In 1961, Fine Arts Foundation approached architect Louis I. Kahn to design a comprehensive arts complex in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This large-scale Fine Art Centre which is now called Arts United Centre was supposed to facilitate a community of 180,000 by designing a complex housing a theatre, an orchestra, gallery, school, and much more. The developers of this complex had hoped to inject a new life in the city through the upgraded civic infrastructure. However, these ambitious plans were only realized in part due to budget constraints. It is not as well-known as other projects by Kahn and remains his only built structure in Midwest.
Kahn and his office worked on numerous options for this comprehensive project from 1961 to 1964. Kahn’s original intention was to have a single entrance for all activities as revealed by an assembly of models held by MoMA. An enhanced scheme seems to have been developed by 1964. The site plan shows a program of nine buildings encircling the courts and gardens located centrally in the site. In this version, the Performing Arts Theatre was linked to the Philharmonic Hall by an octagonal annex. A central courtyard linked these two theatres to the Art Museum, Historical Museum, Amphitheatre, etc. The school of art was contained in four separate buildings at the edge of the site. Kahn saw the innate connectivity between these diverse spaces and it reflected in how he developed the concept into design. In his own words:
“There is an entity present: the philharmonic is dependent on the art school, the art school on the civic theatre, the civic theatre on the ballet, and so forth. And it is so: the plan is so made that you feel one building is dependent on the other…” “…I’ve found the extra quality, which makes the coming together more than what they are when the buildings are separated from each other”.
However, as the funding for the entirety of the project became unlikely, focus shifted from the design of an arts complex to the design of Theatre of Performing Arts. Kahn’s concept for the structure was based on the idea of a violin and its case. The violin was the motif for the inner hall with its concrete faceted panels and the case stood for the brick exterior which housed lobbies and other necessary spaces such as the entryways, ticketing area, promenades, and other facilities. The thought is that the case could function as the violin case independently from the contents inside. Kahn commented on the concept saying:
“I am building a theatre in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and having observed theatres, I concluded that one must regard the auditorium and the stage as a violin, a sensitive instrument where one should be able to hear, even a whisper, without any amplification. The lobbies and all other adjunct spaces may be compared to the violin case. The violin and its case are completely different.”
Kahn was interested in classical ruins and this reflected in his other works such as the Phillips Exeter Library, New Hampshire. The library was conceptualized as three rings of ruin like structures. The notion of building within a building as expressed by the violin in its case also reflects the same. Kahn’s approach to the design was to award a sense of importance to the various events occurring at the theatre, superior acoustics, and simplicity of structure. The materials employed for these tasks were concrete, brick, and oak. True to Kahn’s design aesthetic, the building is monolithic and monumental and historically rooted though it represents modern architecture.
Apart from the concrete interior, the most captivating element of the design is the anthropomorphic façade. Two broad, brick arches and a sunken entryway create the illusion of a face or a mask. The arches represent the eyes while the entrance represents the mouth. The two arches frame the gathering spaces on the upper floor. The single entryway as a focal point is a concept from the original master plan as Kahn wanted to delineate movement and reveal the life within the building.
Kahn’s office completed the working drawings for the theatre by the summer of 1970 and construction started shortly thereafter. What started as a complex of nine structures ended with one solitary building being constructed. In the end, the project became a shadow of its initial concept and never fully manifested Kahn’s concept of interrelated spaces of arts. Kahn had said:
“Form is that which deals with inseparable parts,”
“If you take one thing away, you don’t have the whole thing, and nothing is ever really fully answerable to that which man wants to accept as part of his way of life unless all its parts are together.”
The theatre was inaugurated in 1973, a year before Kahn’s death in 1974.