George H. Marcus and William Whitaker,
The Houses of Louis Kahn
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013) 269 pages with many illustrations and photographs in both color and black and white.
The book opens on its flyleaf with a quote from Louis Kahn himself. The quotation ends with the sentence: "I even learned that a simple house, which was never a consideration in my training, became something of importance". This observation can be extended out to this book. With all the interest and scholarly research directed at Kahn's monumental and civic work, little has been written and published about his residential oeuvre. In that sense the book is "something of importance".
The book is divided in two distinct parts. The first half discusses the evolution of Kahn's residential architecture in general and the second half is a detailed discussion of the nine major residential commissions lavishly illustrated with color photography. In sketching the evolution of the residential work one of the more surprising aspects is Kahn's involvement with other well-known architects of the period in the design of housing projects, frequently so-called social housing. He collaborated with Oscar Stonorov, Henry Klumb, Louis Magaziner and George Howe to name a few.
The analysis of the houses themselves traces the development of Kahn's thinking about the concept of house and home and the resultant architectural form. This section is not only illustrated with images of the houses themselves but, more importantly, with sketches and drawings by Kahn or those working for him in his office. Aside from giving an insight in the architecture itself it also provides an interesting view of what practice for residential architecture was like in the immediate postwar period. Working drawings are visually carefully composed graphics juxtaposing details and plans next to each other on a sheet in a way long since abandoned because more detail and information is required today for construction. However, these early drawings with their minimal technical detail but issued for permit or construction more succinctly conveys the design concept.
The second part of the general analysis is interesting because of its attention to furniture and furnishings as well as the overall materiality of the buildings. References to other architects and designers of the period help to place the work in its context. The extensive use of wood by the architect who is so connected to the use of concrete in his more monumental buildings is perhaps the most surprising for many people. However, juxtaposing natural materials and finishes with rougher (concrete) or smoother (marble) textures is evident throughout his work.
The final half of the book is dedicated to a detailed discussion of the various houses. Here again the splendid recent color photography is used next to Kahn's own sketches and drawings as well as earlier black and white photographs. While Kahn over time became more and more busy with the larger civic projects, he continued doing residential work till his death in 1974.
This book is an important addition to the scholarship about Louis Kahn by addressing a portion of his oeuvre lesser known but certainly not less significant.