A rebuttal to Robert McCarter's review of Kahn at Penn: Transformative Teacher of Architecture, originally published in JAE 69:2
As former students in Louis Kahn’s Master’s Class at the University of Pennsylvania, we were disappointed with Robert McCarter’s review of James Williamson’s Kahn at Penn. Unfortunately, the prospective reader is likely to come away from this review with a distorted view of what Williamson’s book is about and its significance.
Kahn the Teacher. McCarter appears to misunderstand the basic purposes and scope of Williamson’s book. Even as his students, we could never really explain Kahn’s teaching. Williamson’s book was prepared expressly to present the insight of students who spent long hours listening to Kahn and applying what they learned directly to design projects.
McCarter marginalizes the significance and effectiveness of Kahn’s teaching, arguing that it was a secondary activity that "fed" his office. In fact, Kahn once said in our studio that he considered himself a teacher first and an architect second. Those who never had a personal interaction with Kahn can never quite grasp the peculiar and powerful force he had as a teacher or colleague; one cannot get it from his lectures or letters.
If Kahn’s teaching were not important to him, he wouldn't have shown up at the studio religiously, on time and often staying late, seriously engaging every student. Any teacher knows that in general 10 percent of students are brilliant, 10 percent are awful, and the other 80 percent are mediocre—but with potential that one hopes to draw out. Kahn’s doubts about student learning are experienced by most teachers at one time or another, including many of us during our teaching years, and do not support the claim that Kahn was an ineffective teacher.
Primary Sources. History is always rewritten for every era. Primary source materials should be differentiated from history; they are the minutes of the meetings from which history is derived. It's important to save them so future generations can make up their own minds. Williamson has produced an important piece of primary information whose quality should be judged by the abilities of its subjects, the questions they were asked and answered, and the exactness with which their ideas were documented.
Kahn’s Use of Language. Kahn’s language means one thing to those who read it in print or hear it in lectures, and another to those who listened while in the process of design. The former, including McCarter, try to interpret it with even more language. The latter absorbed it for creative architectural inspiration. Kahn's mystical way of speaking and use of words was often contradictory. We saw Kahn's language as his way of seeking to convey his own personal search for, and examination of, ideas he saw as foundational in Architecture.
The Beaux-Arts Influence on Kahn. Beaux-Arts design principles can’t be dismissed as being a “formulaic approach,” as McCarter categorizes it. They had and have far more value, based on their emphasis on appropriateness, order, and, in Kahn’s own words, articulation of served and servant spaces. The Beaux-Arts tradition was in fact quite complex. Part of Kahn's genius was that he took aspects of the Beaux-Arts and transformed them, made them his own, translating them into something modern, not unlike the way Stravinsky took older music and made it modern and new. Kahn used to doodle while listening to others in class. These were nearly always sketches of classical entablatures. Frampton's early essay on Kahn’s "French Connection" was accurate. The Beaux-Arts was a deep part of who he was.
Kahn’s References to His Own Projects. McCarter has little if any basis for the assertion that “Kahn’s architectural philosophy emerged not from any idealized worldview but from his engagement in practice, and his students were privileged to be present while he worked out his concepts by articulating them in the studio.” In the year spent in his class, we recall Kahn saying almost nothing about his past or current work except in the abstract, and he very carefully separated his own personal opinions from what he thought a good teacher should be saying.
As shown in Kahn’s beautiful drawings and paintings, many done during his younger days traveling in Greece, Italy, and Egypt, their influence was expressed in the form of the solids and voids he used in many of his projects. The sources of his concepts were not in in his engagement in practice, but in his wider worldview and his love of ancient forms and natural light. On one occasion after he had returned from Paris, where he was on a jury with Marcel Breuer regarding the La Defense project, Kahn commented to his class that “Paris has lost faith with itself.” This realization stemmed not from Kahn’s engagement in practice, but from his engagement with the larger cultural context.
The Socratic Method. McCarter claims that at Penn, Kahn’s statements were most often met by silence, and that his teaching was most often a monologue. This statement is without foundation. Kahn was involved in teaching us in several ways: hearing our thoughts about the problem we were addressing, providing his responses, asking direct questions to each student, and opening the discussion from anyone in the larger assembled group who wished to comment. Yes, he often engaged in monologues. But others also spoke, including students, other teachers, or visiting professionals. Not many of us sought to challenge Kahn, but students often offered their own interpretations of concepts he presented. Kahn believed we were there to receive his thoughts, but every thought was stimulated by a student.
The Psychology of Creativity. McCarter states that he found unconvincing Williamson’s chapter on the psychology of creativity. He seems unaware of the substantial, well-documented research about the role of the unconscious in creativity. Kahn sensed this, on one occasion referring to Poincaré's theories and commenting, "Your mind is at work while you are resting." McCarter criticizes Williamson’s book for seeking to “interpret" Kahn’s approach to teaching through references to various leading creativity theorists and researchers. A more careful reading of the book’s purpose indicates that Williamson sought to elucidate, not interpret Kahn’s approach to teaching.
Essays by Former Students. McCarter claims that the essays in Williamson’s book written by former Kahn students give few insights into Kahn’s teaching. The essayists were not asked to address this issue, however, since it was covered in the book’s first section, but rather to reflect on how the Master’s Class experience shaped their subsequent career.
McCarter asserts that we learned nothing from Kahn. Most of us learned more from him than just about any other teacher in our lives. As the essays demonstrate, Kahn’s teaching influences our practice to this day. It opened up what previously was dead history and turned it into a living, breathing thing that you could carry on a conversation with for the rest of your life. Most of us never again saw anyone teach the way Kahn did or inspire so many people to do so many different things.
As the first book to focus on the teaching aspect of Kahn’s career teaching at Penn as understood by those who were there, Kahn at Penn paints an accurate picture of an extraordinary moment in architectural education and fills a large gap in Kahn scholarship.
– Sherman Aronson, Michael Bednar, John Cava, J. Michael Cobb, James L. Cutler, Stan Field, John Raymond (Ray) Griffin, Tim McGinty, Glen Milne, Max A. Robinson, Richard T. Reep, Sr., Gavin Ross, Denise Scott Brown, John Tyler Sidener, Jr., Karl G. Smith II, Anthony E. Tzamtzis
Response by Robert McCarter
I must respectfully disagree with the viewpoints expressed by the former students of Louis Kahn in their rebuttal to my book review of James Williamson’s Kahn at Penn in JAE, and must object to the numerous inaccurate and distortive paraphrases of my text that their rebuttal contains. While I disagree with almost every assertion in the eight sections of the rebuttal (which I think might be longer than my book review), I will let my review stand as my reply. However, I do need to correct three particularly egregious misrepresentations of my book review:
“McCarter appears to misunderstand the basic purposes and scope of Williamson’s book.” The task of the book reviewer is to review the book as it stands, not intuit the “purposes and scope” intended by the book’s author. Simply because a book is the only one of its kind—as is claimed for this book—does not relieve the reviewer of the responsibility to assess it. In fact, being the only book on a subject actually increases the need for its close reading.
“McCarter marginalizes the significance and effectiveness of Kahn’s teaching.” On the contrary, I never discussed the effectiveness of Kahn’s teaching (except to quote him on his own disappointments with his students’ work); what I did say was that the claim that the influence of Kahn’s teaching on his students, and their subsequent careers, was “the greatest legacy” of his teaching was simply not true, as Kahn’s architectural works remain his greatest legacy, and he is clear that his teaching allowed him to come to the insights that inspired his designs.
“McCarter asserts that we learned nothing from Kahn.” This is simply not true. What students learn—or do not learn—from their architecture teachers is reflected in the designs that emerge years later, and in the way of thinking and evaluating practiced by an architect. For those of us who are privileged to teach, the distance between our pedagogical intentions and the later built works of our students can be the most rewarding—or most disappointing—aspect of teaching.
Kahn said he could only teach “appropriateness;” in my review I was suggesting that we deserve an assessment of Kahn’s teaching that is appropriate to it.
– Robert McCarter