phaidon, 2005), 306.

8  Robert McCarter, Louis I Kahn (London: Phaidon, 2005), 305.

9  Jean-Claude Lemagny, Visionary Architects: Boullée, Ledoux, Lequeu (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1968).

10  Étienne-Louis Boullée, ‘Architecture, Essay on Art’, in Boullée & Visionary Architecture, ed. Helen Rosenau (London: Academy Editions, 1976), 83.

11  Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos, Theoretician of Revolutionary Architecture (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), 44.

12  Robert McCarter, Louis I Kahn (London: Phaidon, 2005), 18.

13  Robert McCarter, Louis I Kahn (London: Phaidon, 2005), 20.

14  Robert McCarter, Louis I Kahn (London: Phaidon, 2005), 46.

15  Robert McCarter, Louis I Kahn (London: Phaidon, 2005), 313.

16  Robert McCarter, Louis I Kahn (London: Phaidon, 2005), 309.


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