Louis Kahn: First Unitarian Church/Ineffable Space

Alberti is explicit about the character of the ideal church. It should be the noblest ornament of a city and its beauty should surpass imagination. It is this staggering beauty which awakens sublime sensations and arouses piety in the people. It has a purifying effect and produces the state of innocence which is pleasing to God.


For the struggle to express the inexpressible—to create what Le Corbusier called, in reference to his great chapel at Ronchamp, France, “ineffable space”—is one that has yielded few successful results in our time or in any other. The extraordinary balance between the rational and the irrational that characterizes Ronchamp, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., or Louis Kahn’s Unitarian Church in Rochester, N.Y., or Bernard Maybeck’s Christian Science Church in Berkeley, Calif., to name four of the greatest religious structures of this century, is not something that can be made by formula, and it is not something that can be dictated by style.

Paul Goldberger

A building both meets and shapes our expectations in a discourse that lasts all our lives, across the ages. It provides a container for our understanding, our actions, and in its structure can figure a sense of our place among others, in the world, before whatever lies beyond us.

Building a model of a building is a matter of finding the patterns of that order in plans and elevations, of locating openings and walls and defining their relationships, of conceiving structure. Once the patterns are discovered, the structure is comprehended, the builder knows what to expect as the model rises, and construction proceeds purposely, efficiently, even rhythmically. There’s a kind of music in architecture.

When we form ideas, we create images as well, pictures, models of thought, that help us construct beliefs and define behavior and conceive the world. Sometimes they sing to us.

In a typical Christian church, we expect order and vision, orderly pews, fixed, spaced evenly, divided down the middle, and orderly rows of windows to let in light, the source of inspiration, perhaps gothic arched, again evenly spaced, all leading to the place of spiritual direction, which has a space and light of its own. The plan—nave, transept, chancel—creates a cross and figures a symbol of Christian belief. Outside, a spire might distinguish the building among its neighbors, elevate its purpose, and set the course for heavenly ascent. For Alberti, in the Italian Renaissance, this order, elaborated in classical style, was a vehicle itself for revelation, wholly conceivable, undeniable, unalterable, everlasting.

What is this staggering beauty that has so powerful an effect? According to Alberti’s well-known mathematical definition, based on Vitruvius, beauty consists in a rational integration of the proportions of all the parts of a building in such a way that every part has its absolutely fixed size and shape and nothing could be added or taken away without destroying the harmony of the whole. This conformity of ratios and correspondence of all the parts, this organic geometry should be observed in every building but above all in churches. We may now conclude that no geometrical form is more apt to fulfil this demand than the circle or forms deriving from it. In such centralized plans the geometrical patterns will appear absolute, immutable, static and entirely lucid. Without that organic geometrical equilibrium where all the parts are harmonically related like the members of a body, divinity cannot reveal itself.

Static, perhaps, is not the right word. There is energy in such designs that can be vigorously developed, and their geometry is charged with divine significance. The circle is a figure of cosmic order, a symbol for the God who created it,

in whose image we are made, in which we find identity and correspondence,

and the ideal plan for our temples of faith is one that is centrally planned and circular. The circle extends out from us through our buildings to the universe to the Creator. Harmony reigns.

Kahn’s first design for First Unitarian Church is centrally planned and picks up the desire for symmetry, for geometry, with a circle within a square.

He studied Leonardo’s designs and, as he says in his dedication at First Unitarian, was partly inspired by another centrally planned circular building, the Pantheon.

But, after several revisions, this became the final plan, where symmetry is dismissed, or dismantled. The First Unitarian congregation was actively engaged in the planning, and, while greatly impressed by Kahn and his ideas, expressed objections against his first design, partly because of cost, but largely because of its squareness. I don’t think there is a single square in the completed building. All the forms, all the rooms, including the sanctuary, are at best just off.

I had long been attracted to what looked to be a modest building. But as I constructed the model I became deeply engaged in a design that is more involved than it might first appear. And I kept getting lost. Building a model at this scale with these pieces is a matter of finding the best balance of compromises, asserting what should be dominant, deciding what can be exaggerated or downplayed or ignored—see notes. I was forever going back and forth between the plans I found and my work on the table, doubting both and myself, questioning my decisions at every turn, considering alternatives, building, taking down, and rebuilding, still unsure. Nothing fit expected patterns of openings and closures and I never got into a rhythm. The experience was constructive, revelatory, even.

Kahn insisted on and kept his initial concept, however, against objections, of having the sanctuary roughly in middle, surrounded by the other rooms, the classrooms, ministerial and staff offices, services and utilities,

as opposed to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, where the auditorium—sanctuary, Unitarians use both terms—is kept separate from the social and educational functions, a layout common in other Unitarian churches.

Kahn’s first drawing for the church is a concept sketch that illustrates his notions, pursued in other work, of what institutions are, what they should be based on, how they should work, how they should be planned, which the Unitarians found attractive. The relationship between individuals, their communal practice, their beliefs, and their larger purpose is a matter of independence, choice, and interchange, and the parts of a church that allow these—sanctuary, ambulatory, classrooms—should be kept close together and allow movement and communication. For Unitarians, their activities outside the sanctuary, education, the arts, and civic involvement, are vital aspects of their practice.

According to Kahn, the school surrounding poses the questions answered in the sanctuary, at the center. Both are integral parts of a process. “I felt,” Kahn said, “that that which raised the question and that which was the sense of the question—the spirit of the question—were inseparable.” The ambulatory gives members the freedom to leave what is discussed in the center yet sill remain close, without leaving the sanctuary, physically or spiritually, perhaps to form their own views or just keep their distance, perhaps to pause and return when they are ready. The Unitarian faith does not force belief or expect conformity, and its spirit is democratic.

The ambulatory, however, was dropped, and I question how well it might have served. In the final plan, as in Wright’s church, the congregation, upon entering the lobby, has a choice. At First Unitarian they can go straight to the lounge for small, informal gatherings, where there is a hearth to welcome, a common fixture in Unitarian churches, or turn into the corridor and circle around to the classrooms, or proceed directly into the sanctuary—

and enter a somber, windowless box made of coarse cinder blocks and concrete. The walls are massive, some two feet thick. Members see the thickness as they enter and will sense it once seated. The chamber still takes my breath, the cinder blocks recalling memories of dank basements, cheap housing, bland classrooms, compromises in other institutional construction owing to budget constraint and lack of vision, and, during the Cold War, when I grew up, when the church was conceived and built, of bomb shelters in backyards, beneath the homes of those who could afford them.

The design, however, fits the Unitarian desire for simplicity and humility. Also the faith has no set creed, thus no set of symbols that might be expressed in statues or architectural structure and embellishment. The church only has abstract tapestries, Kahn’s design, muted primary colors that run in graduations (and do not follow the light spectrum). If the sanctuary is rough, it is intentionally so, though the dominant gray is relieved by wood accents and planes. There are no easy answers. David Williams, minister while the new building was being considered, believed that the Unitarian mission was to challenge, not put souls at ease, that the congregation should “face the hard realities of the day.” During construction, blocks in one shipment came darker than the others and did not match. Instead of sending them back, Kahn decided to keep them. “I believe in frank architecture,” he explained. “A building is a struggle, not a miracle, and the architect should acknowledge this.” Upon sober reflection, in light of events of the last years, of history, really, I feel at home.

And the chamber is anything but static. The raised choir loft at the back cantilevers dramatically out into the space. The pipes of the organ, added later, stand alone and rise in ascending order, and even when quiet still seem to voice crescendo, deep, resonant chords throughout. The box of the sanctuary opens above the top of the corridors, adding another dimension, extending the space, reminding the congregation of their circulation on both floors, their purpose, their possibilities.

The concrete roof is made of four parts with inverted pitch, V shape, gently descending and joining at the center. The only apparent supports are the delicate H structures of beams and posts on the sides, in the middle, the vertical posts exposed in the walls, the upper parts freed in the higher space above the corridors, an apparition that just falls short of miraculous. In the middle, beneath the lower ridge of each section of the roof, where beam and post intersect, a rectangular mass—still not a square—that as much gives assurance of support as questions it. These four rectangles, while bolstering posts and beams, rest just above the narrow central posts, a feat of perilous, or, again, miraculous suspension, nearly.

The downward pointing ceiling is not overbearing but uplifting. Even though solid concrete, it seems to float. Then again, there it is, the broad span of concrete that appears more massive than it is, hanging over. Its presence is ambiguous.

The seats are arranged in three sections instead of two divided down the middle, a typical Unitarian layout that adds another layer of choice in the service. They are not fixed and can be rearranged in any configuration, allowing flexibility. The chancel, raised only just above the floor, close to eye level of seated members, is flat and sparse, denying hierarchy, allowing more options, more flexibility. Tapestries on the wall behind touch the three colors of the others coursing the hall, red, blue, and yellow, and hang together in a different arrangement, further off spectrum, joining the sanctuary, the congregation, proposing whatever reunion and rearrangement might represent.

Above all gathered, ministers and participants, enters the light of the world. Monitors piercing the planes of the roof at the corners, fully glazed on two sides, allow light to pass and be reflected off textured concrete on the other two sides, producing a diffuse light brighter in their boxes overhead, more somber in varying degrees within the chamber below, a muted and changing light like that of the tapestries. Everything in the church is qualified and shifts. Alberti believed windows should be high in a church so the congregation would not be distracted by the temptations, the transitoriness of day-to-day life. Perhaps the monitors function in the same way, though I suspect the opposite is true, that in their tentative, qualified light they recall more present uncertainty, the questions of the day, questions about ourselves. At any rate they do not pass the light of the divine but that of nature, essential for Kahn, with its shifting presence over time, across the seasons, its changing moods. Nature may be the largest question asked in the center of Kahn’s circle.

This light has to be experienced to be understood and valued, and the experience that mosts matters is that of the practitioners over the course of their attendance, in the light of their faith, its shifting presence, its changing moods. I, however, not a Unitarian, was making a model and worked in fixed, artificial light, devoting most of my effort to the exterior.

The church is approached from a side road and rests on a site now partly wooded. Entry, at the left, is set back, not visible from the main road. A major motif of the building is the vertical column, hooded at the top and framed at the base, which houses deeply inset windows and doors on the first floor and windows on the second, along with wood accents and brick fill between. Calling it a column suggests a structural element, but its material presence shifts and is uncertain. Functionally it cuts glare from the sun but also produces deep shadows that will vary with time of day. Collectively these columns give the building vertical lift set against its horizontal cast. When the windows and doors are fully shaded they challenge our sense of scale as we cannot see markers for the two floors. The thin frame at the bottom extends around the building, telling us the church has a base upon which it sits, metaphorically a foundation.

Two sets of three columns, parallel, touching, ceremoniously flank the modest entry, its doors also hooded—see plan and the first two photographs. These doors, however, are off-center. Another column, far left, just wider, moves them right. It houses the louvers, picking up wood accents elsewhere, that cover an air shaft that descends to the basement. This column, with the fine definition of louvers, is larger than it needs to be and calls attention to a function that could have been hidden and usually is. It highlights another kind of entry and has near symbolic significance. Just as the monitors pass light, this column allows air, literally inspiration, this at a prominent place in Unitarian procession. There’s another louvered column behind it, a reminder, visible at the rear.

The forward section stands apart and moves away, and, with its overlap in the courtyard before the entrance, marks the separation of its rooms from the rest of the building. Here the mass of brick is dominant and the framed columns merge into it, inseparably, except at the second floor, where they assert themselves with recesses that stop at the outer wall of the corridors and sanctuary and monitors, calling attention to the central part of the church, creating a dialogue of mass and space. The columns here resemble buttresses, though I don’t think serve that function. They do however reinforce a structure that reveals itself. These are load bearing walls, without hidden steel framework.

One of the window columns is about half the width of the others. Together, at the second floor, the columns create motion, resembling a not quite regular square wave following the pattern A-B-A-B-A-B. Add the window columns, and the pattern is 1-A-2-B-2-A-2-B-2-A-2-B-2. This pattern is open and propels us right, not closing but opening up the building, anticipating the other side. But each face is one part of the total design, of a whole proposition that cannot be fully predicted from just one side.

Against the openings, varying masses with their own rhythms, left to right, top to bottom. The sense of mass, however, is qualified in the masses between the columns on the first floor. The seemingly thick walls actually enclose nooks with windows on the sides, inside the columns (not modeled), and benches, where members can sit and read in natural light, diffused, like that of the monitors inside the sanctuary.

The diagonals at the monitors are needed to face the inverted roof, but they also serve to call attention to and anchor them. Imagine the triangles pictured above, then extend the lines. A low, larger triangle is implied that suggests stability and composure amidst all the variations. Between the monitors, a notch for drainage centers them and provides an accent. And the shape of the monitors, triangle and rectangle, is repeated below on the left, second floor, above a door on the side, adding more variation, giving another sense of repose but also directing us up and right.

The sense of mass is further qualified when we walk around. We see the fully glazed interior of the monitors and realize they are not solid brick. These windows seem to have no means of structural support at the roof nor any relationship to the brick mass. They exist free, open, by themselves.

At this side, straight on, the building closes again, but we know from the other side that the rectangular mass on the left is not solid, as it covers the window column at the end. It is the side that faces the main road, and motorists approaching will see the corners and other two sides receding as they pass. Once at the church members will come to know the whole building from varying exposure. There are exterior doors on all sides, separate from the sanctuary—see plan. The Unitarian tenet of choice is reinforced, inside and out, and the process of questioning extends outside, further beyond the sanctuary, out into the world.

Again a pattern, B-B-A-C, similar and different. Here, two parallel columns anticipate the triads at entry, here another narrow window, right, set back, flush with the wall. Again the separation of this set of rooms from the building, between the ends of the other two sets of rooms, front and back, deeply recessesed, off-center. Again the play of masses, similar, different. Again the poise, stability of the monitors, in the same pattern, though the walls are narrower than those on the front and back. And again the overall rhythm of the columns pushes right, to an opening, the covered door at the end.

This opening, at the door, with the same triangular configuration, repeats the one on the front, diagonally opposed.

At the rear, most facade elements in line now, separation of this long section marked at the ends, more difference and similarity of mass and openings, of motion and rest, another narrow window column, another pair, another pattern moving right, B-C-C-C-D-A-A, interrupted by rear entry and service doors. On the right, visible, the other louvered air shaft. The two brick columns on the right, taller, symmetrically flanking the double windows, offset and balance the monitors while reinforcing their symmetry. They are taller because, like the monitors, they have windows above the roof that light the children’s chapel on the second floor.

Program does not determine the arrangement, and symmetry could easily have been achieved. Kahn had other motives. The patterns taken together, as they course around the building, against, along with the dialogues between light and shadow, between mass and open space, might suggest some forgotten ecclesiastical mode or aleatoric music. Jazz improvisation might be closer to the mark. Or quantum indeterminacy, the either/or of our existence. Or they might represent some process unresolved, resolving itself. Or one that has no resolution. Or propose that irresolution is the essence of process. All these thoughts are as attractive as they are suspect. What is most certain is that there is no definite way to conceive or characterize them. The patterns, inasmuch as they are patterns, waver between regularity and randomness, without any cues to resolution, to possible meanings.

Another temptation is to extend the lines of my diagram above, incise extensive geometrical examination, and find correspondences, as has been done with Alberti’s Santa Maria Novella, again above. But the lines won’t intersect, nothing will fit within anything, not well.

Still, there is rhythm, there is music. Still, we have the sense of pattern and stability. Variations need a base from which to diverge. But we can’t define the patterns, or the relationship between base and patterns. Nonetheless, what guided me in construction and revision of the model, what still moves me as I continue to contemplate it on my table, is how much it engages, how well it sits. Composition is reserved, yet viscerally, subliminally energetic, ineffably poised and balanced.

The sanctuary, not square but symmetrical on both axes, is physically present throughout in varying degrees, asserting itself, retreating as we move around.

On the left side, unanticipated, unexpected, mass most asserts itself and we are most aware of the sanctuary and its placement. There are few windows, as the design gives way to a composition of solid shapes. The wall of the lobby, forward, announces the sanctuary behind and anchors and balances the other solids. It is nearly square and is centered in the overall facade, but not quite with the monitor construction. Again we cannot rest.

The upward rising composition, M shape, on the left, is arresting, nearly emblematic, but of what? Two columns stand alongside the hearth and a recessed area where the narrow chimney rises. On the first floor there are doors on either side. Entry, departure next to a fire—what is suggested? But the note of fire is added to light and air, visible in rising smoke.

I always start with a square, no matter what the problem is.


There are precedents. Where First Unitarian’s excursions depart from a squarish central hall, his Goldenberg house, designed just before, not built, takes a square, open atrium for its start:

I felt this was rather a discovery in the desires of interiors—interior spaces. . . . a house is a building which is extremely sensitive to internal need. In this satisfaction there was an existence will of some kind. . . but there was an existence will for this house not to be disciplined within a geometric shape.

First Unitarian expresses a similar will, responding to different internal need.

Aalto’s Säynätsalo Town Hall follows a similar treatment of the plan, and the courtyard configuration goes back ages.

Does the square determine and assert order among variation, or do the departures challenge it and move away? I don’t think there is an answer to this question.

Then there are the monitors—the towers.

Churches in the past did have flat, square towers, with crenelation even, to distinguish themselves in their surroundings and give the look of strength, which were usually placed on a corner or at entry. But not four. Such towers in this number were most seen in fortification, as in castles, which held a fascination for Kahn from childhood.

During his European tour, early in his career, Kahn sketched the square tower of the cathedral at Assisi. He also painted a watercolor of the towers of San Gimignano, representations of family standing, power, and wealth, yet an influence on his just completed Richards Medical Research Center. Aalto drew them as well. Later, not long before First Unitarian, Kahn spent time in Rome and was impressed with its ancient, massive structures, projections of empire, now in ruin.

Empire, fortification, power, wealth—these are echoes from the past whose associations are wholly inappropriate for a modern church, especially a Unitarian. But the towers of First Unitarian only barely resemble spires—they are open and blunted—or even the flat towers on the older churches, and suggestion of fortification is diffused by their shape and openness. At best the church faintly references those older buildings and shows no interest in historical style, message, or use. Kahn, rather, had deep, abstract attachment to solid forms themselves, concretely present in their mass, to their shifting appearance in the light, their endurance, their ability to withstand time and the elements and be changed by them. The four towers do distinguish the church and give it strength, but they carry no assertion, instead suggest the possibly of assertion itself without anything stated, much less promoted. Assertion remains an open question, physically existing, enduring, structurally solid and physically challenged.

A society of rooms is a place good to live work learn.

But from the exterior, save at the lobby, we have no sense of the individual rooms or their separate functions. The purpose of the sanctuary is not even apparent. Yet in First Unitarian, as in Richards, as in the fortified village in Morocco, as in the towers of San Gimignano, we see a variety of individual forms in varying relationships, with varying degrees of presence, of assertion, of withdrawal, yet all still assembled together in a collective—community in the abstract, in the fact. They are places where we stand together but also by ourselves, against all above, around us, where we can only wonder, ask questions.

In a great religious building we feel a sense of space that is at once open and closed, liberating and containing. The space is not simple, yet it is never overwrought in its basic conception; it is not contorted, and its complexity lifts us rather than puzzles us. Within it we feel that by our presence we are part of a historical continuum, yet that we are also very much in the present. Most important of all, we feel that we are part of a larger community, and yet we also feel that we are alone.

Goldberger once more

Alberti is explicit about the character of the ideal church. It should be the noblest ornament of a city and its beauty should surpass imagination. It is this staggering beauty which awakens sublime sensations and arouses piety in the people. It has a purifying effect and produces the state of innocence which is pleasing to God.

Who is innocent? What is innocence? Does it give us room to move around? Is God really pleased? How would we know?

One value of religion, of any religion, lies in how much it encourages us to look at ourselves singly, together, and at the same time look beyond ourselves, at something else. It raises deep questions, often troubling, not asked elsewhere, but does not always give answers, or the answers we want, yet still offers, still insists on our common bond, our faith. In western religions salvation is set against terrors beyond our comprehension, some of our own creation, that somehow remain part of the plan. We stand naked, separately and together, before the unknown and cannot rest easy in our solidarity, our innocence, yet we still need to keep the faith, stay together. Even for nonbelievers religion holds force. It has shaped western culture from the start, providing a set of questions, a range of powerful metaphors that have extension no matter what we believe, even if we do not believe at all.

The Renaissance concept and plans, Platonic transmutations, reduce God to a geometry that references only itself and tells us nothing. Yet the thought and the constructions represent a desire—a metaphor—that is beautiful, that allows the possibility of order, of balance, of correspondence, a wish that has been with us for centuries and still lingers, still sings, still sets the ground for discord, for diversion. Kahn expressed the desire in his first plan, but he could not rest there.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.

1 Corinthians 13:12

The problem is where to start, where to look. For Unitarians we only have ourselves.

The mind does not receive everything from abroad. Its great ideas arise from itself, and by those native lights it reads and comprehends the volumes of nature and revelation. The elements of the idea of God we gather from ourselves. Power, wisdom, love, virtue, beauty, and happiness, words which contain all that is glorious in the universe and interesting in our existence, express attributes of the mind, and are understood by us only through consciousness.

William Ellery Channing, “Discourses”

Kahn says similar in his talk at First Unitarian, referring to some primeval, mythical state when we first started building:

And the motivating force, I feel, was the will to exist, to express. To express is the reason for living, to express love, hate, integrity, nobility. Everything that man makes nature cannot make, though nature is used in the making. The will to make it is not in nature.

We have what we need, we have cause for hope. But looking within does not make the problem easier, rather compounds it and leads to more unanswered questions. Human nature shifts, our images of ourselves shift, nature evades us. We only have our hearts and minds and numbers and our past, our impressions of our past, also shifting—and the projections of our faith and whatever is returned for those who believe, whatever is deflected by those who do not, and our metaphors and our desire to make something worthwhile that endures.

The Room is the place of the mind.

Connecting the self to the world, to others is a problem that has occupied the whole history of western philosophy without resolution, leading to a procession of models whose certainty is matched by contradiction and dead ends.

Kahn’s concept sketch provides an alternative model for the self that is flexible and open. We question, therefore we exist. We exist because we question. Space is provided to doubt, to pause, to circle around and explore whatever, whoever lies at the periphery and still return to the center, to the self. It could be a model for democracy, for our collective center and our diverse orientations, our varied thoughts. And of course it could be the model for a church.

We need to be cautious in our rush to symmetry. We all are different in many different ways, and none of us fit inside a circle perfectly, nor should want to. But we have put ourselves at the center now without reference, without proportion, without restraint, as if standing between two mirrors and seeing our image diminish in infinite regression, with this price: the more we pay attention to ourselves, the more we are alone.

We speak with absolute certainty and think we know ourselves and understand the world,  that we know what to do, but give ourselves to the symmetry of conformity and rigid alignment of opposition. Assertion, taking the perfect form of righteousness, dovetails with denial and leads to blindness, cruelty, and violence. Innocence is not a world that is used much, except in skepticism or derision. Guilt, however, is often bandied about, sometimes absorbed, more often passed off on others.

And when we look at nature, its stains, its troubling patterns, more and more we are looking at ourselves.

Kahn has a different definition of beauty when he speaks of the early temple of Paestum,  rough and squat, closer to us, closer, perhaps, to home, where we need to be:

Compare Paestum with the Parthenon. Archaic Paestum is the beginning. It is the time when walls parted and the columns became and Music entered architecture. . . . The Parthenon is considered more beautiful, but Paestum is still more beautiful to me. It presents a beginning within which is contained all the wonder that may follow in its wake.

Once more he takes us back to beginnings, where wonder, unstated, is kept alive.





My model is of the original church as completed in 1962. Since then, an addition was made left of the lobby, completed in 1969, and metal flashing was added at the roofline. Overall dimensions of the model are close and I represent major elements and their approximate relationships. The relatively large size of the Lego pieces forced compromises. The major decision I made was to preserve the relationship of the sections between windows to represent the subtle rhythms. A is just smaller than B, C is just smaller than A, and D is just larger than B. Dimensions and proportions will be off in these sections as elsewhere. This partial analysis, of course, is fanciful, but it helps make a point. The proportion of width to length of the model, however, is almost exactly that of the actual building, 3/4. The angles of the diagonal elements are exaggerated. One problem I had is that I couldn’t find elevations I had confidence in and I’m not certain about heights. Another problem is that I have to take photographs from a higher viewpoint, where the monitors will be more exposed and appear taller. Most photographs are taken from ground level at varying distances, where we know the building, which changes the aspect of the monitors. I made a few adjustments to compensate. The photographs have been slightly edited for clarity and coherence.

First Unitarian of Rochester has an online slideshow created by Bill Fugate that is a marvelous resource. It has photographic documentation of construction of the original church and the addition from foundation to completion, along with photographs of the interior and exterior, from which I take the photograph of roof construction, just above, as well as the front photograph by Woodleif Thomas, rear photograph, the floor plan, based on a drawing by Bert Schlabach, and Kahn’s talk at the dedication of the tapestries, cited above. Kahn’s quotation “I believe in frank architecture” found here. Full credits can be found here.

Vincent Scully’s lecture at Yale on YouTube gives a deep, emotional response to the man and his work. Of relevance here is his discussion of Kahn’s trips to Italy and his early drawings, his attachment to the old construction.

Wendy Lesser’s You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn is a full, detailed biography. I began the project by reading this first to get a sense of Kahn. He doesn’t fit into neat categories—none of us do—and coming to terms with his individuality helped prepare me for a very individual building that doesn’t fall into categories, either. Her closing remarks are especially insightful and moving.

Interior photographs of the sanctuary ©Cemal Emden, from ARKITOK. More of Emden’s pictures of the church can be found there as well as, along with those of other major buildings, in The Essential Louis Kahn.

Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. I have referred to Wittkower in other posts. Renaissance notions of order, like Platonic idealism, generally, abstractly, I could argue casually, stand as a reference point against which we have made critiques and revisions over the centuries in architecture, in philosophy, elsewhere. While Kahn had a copy of the Wittkower, it is uncertain how much he read. Then again, I’m not sure how much he would have gained from a close reading. There wouldn’t have been that much that might have carried over. Its images, however, would have influenced him. There is no reason to go into a systematic analysis of Kahn’s ideas. He was not a philosopher and his thoughts were homemade. A better way to say that is that his expressions are poetic, which have a philosophical cast as he reaches for the essential in the simplest, most basic terms. The words will only suggest and always be inadequate. What matters is what he built, where words will not serve well, either.

Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture, David B. Brownlee and David G. De Long, is an excellent resource, with full analysis and illustration. My Wittkower quotation is cited there as well as “I always start with a square. . .” and Vitruvian man is referenced. Here I discovered the Goldenberg house, in conjunction with First Unitarian. “I felt this was rather a discovery. . .” cited here. Robin B. Williams’ “First Unitarian Church and School, Rochester,” provides a full review of the process of the design revisions and Kahn’s interchanges with the congregation.

More could be done comparing the Goldenberg plan to First Unitarian’s, exploring their internal dynamics. Brownlee and De Long include early concept sketches of the house, where there is an expanding blob (there’s not a better word) in the corner with arrows pushing out, representing, I assume, the house’s irregular and insistent “existence will”:

Image via SOCKS, which has a full analysis of the home. Kahn made a similar concept sketch for First Unitarian with the sanctuary in the middle, from upenn.edu:

This simple diagram is more significant than it might first appear. The “blob” roughly outlines the surrounding rooms as they appear in the final plan but also introduces a note of randomness and irrepressible and undefined energy. Designing the church from here, I like to imagine, was a tug of war between control and this energy. Duet might be a better word.

Paul Goldberger, “Housing for the Spirit,” The New York Times. Kahn admired and was influenced by Le Corbusier’s chapel: “At Ronchamp order is only dimly felt in form born of a dream,” cited in Brownlee and De Long.

Diagram analysis of Alberti, Santa Maria Novella, by L. W. Partridge via conservancy.unm. I don’t know if this image represents accurately Alberti’s design and intent at all, but it does represent a point metaphorically. Compare with Wittkower’s analysis, just below.

Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian man via Wikimedia Commons.

Leonardo circular church plan via ResearchGate.

Kahn first plan via quondam.

Pantheon plan via WikiMedia Commons.

Frank Lloyd Wright Unity Temple plan via ResearchGate.

Kahn concept sketch via Oxford Art Online.

Kahn, “I felt that that which raised the question. . .” cited in a brochure written for the church by Jean France.

David Williams, “face the hard realities of the day” cited in Sarah Williams Goldhagen, Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism. She also references Wittkower and reviews Kahn’s study of Leonardo’s central plans, providing one of Kahn’s sketches. The book offers the fullest discussion of First Unitarian I’ve run across.

Goldenberg house plan via quondam.

Aalto Säynätsalo Town Hall plan via ArchDaily. There are many similarities between this building and First Unitarian. I don’t know if a comparative study has been made.

Photograph of Ksar Aït Benhaddou in Morocco via ArchEyes.

Photograph of San Gimignano towers via Wikipedia.

Kahn, “A society of rooms is a place good to live work learn” and “The Room is the place of the mind” via arthistory/upenn.

Channing quotation from Ann Marie Borys, American Unitarian Churches, which gives a full discussion of Unitarian church design throughout US history, linking it to the growth of democracy. From her introduction:

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, Unitarians concerned themselves with the promotion of a distinctively American culture, and they put the democratic ideal foremost over any theological position. Furthermore, the Unitarian community mirrors the tension in American society between individualism and social cohesion. These characteristics suggest that Unitarian church architecture is particularly suitable as a source not only for understanding the relationship between a particular community and its spatial realm but for revealing the capacity of architecture to reflect changes in American democratic ideas.

Descartes solved the mind/body problem with the pineal gland:

This woodcut from Descartes’ 1644 Principles of Philosophy diagrams Descartes’ theory of vision and its interaction with the pineal gland. Descartes believed that light rays impressed subtle particles into the eyes. The image was then transmitted to the pineal gland, which served as the nexus between mind and body. In this sketch the external stimulus is translated into an act of will (pointing) by the pineal gland.

We smile at this conception at our own peril. There is a cautionary tale here. Image and text from Princeton.edu. The woodcut has been doubled and mirrored at Boston Review and YOAIR.

Kahn, “Compare Paestum with the Parthenon. . .” via Harvard Magazine.




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