'Right now, architecture badly needs to reaffirm its foundations,' says Ole Bouman, director of the Netherlands Architecture institute (NAi) in Rotterdam. In his speech of the opening of the NAi's new exhibition, 'Louis Kahn - The Power of Architecture', Bouman' couldn't avoid addressing not just the future of architecture but also the agenda of the architectural institute itself. 'We have to show architecture of overwhelming strength,' he continued, 'so inevitably we have to show the work of Louis Kahn.'
Kahn's work has a certain undeniable gravity. Surprisingly, there hasn't been a retrospective of this American master in Europe since 1969. For this new show, the NAi and the Vitra Design Museum have joined forces with America's largest architectural archives - those of the University of Pennsylvania, located in Kahn's hometown Philadelphia. The exhibition, which is part of a series of shows on the great master builders of the twentieth century, opens in the Netherlands, and will then travel onwards to Germany, Norway and United States, courtesy of prolific art sponsor Swarovski.
Although Kahn's work is rarely out of the design press - and one of his final designs, the Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in New York, is due to open in October, the last major exhibition on Kahn's work was at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Los Angeles in 1991. The new show's curators, Stanislaus von Moos and Jochen Eisenbrand, took this as a starting point but have developed it in many ways. 'A lot of new research has been produced since then, and in this exhibition another Kahn is emerging', explains Eisenbrand.
Organised into six major themes, the retrospective shows the sheer diversity of Kahn's projects. With a plethora of original sketches, large-scale models, publications written on or by Kahn, as well as information about architecture projects that influenced his work, the curators have succeeded in revealing the story behind the building. Kahn, as we learn walking through the exhibition, was an architect who addressed fundamental social and civic issues with his buildings.
Visitors can expect to be surprised by themes that are not easily associated with Kahn's work, including biophysics and engineering, as well as future visions for the city of Philadelphia. What the projects - ranging from museums, laboratories to houses of prayer - have in common is clear: elementary forms and strong geometry.
Bouman gives another reason why the exhibition on this widely admired 'guru' is especially relevant today. 'Despite architecture's distress in this turbulent age, there is a truth to be found in these timeless qualities. This is about architecture that will wait until it is rediscovered and recognised time and time again.'