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His Architect

1962 Graham Foundation studies for Center City Philadelphia plan diagram, ink. Louis Kahn.

A project to reissue Richard
Saul Wurman’s classic, long-out-of-print 1962 volume of Louis Kahn’s art.


“There are a lot of wonderful books on Lou Kahn,” says Richard Saul Wurman Ar’58
GAr’59, referring to the iconic 20th-century American architect. “And if
I was going to have just one book, it wouldn’t be mine.”

Wurman’s contribution to the Kahn canon was the 1962 volume The
Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn
. Ranging from sketches of ancient
ruins and European cityscapes, to pencil renderings of his own buildings (like
the Richards Medical Research Laboratories at Penn), to conceptual designs for
never-built proposals (like the architect’s radical plan to remake Center City
Philadelphia), the book’s eclectic survey of Kahn’s freehand art won many
admirers. And even if Wurman would pack a different volume for a proverbial
desert island, his own would probably make the cut if he had a whole shelf to
work with.

It has been out of print for decades, but this winter the publisher Designers & Books is launching the Louis I. Kahn Facsimile
Project (louisikahn.com), a Kickstarter campaign to publish an exact replica,
augmented by a reader’s guide to feature additional material, including some
drawn from Penn Architectural Archives, most of which has not been published
before.

Wurman recalls
encountering Kahn for the first time in 1955 as an architecture student at
Penn. “I saw this funny little man with a high-pitched, somewhat raggedy voice,
and an ill-tied bow tie,” he remembers. “He had this reputation among students,
but I’d never heard of him.” Wurman was captivated almost at once. “When he
said something, it was so simple, and it was the truth. And I realized I had
been brought up with people not telling truth—or not asking questions that
elicit the truth.”

Eventually Wurman took a job in Kahn’s private practice, where one day
he worked up the nerve to pitch his idea for a book.

“He said yes, which shocked me,” Wurman remembers. “He said, ‘Let’s go
pick out the pictures,’ and he opened the drawers.” Then Wurman sprung the
catch: he didn’t want Kahn to choose what to include; that would be Wurman’s
job alone.

“I didn’t want any photographs, and I didn’t want any beautiful
renderings,” Wurman says now. “I wanted developmental drawings. I wanted
drawings that showed his process and his mistakes as he drew: the struggle. I’m
very interested in failure and struggle as a way of moving forward.”

Kahn giggled, as
Wurman tells it, and let his former student proceed on his merry way.

Why exactly did
Wurman want to make precisely this kind of a book, with its jumble of quick
sketches, handwritten notes, draft drawings of projects that were later
refined, and grandiose ideas that were never built at all?

“So I could have
it by my bed,” he says, with a simplicity borne of a deep love for Kahn that
has never faded.

“Lou said to me once, ‘A good idea that doesn’t happen is no idea at
all,’” Wurman elaborates. “But I don’t judge it the way Lou judged it. He had ideas
that never got done that were still enormous contributions to the world of
architecture. He never did Mikvah Israel, he never did the Meeting House at
Salk, he never did the central synagogue in Jerusalem, he never did the
Goldenberg House. He got them up to a certain point, and I think they’re still
valued contributions.”

The Notebooks
and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn
did
not feature those particular examples but was created in that spirit.

“This book
should not be in competition with beautiful books, most of which are really
pretty good,” Wurman says. “There’s no beautiful photographs, or anything sexy
in that way. But there will be the thought in his drawings, the mistake, the
notes he left on them for what to do next. That, to me, is fascinating. It’s
much more alive than a photograph of a finished building.”—TP

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