One of the great what-ifs of architectural history is on view at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood: a congress center that Louis Kahn designed as a tensile bridge spanning a canal in the Arsenale of Venice. Had it been realized, it might have rivaled the Kimball Museum, the Salk Institute, and the Parliament of Dhaka among his masterworks. But the client was Venice, a museum city dedicated to mass tourism, which prefers mediocre replicas to inspired originals. Kahn died in 1974 before his design was completed, and it joins the Frank Lloyd Wright palazzo of 1953, and Le Corbusier’s hospital of 1964, as one of the lost opportunities for La Serenissima to infuse the old with the best of the new. Only now, with Calatrava’s footbridge across from the station, and David Chipperfield’s extension to the San Michele Cemetery have the Venetian authorities begun, haltingly, to address the present day.
A charcoal presentation drawing, twelve feet across, dramatizes Kahn’s mastery of form and his ability to create grand, yet humane spaces. “I can see the congress hall as if it were a theater in the round—where people look at people,” he declared. “It is not like a movie theater where people look at the screen.” Seating was to occupy the gently curved underside of the building, an idea that Kahn derived from the Campo in Siena. A table-top model of plasticine shows how well it would have fitted into the naval yard, with its still waters and crumbling brick walls. “Venice is an architecture of joy,” said Kahn. “Working on my project, I was constantly thinking as if I was asking each building I love so much in Venice whether they would accept me in their company.”
The exhibition “Louis Kahn in Venice” was curated by Barton Myers FAIA, a student of the master at Penn, and it is a must-see, for the little-seen architectural drawings and for a selection of brilliant travel sketches. Kahn was a gifted artist and a Beaux-Arts education honed his skills. In paint and pastel he captured the colors, facades and open spaces of Italian cities, on a first trip in 1928-29 and a return visit in 1950. There are haunting photographs of an architect who pursued a lonely path, suffered repeated setbacks, and died in poverty. Only in recent years has the immensity of his achievement become widely known.
The exhibition runs through March 19.
IIC, 1023 Hilgard Avenue, Westwood