For a few years now I’ve promised myself that I would take a day on the annual fifth year Boston field trip and go up to Exeter to see the Kahn library there. Last year a colleague took the train up while I was scrambling back to Iowa early and he let me know that it was an easy hour-long ride through some scenic mill towns and a similarly easy walk across the (small) town to Exeter Academy.
Kahn was the first big research project I did when I moved to academia. After seven years of hearing his name at Foster’s I was curious to see whether you could make the argument that he was a proto-high-tech architect, in addition to his well-known reputation for poetic, spiritually resonant space. The link to me was irresistible, because if you could show that, you could then make the argument that a lot of high-tech is really more than the cold, mechanical imagery with which it’s been saddled. So I wrote a few essays on four Kahn buildings–the Yale Art Gallery, Richards Medical Labs, the Salk Institute, and the Kimbell Art Museum–and showed (I think) that part of their poetic appeal lay in a real technical fluency. That book, Louis I. Kahn: Building Art, Building Science, got some good reviews and won me a few ace lecture opportunities, but after five years of work I was ready to move along to Chicago.
Still, knowing some things about Kahn made Exeter irresistible. I’d never been, and with a willing student and colleague, plus an alum who’s a good friend, we made the trek up Sunday. I have to say, it’s one of those rare buildings–like Kimbell–where you know the layout and section and all the tricks cold but can’t believe how amazing it all is when it’s put together. The interior space is so finely proportioned–and yet so impressive structurally–that it literally stopped us in our tracks. We did what every architect does, which is to walk up the curved staircase to the main floor and quietly roll our heads back, looking up at the skylight with our mouths open like turkeys in the rain. Exeter has a very generous visitor policy–if you sign the guest book, you get basically free reign–so we wandered for a couple of hours. (And, by the way, the guest book alone is worth browsing).
Much of the building’s rhetoric is about layering–there’s the central concrete core with the big circular concrete cutouts, the square donut of stacks, the tables and carrels at the windows, and the brick exterior. But within these are gaps that are occupied by services, clearly defined interfaces between materials, and circulation paths that brush the edges of sectional spaces brilliantly. I admit that I had always slightly dismissed Exeter (and Rochester, and Ahmedabad) as the most backwards of Kahn’s buildings since they rely so heavily on brick instead of concrete–I left these out of the book entirely, in fact. But now I’m not so sure. There’s a decidedly archaic feel to the Library, especially in the exterior arcades. But there’s also stainless steel ductwork that’s as expressive of the mechanical strategy as anything at Richards, and the concrete is as superbly executed as the Kimbell’s. I left thinking that I’d seriously underestimated this strain of Kahn’s work–and maybe it needs someone to go back and show how it, too, took function and construction as the basis of its expression, too.
I was curious about the dining hall, which sits next to (actually almost on top of) the Library. It was part of the same commission, yet it hardly shows up in any of the critical studies of Kahn’s work. It was a pleasant surprise–a well executed but spatially less intricate mix of precast, in situ, and brick. We puzzled for a while about its layout–it sits about 5° off of the Library’s axis–and finally realized that the chimney terminates one of the Academy’s long axes. The slanted face looks west, and it catches the sunlight as you’re looking south in a way that punctuates that path really well. I have no idea whether that was Kahn’s generating idea or not, but it’s a nice touch. One that could use some further research..