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September 23, 2011

Architectural Field Trip – Kahn In Venice

Architectural Field Trip
Kahn in Venice Exhibition
Italian Cultural Institute
Los Angeles, California

“Venice is an architecture of joy. Working on my project, I was constantly thinking as if I was asking each building I love so much in Venice whether they would accept me in their company.” –Louis I. Kahn

Site model of Palazzao Congressi, Venice.

Site model of Kahn's Palazzo Congressi at the Arsenale site.

I was delighted to discover that my recent trip to LA overlapped with the Italian Cultural Institute’s “Kahn in Venice” exhibit.  I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas not far from Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, and I catalogued many hours there, not appreciating the art collection as much as its backdrop.  Kahn visited Italy twice, in 1928-9 and again in 1950, and he celebrated its classical forms by reinterpreting them for the modern world in many of his works, from the Kimbell’s cycloid vaults to the Salk Institute’s piazza. He evolved the International Style into an architecture that is humanistic, intimate and site specific.

The centerpiece of the Institute’s exhibit is Kahn’s design for the Palazzo Congressi in Venice, represented in original site models, renderings, and lively hand drawings with notes like, “We like this (for the moment),” scribbled in the margins.

Palazzo Congressi sketch

'We like this (for the moment).'

Like so many of his masterworks, Palazzo Congressi is unbuilt. The project, which was awarded in 1968, was designed for the Giardini of Venice and then relocated to the Arsenale when the first site was deemed too sensitive, where it was to bridge a canal, much like the Rialto. But the project ran aground before Kahn’s death in 1974 when the funding from Rome failed to arrive.

Rather than regret the building that wasn’t, I appreciated the exhibit’s masterpieces in miniature: a series of 20 pastel, charcoal and watercolor sketches that reveal Italy through Kahn’s eyes.

Watercolor sketches.

Prior to pursuing architecture, Kahn intended to be a painter. Watercolor is a finicky and unforgiving medium, and Kahn uses it adeptly to express the light, color, and atmosphere in Italy.

His works from the 1920s remind me of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors—formal, precise, exacting in their detail—whereas the later works are loose and dramatic—expressive of the essence of the place, rather than its minute detail. These drawings, both formal investigations and quick studies, were magnetic in that they suggest a transformation in the way he approached design, moving away from the formality of his Beaux Arts education and the stiffness of the International Style into a modernism that reflected his beliefs about what architecture should do for and say about the people who use it. It was all I could do not to snatch one or two of my favorites off the wall, tuck them under my arm and make for the exit, slowly, so as not to attract attention.

Basilica of San Marco - Pastel sketch

This pastel sketch from Kahn's second visit to Italy in 1950 uses sensuous color and dynamic gestures to illustrate the energy of the Basilica.



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