Between Silence And Light

This essay has a total of 3896 words and 18 pages.

Between Silence and Light

Between The Silence and The Light


Architecture is a meeting place between the measurable and the unmeasurable. The art of design is not only rooted in the aesthetic form, but in the soul of the work. In Phenomena and Idea, Stephen Holl once wrote, " The thinking-making couple of architecture occurs in silence. Afterward, these "thoughts" are communicated in the silence of phenomenal experiences. We hear the "music" of architecture as we move through spaces while arcs of sunlight beam white light and shadow." Undoubtedly, Holl adopted this concept from its author, Louis I. Kahn.

Unquestionably, I am referring to "Silence and Light", a concept created and nurtured by Khan, and one that dominated the later half of his work. Kahn had chosen the word Silence to define the unmeasurable or that which has not yet come to be. According to Khan, the unmeasurable is the force that propels the creative spirit toward the measurable, to the Light. When the inspired has reached that which is, that which known, he has reached the Light.

Eloquently expressing the architect's passion for design, Khan wrote "Inspiration is the of feeling at the beginning at the threshold where Silence and Light meet. Silence, the unmeasurable, desire to be. Desire to express, the source of new need, meets Light, the measurable, giver of all presence, by will, by law, the measure of thing already made, at a threshold which is inspiration, the sanctuary of art, the treasury of shadow." Khan believed that in order for architectural theory to be credible, it had to be constructed. Thirty years ago, Khan began one of his most successful executions of the Silence and Light with the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy.

This New Hampshire landmark physically illustrates and ideologically embodies many of Khan's concepts and incorporates many of his beliefs, synthesizing them into a tight little package with a powerful punch. The subtleties of materiality coupled with multiple plays of light truly embody the spirit of Khan's philosophy at Exeter Academy. As Stephen Holl concisely expresses "Architecture is born when actual phenomena and the idea that drives it intersect…Meanings show through at this intersection of concept and experience." It is exactly Khan's blending of idea and design that makes this building a model for theoretical execution in design.

The following essay will explore the many architectural implementations of Khan's theories from materials, to form, to function and to the Silence and Light. This investigation shall probe the ideology in conjunction with its realization to the approach, the circulation, the enclosure and the details. Additionally, the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy shall be analyzed in relationship to his theories on education, institutions and learning. As the quote "I asked the building what it wanted to be" has been often attributed to Louis Khan, I shall ask the question, "What did Khan want the building to be, and how did he approach this challenge?"

Institutions and Education

Khan believed that "Institution stems from the inspiration to live. This inspiration remains meekly expressed in our institutions today. The three great inspirations are the inspiration to learn, the inspiration to meet, and the inspiration for well being". The architecture of Exeter Library captures the essence of these inspirations, offering opportunities for all of them to blossom. Khan continued "They all serve, really, the will to be, to express. This is, you might say, the reason for living". It is this inspiration that enlivens the spirits of the students, and motivates them to study and learn. I may suggest then, that if the purpose of the institution lies within the Silence, then its physical materialization becomes the Light.

If we assume that the desire to seek truth and universal knowledge is rooted in the Silence, then we may accept the school building to be the Light, more precisely "spent light". Khan believed that the first schools emerged from the Silence, from the desire to learn. "Schools began with a man under a tree, who did not know he was a teacher, discussing his realization with a few, who did not know they were students. The students aspired that their sons also listen to such a man. Spaces were erected and the first schools began." Since Khan believed the essence of learning institutions should reflect these origins, he concluded that the building should promote the fundamental inspiration of learning.

Khan believed that students had as much to teach as teachers, that students inspired the teacher by their desire to be. "Teaching is an act of singularity to singularity. It is not talking to a group. They teach you of your own singularity, because only a singularity can teach a singularity." Postulating that teaching could only happen when learning was present, Khan sought to embrace the singularity for students. "Singularity is in the movement from Silence, which is the seat of the unmeasurable and the desire to be, to express, moving towards the means to express, which is material made of Light. Light comes to you because actually it is not divided; it is simply that which desires to be manifest, coming together with that which has become manifest. That movement meets at a point which may be called your singularity." In other words, the greatest potential of discovery stems from the meeting of the desire to learn and the desire to teach.

Although Khan was fond of learning, he maintained contempt for the educational system. He believed that the "the will to learn, the desire to learn, is one of the greatest inspirations. I am not that impressed by education. Learning, yes. Education is something, which is always on trial because no system can ever capture the real meaning of learning." Hence, the basic nature of learning is a personal desire to learn not a series of requirements dictated down by school boards. Khan theorized that for students, forced to memorize of dates, facts and formulas only to be forgotten soon after served no purpose in the realm of true learning.

For Khan, teaching is an art form, an acquired talent that must be able to teach a man to fish, not feed him for a day. "The work of students should not be directed to the solution of problems, but rather to sensing the nature of a thing. But you cannot know a nature without getting it out of your guts. You must sense what it is, and then you can look up what other people think it is. What you sense must belong to you, and the words of teaching must not in any way be in evidence, so completely has it been transformed into the singularity." Therefore, it is not the responsibility of the teacher to force students to process data nor to use mnemonics, but to provide the vehicle needed to access information

Information plays an important role in forming our understanding of reality. However, the complexity of everyday life and surrounding environments is often unreadable to us unless seen as a combination of interrelating sub-elements. The situation is paradoxical: we no longer believe in mindless subdivisions of reality as a method to understand it, but at the same time, we do not easily comprehend the 'globallity' of everyday experience.

In the design of the Exeter Library, Khan arranged a series of sub-elements, his ideas into a rich design thick with meaning and full of light. And only, through an independent study of each of these sub-elements does one have the opportunity to understand the overall structure. Defining and study of that interdependency of objects was the main theme of this investigation. I conclude then, at Phillips Exeter Academy, Khan began to manifest his beliefs into design, the Library gave Light to Khan's Silence.

From the Silence to the Light.

After receiving the commission for the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy, Louis Kahn first asked himself what a library should be. To guide his design process, his first objective was to ascertain the rudimental meaning of a library. "It is good for the mind to go back to the beginning, because the beginning of any established activity is its most wonderful moment." Khan did not investigate antecedents, precedents, nor did he survey its potential users. Treating this library as if no other had come before it, Khan sought the basic nature of the institution.

Kahn's design outline began with the declaration, "I see a library as a place where the librarian can lay out the books, open especially to selected pages to seduce the readers. There should be a place with great tables on which the librarian can put the books, and the readers should be able to take the books and go to the light." This concise statement summarizes the essential quality of the Library design. Not only does this mission statement promote his philosophy toward learning, but it also describes the procession, the circulation, and the management and manipulation of its users. Kahn is stating the idea from which he will "grow" three different spaces: one where students would come together in the presence of books, another of the books, and a third for reading in the light.

Since the movement of the user is of such great importance, that procession through the building shall become the outline for this analysis. Following this path, I shall proceed to illustrate the Silence behind the Light at the Exeter Library. I shall illustrate through photos and Khan's words, how I as the user experienced the Light.
The Approach and Enclosure

Extruding from the middle of a grass covered courtyard, the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy flanked on three sides by existing brick buildings embellished with New England Neo-Georgian flavor. This abundance of brick influenced Khan's decision making while selecting a material for the building exterior.
He said, "Brick was the most friendly material in the environment. I didn't want the building to be shockingly different in any way. I never lost my love of the old buildings." . On first glance, it appeared to me as if all the facades were the same, until after closer observation it became evident that there were small manipulations of wood and glazing. As I neared the facade, I also discovered variation in the width of the masonry piers between the windows. Kahn felt that it was important to be true to the nature of a material, "It is important that you honor the material you use. You don't bandy it about as though to say, "Well, we have a lot of material, we can do it one way, we can do it another way." It's not true. You must honor and glorify the brick instead of short-changing it and giving it an inferior job to do in which it loses its character, as, for example, when you use it as infill material, which I have done and you have done. Using brick so makes it feel as though it is a servant, and brick is a beautiful material. It has done beautiful work in many places and still does." Therefore the brick should be treated as a load-bearing material; not a veneer attached to a reinforced concrete frame. "He argued further that the force of gravity and the weight of the masonry should be evident in the construction. Thus, as the Library's brick piers rise and the load they must carry decreases, they become progressively narrower." This action creates a dramatic as the movement of energy is seen as the eye travels the height of the façade. As I studied the wall, I recall

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