Louis Kahn, a late Modernist, was one of the finest architects, known for combining modernism with the majesty of ancient monuments. Kahn’s work was seemingly simplistic but had layers of incredible programmatic complexity and design innovation. He felt that architecture should address not only the functional and aesthetic needs of the people and communities it serves but also their humanistic and spiritual needs. To raise architecture from the construction of utilitarian forms to meaningful spaces, Kahn took it upon himself to incorporate the intangible and immeasurable values conveyed by the institutions he constructed, whether it was a place of worship, a school, or a residence. This, along with his meticulous attention to programmatic detail and construction, as well as his interest in the inspirational and transcendent qualities of architectural spaces, distinguished him from other architects of the period. One of his lesser known but not less impressive works, First Unitarian Church of Rochester, is an embodiment of all his values.
As a part of Rochester’s downtown redevelopment plan, the original church on Temple Street which had been designed by the first president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Richard Upjohn, was demolished leaving no place for the unitarian congregation to convene in. Louis Kahn was one of several architects considered to design the new building, including Eero Saarinen and Walter Gropius. His dedication to modern architecture, a personal philosophy that naturally aligned with Unitarianism’s principles, and his dedication to developing each new building as a completely unique project earned him the congregation’s trust in 1954. This structure too was designed with Kahn’s modernist style with a play of light and shadow that evokes spirituality.
Along a residential landscape mostly consisting of detached houses with generational families, the church perfectly sits on the site’s set back from Winton Road on flat and level ground. The site has a major slope that gradients towards the eastern end. On the west, across from the church is the Temple Beth El, a mid-twentieth century brick Jewish temple complex. Kahn’s church was not monumental when compared to a gothic church, but it fits beautifully into the context and was monumental with respect to it.
Louis Kahn was known for infusing culture into modern architecture and generating a feeling of place. The sanctuary of the First Unitarian Church mixes a modern design style with historic Unitarian beliefs to encourage the community and bring everyone together. When Kahn first started meeting with the members of the church, the Unitarian church and its aspirations of rationalism, free will and thought and the coexistence of science and religion were discussed at length. Following these conversations, Kahn began conceptualizing the church’s supporting spaces around a central question mark. The form realization of the unitarian activity was tied to the question- the question eternal of why anything.
The original church was more than just a church to the community. The 1800s had the church functioning as late evening classrooms and supported other activities for the low-income neighborhood. Then in the 1930s, to support the community through difficult times and provide accommodations, the church also acted as office space for Planned Parenthood. Kahn wanted to bring the essence of this community building into his church.
Initial plan and problems
In the initial design, Kahn had started off by drawing a square for the sanctuary and surrounded it with more concentric squares, representing corridors, ambulatory, and the school. Initially, the complex had three levels with a complex dome structure for the four leveled sanctuary. The plan was rejected by the committee due to its rigidity and expensiveness. There was a lack of classroom spaces and the pupils could access the space to observe the services which could have caused a disturbance.
Solution and new plan
Kahn then broke down the rigid square into elongated rooms by removing the ambulatory spaces and keeping the corridors to provide connection to the classrooms. To avoid disturbing the services, he placed the classrooms in a separate wing. There is a sense of regularity in the lighting of the classrooms since they are arranged around the perimeter of the building. Extruded window wells on the façade filter light into the classrooms. For the children, each extrusion forms a small seating area.
Because the sanctuary sits in the middle of the structure, bringing natural light into the space is tricky. To resolve this Kahn designed four light towers, one for each corner of the sanctuary. The towers operate as filters, saturating the sanctuary with light throughout the day and constantly changing the space’s perceptual qualities as the seasons change. The light enhanced and provoked the space’s expressive material attributes. The ambiance and character of the interiors were accentuated by Kahn’s use of simple materials that did not require any further detailing after construction. The unfinished aesthetic appears to dematerialize each space’s attributes, resulting in a new aesthetic discovered in the details and light. The rough finish of the cast-in-place concrete and brick interior of the sanctuary appears to wash away in the light, lending light deconstructive properties while the material takes on luminous qualities that engulf and alter the space. Kahn left visible gaps where different types of materials meet, highlighting the differences between them.
The Comlongon Castle, a rudimentary Scottish castle, served as inspiration for the church’s exterior design. The building has a tremendous presence because of Kahn’s use of brick and cast-in-place concrete. A series of narrow, two-story hoods function as a shading element on the building’s facade, creating intensely folded brick walls. The light well envelops the ground-floor cubical sanctuary and includes bench seats inside with windows on either side to bring light in indirectly. The lightwells provide a contrasting appearance by allowing the upper half of the sanctuary to appear solid and giving the impression of height. At the same time, the building’s lower-level functions as a void that only illuminates the humans. These light wells provide a fascinating shadow play on the outside wall with the verticality of the shadows giving the impression of height and monumentality to the viewer. Even though the main entrance is not visible from the main street, the four hooded light wells that protrude from the center make it simple to see from the outside. Kahn enclosed the sanctuary within the ambulatory to give the impression of a box within a box, meaning that the sanctuary was rooted within a larger building.
The First Unitarian Church is one of Kahn’s finest examples of how architecture can improve people’s lives, not just through light and design, but through theoretical knowledge and reorganization of space. He created a beautiful, humble environment in which man might appreciate and comprehend God. The structure views religion as a choice rather than an obligation. It skillfully portrays a sense of eternity without being overbearing, allowing the viewer to experience the tranquility inside himself rather than having it be unattainable. The church is simple but striking, multifaceted yet subtle.
- ArchDaily. 2022. AD Classics: First Unitarian Church of Rochester / Louis Kahn. [online] Available at: <https://www.archdaily.com/84267/ad-classics-first-unitarian-church-of-rochester-louis-kahn> [Accessed 12 May 2022].
- Bafna, S., 2005. Symbolic construction in non-discursive media: The design development of Kahn’s Unitarian Church in Rochester. Georgia Institute of Technology, USA.
- First Unitarian Church. 2022. Our Landmark Site. [online] Available at: <https://rochesterunitarian.org/landmark-site/> [Accessed 16 May 2022].
- UKEssays. November 2018. Feelings Evoked by Kahn’s Design of the First Unitarian Church. [online]. Available from: https://www.ukessays.com/essays/architecture/feelings-evoked-by-kahns-design-of-the-first-unitarian-church.php?vref=1 [Accessed 16 May 2022].