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Celebrating a Legend: Louis Kahn

The San Diego Museum of Art delves into the genesis of the remarkable Salk Institute and other masterworks by the architect


La Jolla’s Salk Institute | Photo: Paul Body

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Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture
November 5, 2016–January 31, 2017

Louis Kahn was a late bloomer. He had long been a revered architecture teacher, first at Yale and then at the University of Pennsylvania. But he had never been completely happy with any of his buildings until Salk Institute for Biological Studies went up in its picturesque form in La Jolla. It was completed in 1965, when Kahn was 64.

You might say it was a meeting of far-reaching minds that led to this great achievement. Dr. Jonas Salk, a visionary of medical research who changed the world by creating a vaccine for polio, personally selected Kahn to create a campus unlike any other.

No less a contemporary than I. M. Pei, designer of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., called the Salk Institute a masterpiece. It may be an overused term, but Pei was right—in this case, the superlative fits.

The Steven and Toby Korman House in Pennsylvania | Photo by Barry Halkin

The La Jolla Museum of Art celebrated Kahn and the institute’s completion in 1965, but there were no further exhibitions of his work in San Diego—until now. Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture, the largest look at the architectural visionary in 25 years, is on view at the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) from November 5 through January 31, 2017.

In the projects that followed Salk, all chronicled in this exhibition, Kahn created a string of remarkable structures that include the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (1966–72) and the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, begun in 1962 and completed nearly a decade after Kahn’s death in 1974. They secured his reputation as one of the great architects of the 20th century and one with continuing relevance in the 21st. The show at SDMA is thick with detailed models of projects built and unbuilt, as well as numerous drawings, new photographs, and film footage of Kahn speaking and giving interviews.

“He is a master of the modern movement, but he also offered a critique of it,” explains Can Bilsel, a professor of art history and architecture at the University of San Diego and a noted architectural historian. “He tried to humanize the modern movement. He was both a culmination of modernism and a critic of it.”

The Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania houses the world’s largest collection of the artist’s material; its director, William Whitaker, worked closely with the curators of the show, which he says offers “new ways to look at the legacy of Kahn.”

Kahn working on the Fisher House design, 1961 | Photo courtesy Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

In 1991, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles presented a chronological exhibition called In the Realm of Architecture. The show at SDMA focuses instead on themes, such as technology and science or architectural ruins, to highlight some of Kahn’s key interests. Executive Director Roxana Velasquez characterizes this as “an immersive exhibition.” And because the museum is only 15 miles from Salk itself, visitors inspired by the sprawling show can enjoy a different kind of immersive experience later through the institute’s architectural tours, given at noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Though Kahn’s greatness was recognized in his lifetime, he struggled financially and died in debt. “He was a mystic and couldn’t talk business,” Frank Gehry observed in My Architect, a 2003 documentary by Kahn’s son, Nathaniel. Gehry also credited Kahn’s example as a reason why he became an architect.

Kahn’s complex personal story became more widely known with My Architect. A screening of the film on January 13 is among several events planned in conjunction with the exhibition, including an opening-day symposium.

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