What a Building Wants to Be/ Louis Khan at Vitra

The term master builder, most of the time, refers to those pre-Renaissance individuals who were at the helm of both designing and building their projects. Architecture changed considerably as design became specialized – and in the 19th century, professionalized – which had major effect not just on process, but on the functions and aesthetics of modern urban design. Louis Khan is considered one of the 20th century’s master builders; an architect who, from start to finish, evoked an archaic sense of grandeur and a mastery over his broad palette.

The Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Switzerland is hosting the first major retrospective of this American architect – himself of Estonian birth but raised in Philadelphia – to be held in two decades. The renowned planner and designer of buildings such as the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is given deserving attention and breadth with the exhibition.

Opened in February of this year and finishing August 11,  the exhibition is aptly titled “Louis Khan: The Power of Architecture.” It contains models, original drawings and watercolor paintings, photographs, and film footage shot by Nathaniel Khan, who directed a film about his father called “My Architect.” The exhibit tells a biographical story, as well as a narrative concerning the development of his work.

Khan was a prodigious self-documenter throughout the concepting and creation processes of all his work. “The Power of Architecture” displays a robust collection of documents detailing all his major works. They demonstrate his movement from early urban planning designs and single-family homes to the edifying, truly-grand structures of ancient proportion. The chronicles and models are buttressed by Khan’s own words printed on the walls, which were often as symbolic and instructive as his buildings.

The impressively diverse collection showcases Kahn’s oeuvre, characterized by a far reaching, modernist’s vocabulary – from complex spatial compositions, to brutalist forms, to styles borrowing from the Bauhaus and Arts and Crafts movements. Khan melded the moral vigor of traditional architecture and design with the then forward-looking emphasis on technology, local resources and elements such as air and light.

“Louis Khan: The Power of Architecture” is an ambitious undertaking, but it contains the tools, materials, and wherewithal necessary in communicating the formidable force of Khan’s vision and lineage.

Rob Goyanes

“Louis Khan: The Power of Architecture,” at the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Switzerland. 

February 23, 2013 – August 11, 2013