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College of Architecture, Art and Planning

Roberto Einaudi on Louis Kahn

We’ve all heard of Louis Kahn. Time and time again, we are taught of his work in studio, history, theory… we find him in our textbooks, in ArchDaily Classics. To us, architecture students of the 21st century, he is just a historical figure. I never thought of his works as relevant to us.

On Thursday, we had the pleasure of attending Roberto Einaudi lecture, Italian-American architect that once worked with Kahn, who spoke about Kahn’s “personality, philosophy and his teachings”.

Prof. Goehner introduced Einaudi, highlighting his involvement in Cornell AAP: Einaudi graduated from Cornell’s B.Arch program in 1961, and later founded the Cornell in Rome program, back then located in Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne. During his term as Director, he hired Anna Rita Flati, who retired just last year. His relationship with Cornell does not end there: the Mario Einaudi Center of International Studies is named after his father who was a Cornell Professor. You can continue reading morer about him in a Cornell Chronicle article.

Einaudi began studying in Cornell in 1956. He asked us how many of us do internships in architecture firms over the summer, and around half of us raised our hands. That was how he first met Kahn – through an internship after his first year. I wonder how different our first-year curriculum was back then. What he enjoyed most about his experience in Kahn’s firm was how much he got to be part of the design process. That’s something I lacked this past summer when I worked in Hong Kong; I had wished my boss would involve me more in the creative aspect of design. Kahn on the other hand would talk to Einaudi about his thoughts, and often him and the other interns/colleagues would stay up late talking to him. People around him will call him “Lou”.

Louis Kahn’s architectural philosophy stems from his perception of life and nature. “He was more than an architect; he was a philosopher, a poet, and a teacher,” Einaudi said. Kahn left behind a series of sketches, which Einaudi shared with us. However, the sketches Kahn made in Rome were lost, so instead we got to see a glimpse of Einaudi’s work: colourful crayon and coloured pencil or sepia marker drawings of people and places. Sketching, to Kahn and to Einaudi, is a way of seeing. Today, we often document with our smartphones.

Of Rome and Italy, which was the main focus of the lecture, Kahn said: “I finally realised that architecture of Italy will remain a source of inspiration for future, work, for those who do not see it that way, should see it again, our things seem small in comparison.” Art and architecture and of that time (and of today as well) had forgotten the past and it is important to reexamine it, Kahn argued. I’m sure our history professors will much agree to this. 

Here, it is important to note that these quotes by Kahn were never written by him. He was not a writer, and all his quotes were jotted down by his colleagues and friends.

From ancient Roman architecture, Kahn was inspired by its use of materials (brick faced concrete) and forms (arches, domes, circles, squares), and most importantly the use of light in space. “A space can never reach its space in architecture without natural light. Artificial light is light of night, structure is designed with light: the dome, arch, column. Natural light gives mood to a space… as it enters and modifies the space.” There are many examples of this influence in his works, such as in Phillips Exeter Academy’s library, where a triangular shape over the skylight filters in light similar to the Pantheon, which was his favorite building. He did not view it as many beaux arts architect did as they copied it throughout the world, but was interested by its use of light and materials, and the symbol of as a shrine to all religions. If architecture is a world within a world, this building, Kahn said, represents that concept very well.

Many of his sketches deal with light and shadow, such as his drawing of the Palatine hill, where the buttresses and the shadows casted by them dominate the drawing. The Abngladesh parliament recalls materials of imperial Roman place on Palatine hill, of its and sharp contrast between light and shadow. Kahn transformed the forms into his own architecture. 

The influence of Roman materials is best exemplified in his concrete projects, such as the Sulk Institute for Biologial Studies, where he used concrete with volcanic ash based on Roman techniques that adds a pinkish glow. His exposed concrete has all the marks of its regular mold and tie holes. Kahn was also a pioneer in concrete building in the United States. The same glow in concrete can be seen in National Assembly hall of Bangladesh, where the central form resembles the Pantheon and other elements surround the central circle. The sense of monumentality and use of arches/circles/triangles all come from his study of Rome. 

The India Institute of Management was completed after his death, and represents the culmination of his thoughts about the construction of a school. On the formation of a place of learning, he would say: “A school begins with a man under a tree. A man who did not know he was a teacher. Discussing his realization with a few others who did not know they were students. They would tell their sons also to listen to such a man. Soon spaces were enriched and the first schools would come into existence.”  Kahn believed that spaces should be sympathetic to learning. The idea of the tree can still be seen today; the campus has trees planted all around. Local brick material was used for construction, and the bricks formed arches and shaded walkways that offer spaces for students and teachers to stop and talk. The project was a re-examination of materials, structure, form, and light, and a quest for meaningful light in search of beginnings; a spiritual resource where modern man can draw inspiration.

His inspiring lecture was followed by a brief Q&A session, with refreshments to follow.

Someone who seemed so distant just a few days ago was made real by Einaudi. Kahn’s work could be not more relevant to us studying in Rome and learning firsthand from the Eternal City.

I do wish, however, that we got to hear about Einaudi’s own work as well (such as the renovation of American Academy of Rome, where we recently visited in the Contemporary Rome seminar class). His sketches that he shared with us were fantastic, and I’m sure there’s so much we can learn from him as well. Maybe next time.

By Ami Kurosaki

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