Between The Silence and The Light
Architecture is a meeting place between the measurable and the unmeasurable. The art of design is not only rooted in the aesthetic form, but in the soul of the work. In Phenomena and Idea, Stephen Holl once wrote, ” The thinking-making couple of architecture occurs in silence. Afterward, these “thoughts” are communicated in the silence of phenomenal experiences. We hear the “music” of architecture as we move through spaces while arcs of sunlight beam white light and shadow.” Undoubtedly, Holl adopted this concept from its author, Louis I. Kahn.
Unquestionably, I am referring to “Silence and Light”, a concept created and nurtured by Khan, and one that dominated the later half of his work. Kahn had chosen the word Silence to define the unmeasurable or that which has not yet come to be. According to Khan, the unmeasurable is the force that propels the creative spirit toward the measurable, to the Light. When the inspired has reached that which is, that which known, he has reached the Light.
Eloquently expressing the architect’s passion for design, Khan wrote “Inspiration is the of feeling at the beginning at the threshold where Silence and Light meet. Silence, the unmeasurable, desire to be. Desire to express, the source of new need, meets Light, the measurable, giver of all presence, by will, by law, the measure of thing already made, at a threshold which is inspiration, the sanctuary of art, the treasury of shadow.” Khan believed that in order for architectural theory to be credible, it had to be constructed. Thirty years ago, Khan began one of his most successful executions of the Silence and Light with the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy.
This New Hampshire landmark physically illustrates and ideologically embodies many of Khan’s concepts and incorporates many of his beliefs, synthesizing them into a tight little package with a powerful punch. The subtleties of materiality coupled with multiple plays of light truly embody the spirit of Khan’s philosophy at Exeter Academy. As Stephen Holl concisely expresses “Architecture is born when actual phenomena and the idea that drives it intersect?Meanings show through at this intersection of concept and experience.” It is exactly Khan’s blending of idea and design that makes this building a model for theoretical execution in design.
The following essay will explore the many architectural implementations of Khan’s theories from materials, to form, to function and to the Silence and Light. This investigation shall probe the ideology in conjunction with its realization to the approach, the circulation, the enclosure and the details. Additionally, the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy shall be analyzed in relationship to his theories on education, institutions and learning. As the quote “I asked the building what it wanted to be” has been often attributed to Louis Khan, I shall ask the question, “What did Khan want the building to be, and how did he approach this challenge?”
Institutions and Education
Khan believed that “Institution stems from the inspiration to live. This inspiration remains meekly expressed in our institutions today. The three great inspirations are the inspiration to learn, the inspiration to meet, and the inspiration for well being”. The architecture of Exeter Library captures the essence of these inspirations, offering opportunities for all of them to blossom. Khan continued “They all serve, really, the will to be, to express. This is, you might say, the reason for living”. It is this inspiration that enlivens the spirits of the students, and motivates them to study and learn. I may suggest then, that if the purpose of the institution lies within the Silence, then its physical materialization becomes the Light.
If we assume that the desire to seek truth and universal knowledge is rooted in the Silence, then we may accept the school building to be the Light, more precisely “spent light”. Khan believed that the first schools emerged from the Silence, from the desire to learn. “Schools began with a man under a tree, who did not know he was a teacher, discussing his realization with a few, who did not know they were students. The students aspired that their sons also listen to such a man. Spaces were erected and the first schools began.” Since Khan believed the essence of learning institutions should reflect these origins, he concluded that the building should promote the fundamental inspiration of learning.
Khan believed that students had as much to teach as teachers, that students inspired the teacher by their desire to be. “Teaching is an act of singularity to singularity. It is not talking to a group. They teach you of your own singularity, because only a singularity can teach a singularity.” Postulating that teaching could only happen when learning was present, Khan sought to embrace the singularity for students. “Singularity is in the movement from Silence, which is the seat of the unmeasurable and the desire to be, to express, moving towards the means to express, which is material made of Light. Light comes to you because actually it is not divided; it is simply that which desires to be manifest, coming together with that which has become manifest. That movement meets at a point which may be called your singularity.” In other words, the greatest potential of discovery stems from the meeting of the desire to learn and the desire to teach.
Although Khan was fond of learning, he maintained contempt for the educational system. He believed that the “the will to learn, the desire to learn, is one of the greatest inspirations. I am not that impressed by education. Learning, yes. Education is something, which is always on trial because no system can ever capture the real meaning of learning.” Hence, the basic nature of learning is a personal desire to learn not a series of requirements dictated down by school boards. Khan theorized that for students, forced to memorize of dates, facts and formulas only to be forgotten soon after served no purpose in the realm of true learning.
For Khan, teaching is an art form, an acquired talent that must be able to teach a man to fish, not feed him for a day. “The work of students should not be directed to the solution of problems, but rather to sensing the nature of a thing. But you cannot know a nature without getting it out of your guts. You must sense what it is, and then you can look up what other people think it is. What you sense must belong to you, and the words of teaching must not in any way be in evidence, so completely has it been transformed into the singularity.” Therefore, it is not the responsibility of the teacher to force students to process data nor to use mnemonics, but to provide the vehicle needed to access information
Information plays an important role in forming our understanding of reality. However, the complexity of everyday life and surrounding environments is often unreadable to us unless seen as a combination of interrelating sub-elements. The situation is paradoxical: we no longer believe in mindless subdivisions of reality as a method to understand it, but at the same time, we do not easily comprehend the ‘globallity’ of everyday experience.
In the design of the Exeter Library, Khan arranged a series of sub-elements, his ideas into a rich design thick with meaning and full of light. And only, through an independent study of each of these sub-elements does one have the opportunity to understand the overall structure. Defining and study of that interdependency of objects was the main theme of this investigation. I conclude then, at Phillips Exeter Academy, Khan began to manifest his beliefs into design, the Library gave Light to Khan’s Silence.
From the Silence to the Light.
After receiving the commission for the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy, Louis Kahn first asked himself what a library should be. To guide his design process, his first objective was to ascertain the rudimental meaning of a library. “It is good for the mind to go back to the beginning, because the beginning of any established activity is its most wonderful moment.” Khan did not investigate antecedents, precedents, nor did he survey its potential users. Treating this library as if no other had come before it, Khan sought the basic nature of the institution.
Kahn’s design outline began with the declaration, “I see a library as a place where the librarian can lay out the books, open especially to selected pages to seduce the readers. There should be a place with great tables on which the librarian can put the books, and the readers should be able to take the books and go to the light.” This concise statement summarizes the essential quality of the Library design. Not only does this mission statement promote his philosophy toward learning, but it also describes the procession, the circulation, and the management and manipulation of its users. Kahn is stating the idea from which he will “grow” three different spaces: one where students would come together in the presence of books, another of the books, and a third for reading in the light.
Since the movement of the user is of such great importance, that procession through the building shall become the outline for this analysis. Following this path, I shall proceed to illustrate the Silence behind the Light at the Exeter Library. I shall illustrate through photos and Khan’s words, how I as the user experienced the Light.
The Approach and Enclosure
Extruding from the middle of a grass covered courtyard, the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy flanked on three sides by existing brick buildings embellished with New England Neo-Georgian flavor. This abundance of brick influenced Khan’s decision making while selecting a material for the building exterior.
He said, “Brick was the most friendly material in the environment. I didn’t want the building to be shockingly different in any way. I never lost my love of the old buildings.” . On first glance, it appeared to me as if all the facades were the same, until after closer observation it became evident that there were small manipulations of wood and glazing. As I neared the facade, I also discovered variation in the width of the masonry piers between the windows. Kahn felt that it was important to be true to the nature of a material, “It is important that you honor the material you use. You don’t bandy it about as though to say, “Well, we have a lot of material, we can do it one way, we can do it another way.” It’s not true. You must honor and glorify the brick instead of short-changing it and giving it an inferior job to do in which it loses its character, as, for example, when you use it as infill material, which I have done and you have done. Using brick so makes it feel as though it is a servant, and brick is a beautiful material. It has done beautiful work in many places and still does.” Therefore the brick should be treated as a load-bearing material; not a veneer attached to a reinforced concrete frame. “He argued further that the force of gravity and the weight of the masonry should be evident in the construction. Thus, as the Library’s brick piers rise and the load they must carry decreases, they become progressively narrower.” This action creates a dramatic as the movement of energy is seen as the eye travels the height of the fa?ade. As I studied the wall, I recalled Kahn’s essay The Wall, the Column from Between Silence and Light
The wall did well for man. In its thickness and its strength, it protected man against destruction. But soon, the will to look out made man make a hole in the wall, and the wall was pained, and said, “What are you doing to me? I protected you; I made you feel secure-and now you put a hole through me! ” And man said, “But I see wonderful things, and I want to look out.” And the wall felt very sad.
Later man didn’t just hack a hole through the wall, but made a discerning opening, one trimmed with fine stone, and he put a lintel over the opening. And soon the wall felt pretty well.
Consider also the momentous event in architecture when the wall parted and the column became.”
” Upon my approach I noticed the arcade that formed the base of the structures was cast in shadow, and the entrance was not apparent immediately. Due to the language of modern architecture, this absence of hierarchy would not normally surprise me. However, since Khan was one of a few modernists who believed in Hierarchy, I was dumbfounded by its dearth. Only through research did I discover Khan’s true intent, “From all sides (of the campus) there is an entrance. If you are scurrying in a rain to get to the building, you can come in at any point and find your entrance. It’s a continuous campus style entrance.” Unfortunately, as in my case, I entered the arcade from the east and walked south and had to circumnavigate the entire building before I found the front entrance. As I walked between the light and shadow of the arcade, my senses tingled with delight of knowing something special awaited inside. Walking through the arcade, I noticed at closer detail that Khan had continued to honor the brick by creating flat arch lintels at the opening as he had done with the facade. Again I was reminded of Khan’s writings “If you think of brick, and you’re consulting the Orders, you consider the nature of brick. You say to brick, “What do you want, brick?” Brick says to you, “I like an arch.” If you say to brick, “Arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over an opening. What do you think of that, brick?” Brick says, “I like an arch.” It was at this moment that I began to realize that Khan had truly traveled from the Silence to the Light.
The Seduction Inside
After experiencing the exterior plaza, I was immediately greeted by a sweeping, grand curved monumental stair upon entering the library. Made of marble to reinforce its monumental nature, the stair entices you up a flight to the main level. In an almost ceremonial procession, the invitation to explore further is overwhelming. As I have previously stated, it was Kahn’s intention to create three different spaces: one where students would come together in the presence of books, another of the books, and a third for reading in the light.
It is at the top of these stairs, in the grand central hall that the invitation or presence of books begins. It is in this space that the librarians, as khan hoped, lay out the books, open especially to selected pages to seduce the readers. The books are set on tables as well as in case. In addition, the book carts, so important to the function of the librarian’s job, are kept in full view, alerting the user to the lifeblood of the library. “At a more essential level, however the design of the building itself participates in the seduction of the user. Moving up the stair and standing in the hall, users can look through the large circular openings and into the main book stacks of the library.” These large circles of the central hall are the windows from where the sirens of books call out the user, seducing the student to venture to the second space, the “place of books”. It is also an opportunity to allow the books to “speak” to each other, from either side or from a different floor, a form of social interaction of the spaces.
When Kahn spoke of the plan, he desired to create the interaction of space to space, from light to light. “I think that a plan is a society of rooms. A real plan is one in which rooms have spoken to each other. When you see a plan, you can say that it is the structure of the spaces in their light” . Along the perimeter of the central hall Khan design shelving with counter space for the presentation of books.
Once the user has reached this destination, he shall enter the place of books. The stacks are situated in a utilitarian atmosphere, with basic industrial style lighting. The exposure to concrete is in remarkable contrast to the warmth of the brick reading areas. Once the user selects a book, he proceeds to the third function of space, the reading areas. The first reading area, the carrels form the perimeter ring at the exterior walls of the library. In addition, Khan provided private reading rooms for the faculty, and an exterior arcade. This meeting place occurs on the roof, in the presence of the truest forms of light, the sun.
Homage to the Light
When one experiences the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy, he or she cannot help but notice the constant shifting of Silence and Light. It is almost a dance between the shadow and light, one that effect the spirit and mood of each space and its user. The performance of light begins at the base, as the piers create a rhythm of lightness and darkness and travels the height of the facade. From the ever-changing color of the brick to the depth of the window openings, light dances its way across the building enclosure. As the natural light penetrates the interior, Khan skillfully controls its every movement throughout the interior spaces.
Kahn’s truly impressive use of light emanates in its execution to the three functions of the library. As Khan had stated “A plan of a building shall read like a harmony of spaces in light. Even a space intended to be dark should have just enough light from some mysterious opening to tell us how dark it really is. Each space must be defined by its structure and the character of its natural light.” In this utilitarian stairwell, the source of light emanates from a deflecting path of glass and wall.
Understanding the importance for various sources, type and intensity of light, Khan design the library to take advantage light’s many properties. Khan provided three distinct areas of light for the each of his important spaces. The areas for reading in the Light received natural light that was skillfully designed to enhance without inhibiting the ability to read, “Glare is bad in the library; wall space is important. Little spaces where you can adjourn with a book are tremendously important,” Khan wrote about the Exeter Library. Khan believed the potential of learning was just as great from looking out the window as from reading a book, however he also understood the need to limit the outside distractions, both of people and of light. . At the perimeter he allowed the light to enliven the reading area, yet he controlled the glare at the reading carrels, through window height and the use of sliding shutters. In areas of more serious study, he limited the windows to a source of light from a clerestory.
Because the rays of direct sunlight are harmful to books, Khan used dim fluorescent lighting in the “place of books”, offering only enough to allow the user to find a book. This action however, somewhat contradicts his previous statements on artificial light ” Space can never reach its place in architecture without natural light. Artificial light is the light of night expressed in positioned chandeliers not to be compared with the unpredictable play of natural light”
Khan understood the materials and their reactions toward the light. “At Exeter, the meaning of light is a demonstration of Kahn’s most profound philosophical beliefs. As a result of ever-changing external conditions, the interior space comes alive with a constant flux of light and shade. The room exists in the realm of shadows, that is, between the silence of ideas and the light of material reality.” Quite possibly one of Kahn’s most notable innovations in the control of light is found in the ceiling of the great hall. “With the light tower of Yale University Art Gallery, we are familiar with Khan’s principle of “light blades” which deflect light downward and simultaneously perform structural functions.” Additionally, the cross shape emphasizes the centrality of the space. As one can see in the photo to the left, it concisely illustrates all three important conditions of light; the invitation of books, the place of books, and the reading in the light.
The Library at Phillips Exeter Academy is the Light, the physical manifestation of Khan’s theories and writings. This project is more about the accumulation of experience or intention of idea than just a place to store and read books. It goes beyond the realm of the known, beyond the mortar and bricks. It is the threshold between the Silence and the Light.
If our impression of a building is defined by our knowledge of space, by what we see at a particular moment or what we just saw a few seconds ago, then it is also what we would like to see. “However, if we attempt to see a larger world, one that includes that which is not yet along with that which is, as the creative artist, scientist, and architect must, then a more powerful discipline is needed, one used by the poets, which the ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu called the Tao, the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger called Being, and Louis Kahn called Order.”
In his essay on Architecture, Khan said “You must follow the laws of nature and use quantities of brick, methods of construction, and engineering. But in the end, when the building becomes part of living, it evokes unmeasurable qualities, and the spirit of its existence takes over.” Thus, space can be seen also as possibility … present in our imagination. The question of physical existence is inappropriate. More appropriately, one should ask For what is an architectural concept if not the material and spatial expression of spiritual intentions?
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