Kahn Tour: Scumbling the Small Stuff

| Sep 10, 2008
by: J. Tobias

To make a sketch…requires…the making of many impressions and notes ‘on the job.’ You must then get away from it all to work over and crystallize your thoughts in order to develop the picture in the form of a readable design.

On a study tour, time really is of the essence. The pace forces one to both slow down (observe) yet speed up (get impressions). Here are two takes on Kahn’s Jesse Oser House (1940-1942). The first is “on the job” (With tour manager Kathy Sturm in the foreground, keeping us on schedule). The second follows “get[ting]away from it all” and developing the drawing into a “readable design.”

There is no value in trying to imitate exactly…We should not imitate when our intention is to create–to improvise…I have learned to regard it as no physical impossibility to move mountains and trees, or change cupolas and towers to suit my tastes.

In this spirit I can exaggerate perspective, manipulate shadows, and literally furnish the mise en scene. Scholarship requires getting the facts exactly right. Drawing requires no footnotes. But Kahn knew that interpretive drawing must, in the end, respect the subject:

I try in my sketching not to be entirely subservient to my subject, but I have respect for it…

Any study tour shifts, like a drawing, between the “big picture” and telling details. It would have been a pleasure to linger on the idiosyncratic details of the Furness library at Penn–its crockets, wedge mouldings, and patterned brickwork. But the situation called for the big picture, with the rest improvised later, if the drawing “wanted” it. Furness invented a formal grammar all his own, so can’t I riff on it a bit?

I try to evolve a composition, and make every sketch count for as much value to me as may be gotten out of a design problem.

Site visits are an excellent way to study details. Archtiecture may start with a room, as Kahn would say, but it ends with building codes, HVAC, and electrical outlets. Consider the air vent detailing in the cupola of Temple Beth El (1966-1972). Two practicing architects in the tour group were disappointed by the execution: surely Kahn wasn’t responsible! Based on their observations, I indicated the vents but downplayed them. Or should they be drawn as they appear?

Images (top): Jennifer Tobias. Jesse Oser House (1940-1942)

Image (middle): Jennifer Tobias. Frank Furness. Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsylvania (1888-1891).
Image (bottom): Jennifer Tobias. Temple Beth El (1966-1972).
All images Creative Commons License.

Quotes from Louis Kahn. “The Value and Aim in Sketching.” T-Square Club Journal of Philadelphia. May 1931, 18-21.

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