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Happy Birthday to Louis Kahn!

kahn_jacketTo commemorate the birthday of Louis Kahn (1901-1974), George H. Marcus and William Whitaker, the authors of The Houses of Louis Kahn, share insight into the minds and personalities of two of Louis Kahn’s important patrons, Philip Q. Roche and Francis Heed Adler.

Louis Kahn, born into a poor Jewish family in Estonia, immigrated to the United States in 1906. Kahn received his training in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. Although trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition, Kahn was attracted to modernism in the late 1920 and his attraction would deepen into an intense love affair that would persist to the end of his career. His greatest works, such as the Salk Institute, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the National Assembly Complex in Bangladesh, marry the elegance of the Beaux-Arts tradition with the simplicity and crispness of the modernism.

Although Kahn is widely admired for these monumental architectural works, his smaller scale designs are also richly deserving of investigation. In The Houses of Louis Kahn, Marcus and Whitaker offer us the first serious examination of Kahn’s nine major private houses and Kahn’s relationship with each of the projects’ patrons. The friendships that Kahn developed with these patrons contributed to the evolution of his modernist style.


George H. Marcus and William Whitaker on Louis Kahn—

Often when one writes a book, intriguing bits of research get left on the cutting-room floor, for however interesting they may be, they are not central to its argument. This happened when we were writing our book The Houses of Louis Kahn. We were trying to find out as much as we could about the clients who commissioned Kahn’s houses so that we would understand more clearly the interaction between architect and client and thus be able to throw light on his design process. We also wanted to introduce our readers to the householders who had been bold enough to commission modern houses when modern was still a questionable investment. However, two of Kahn’s clients, our research revealed, needed no introduction to the literary world for they had already been profiled in other books.

The first was Philip Q. Roche, the force behind the second private house that Kahn designed, built between 1945 and 1949. At the time Roche asked Kahn to design the house, he had just resigned from his position as head psychiatrist at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, where the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton had served as his secretary. The two had developed a close relationship, and Sutton’s autobiography Where the Money Was, written in 1976, offers a colorful and admiring description of Roche at work:

Dr. Roche was one of the leading psychiatrists in Philadelphia. He had an extensive private practice, was on a number of hospital staffs, and he also taught at the University of Pennsylvania.  A wealthy man in his own right, he had married a woman from an even wealthier Main Line family. But where others in his field talked about rehabilitation and then turned up their noses at the relatively low pay scale offered by the prison system, Dr. Roche put himself right on the line. . . . Although he commanded a high fee, I suppose, as anybody in the business, he had taken the criminal law as his field of expertise and so he went where the criminals were.  .  .  .

Dr. Roche was some man. As fragile and delicate as he looked, he had the courage of a lion. Some inmate who had gone on a rampage would be brought into the office, bound and cuffed, and the first thing Dr. Roche would do was order the guards to uncuff him and, with a wave of the hand, send them away.  After the guards had left, shaking their heads, the doctor would invite the prisoner to sit down, give him a cigarette, and smile at him as one human being to another who had found themselves in a ridiculous situation. It never failed. No matter how disturbed the inmate seemed to be, he would always respond with a smile of his own.

Although Roche may have been remarkably understanding while on duty, he seems to have been quite a different person at home. He must have been very opinionated and have had considerable conflicts with Kahn for his wife Jocelyn remembered that building their house was “a two-years’ trip to hell.”

The second client who appeared in a memoir, also a doctor, was Francis Heed Adler, a noted Philadelphia ophthalmologist, whose revised 1950s book Physiology of the Eye is still being used as a text today. In 1954, probably at the prompting of his wife Marty, the couple commissioned what turned out to be one of the key designs in Kahn’s attempt to rethink the American private house, which he conceived as an ordered series of individual pavilions each exactly the same size. Adler, an accomplished violinist, played in a string quartet with the noted biographer Catherine Drinker Bowen and appears as Dr. Retinus in her 1935 memoir Friends and Fiddlers:

Dr. Retinus, a second violin in our Tuesday-night quartet, is an ophthalmologist, with an impressive office in the city. I know this office; I took my small boy there to have his eyes examined. There were lady secretaries and outsized telescopes and Turkey carpets and fine etchings—and on the mantel a familiar black fiddle case. “But of course I bring it to town!’ cried Dr Retinus. “I practice every day after office hours.”

And so he does. This man’s days, filled with delicate eye operations, with lectures delivered at the university, with scientific papers read in distant cities, with the writing of a large green book about eyes—this man’s days include an hour’s practice on the lowly violin. Fiddling. From whence the ancient scornful connotation of that word?

“Fiddling?” cried Dr. Retinus, leaping to his feet, standing thus between telescope and violin case— “Fiddling? I couldn’t live without it.”

And he threw out his left arm, the fingers crooked eagerly about an imaginary finger board. He grinned. “Till Tuesday!” he said as I took my leave.

 

Adler, almost sixty when the house was newly commissioned, wrote Kahn with excitement: “Marty and I are like the young married couple told for the first time by the obstetrician they are going to have a baby. We can’t wait til we see what it looks like.” They were “both confident,” he continued, “that you are going to create the most beautiful and functional house ever built.” It was not to be, however, for zoning regulations got in the way and they were never able to build their house.

In researching The Houses of Louis Kahn, we got to know a number of Kahn’s clients and their families, and met as well with many other people who had firsthand knowledge of his houses and his design method. But, of course, there were many people long gone who we could not meet, and colorful fragments such as these gave us a wonderful insight into some of their lives even if they could not be included on our book.


The Houses of Louis Kahn is a scrupulously detailed and magnificently illustrated exploration of Kahn’s extraordinary, but until now overlooked, houses. The Houses of Louis Kahn was written by George H. Marcus, adjunct assistant professor of the history of art at the University of Pennsylvania, and William Whitaker, the curator of the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania and published by Yale University Press.

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