There are many well-known architects in the world and a smaller few that stands to be well heard of even outside of the architecture world. One of those is Louis Kahn. He is one of the most highly acclaimed architects of the 20th century and was well known for designing architecture that merges modernity with poetic flare. It is common to acknowledge that Kahn’s designs played an important role in 20th-century modernism. 

Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn was born in a poor Jewish family in 1901 in Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky, now known as Estonia. He and his family soon later moved to Philadelphia. Growing up poor, Louis Kahn made and sold drawings of his own. With the little money they had, he had to burn twigs to create charcoal twigs that he could use to draw. Apart from this, he too played the piano for the soundtrack of silent movies in the theatres to earn extra money. 

Kahn held extraordinary talent since he was young and soon fell in love with architecture when he took a course in it in his final year at Philadelphia Central High School. He was even awarded a full paid scholarship to study arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts but decided to turn it down and took up jobs so he could pursue a bachelor’s in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts. 

He spent his education there studying a version of Beaux-Arts that strays away from the use of excessive ornamentation. Kahn graduated and later opened his architectural firm in 1935.

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Louis Kahn ©MoMA

Richards Medical Research Laboratories

Louis Kahn has designed many popular buildings from Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, Salk Institute and Kimbell Art Museum. However, amongst the buildings mentioned we have Richards Medical Research Laboratories (RMRL) which stems to be one of his few buildings that are iconic and considered to have been a breakthrough in his career. 

Kahn was commissioned for RMRL in 1957 and completed the building in 1960. Kahn also designed the building by observing the scientists that work in laboratories. RMRL was widely acclaimed by the architectural community but criticised by scientists which are the users of the space. 

In the building, laboratories were housed in 3 towers that are attached to the sides of a fourth tower that sits in the middle of the space. Each of the towers is of eight floors and is of an area of 14m square. The central spaces of each of the towers were designed to be open spaces that are free of stairs, elevators, and any columns. This begs to question, how is this building structure like? Well, each tower has 8 external columns that sit to the four edges of each floor at third-point locations (points which divide the tower into three equal parts). This means to say that the columns were also designed to be exposed to capture that this material is bearing weight. 

The overall building structure is also of reinforced concrete instead of the conventional hidden steel frame that is commonly used during that time. The support structure consisted of pre-stressed concrete that was prepared off-site and brought on-site for assembly. Furthermore, the structure of RMRL and the use of precisely formed prefabricated concrete elements help advance the study of the art and use of reinforced concrete in buildings. 

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Aerial View of Richards Medical Research Laboratories © Louis Kahn

With the placement of the columns to be placed externally and at precise points, it allowed Kahn to cantilever corners on each floor which he filled them with windows. Attached to the towers are vertical shafts that either hold exhaust ducts or stairwells. The vertical shafts serve to be the outstanding aspect of the building façade and were made from cast-in-place concrete and cladding with brick. 

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Richards Medical Research Laboratories ©Nicky Rhodes on Architect Magazine

Served and Servant

What contributed to Louis Kahn’s career breakthrough is his clarity of the articulation and translation of the concept of the servant and served spaces. The served spaces are the laboratories whereas the servant spaces are the independent vertical shafts that are designed to be attached to the sides of the towers. 

The distinction of the two was important to Kahn as he wanted to ensure that the doors in the building act as a divider to the spaces where the scientist would work and that of service spaces such as the stairwells, animal quarters or other services. By doing this, Kahn managed to eliminate all internal obstructions and enhance the interior space of the laboratory towers with an open space concept. 

Soon later, architects like Richard Rogers took inspiration from this concept and designed buildings that expose the service spaces and concealed the servant spaces. Take Llyod’s of London Building or the Centre of Georges Pompidou as an example.

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Richards Medical Research Laboratories Service Space ©MORE

Controversy

Amidst the iconicity of this building that contributed to 20th-century modernism, controversial opinions of this building arise. Many architects adored RMRL whereas the scientists that use the space criticised the building. As for Louis Kahn, he viewed RMRL as an attempt to improve and enhance the work-life of the scientists. He views architecture as a form of art that has a realm of its own and architects as separate to that of the public. Viewing architecture as a form. 

To certain measures, RMRL was designed with good intentions even though it backfired. There is a blurred line in distinguishing the wants or designs of an architect and the needs and requirements of a client. In this case, Kahn has failed to find the middle ground of his design with the needs of the client. 

Unfortunately, too many, he has fallen short in meeting the client’s needs but instead feeds towards his design intent. This questions the need and the viewpoint of architects as many to all architects find this building to be of greatness whereas to the generality of the public and its users, it is off and not of good design. 

All in all, architects need to put the social aspects and experience of users of the space first before their design philosophy or intentions. Surely the design intent and concept of the ‘Served and Servant’ spaces is that of a great concept and could have served the masses well. However, for the scientists that enjoy solitude and quiet spaces, the open concept in the Richards Medical Research Laboratories may not have been ideal for them despite them.

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Scientist in a Research Laboratory ©Bert Anderson

References

Leslie, Thomas (2005). Louis I. Kahn: Building Art, Building Science. New York: George Braziller, Inc. ISBN 0-8076-1543-9.

Gutman, Robert Human Nature in Architectural Theory: The Example of Louis Kahn

Author

Currently an architecture student in National University of Singapore (NUS), she wishes to eventually live in a van, swims with whales and delve into different works of arts. An avid learner who strives to be of an all-rounded individual, she too is a lover of words, psychology, and human experiences.

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