Of Music, Kahn and the purely architectural.

I was reading to students, Aaron Copland’s classic text, “what to listen for in music”, and forcing them to consider the idea of the purely musical in music, apart from its expressiveness and sensuousness.

I was as is usual droning/ boring them to consider the question of what is purely architectural in architecture – that very primary question that forever animates architecture/architectural theory. What is it in architecture that belongs to architecture alone, when you dare to consider it as something other than a melting pot of other disciplines. It is a scary question to ask, I barely have answers for it.

The thing about performing a lecture from the basis of an ambitious text in the classroom is that you ask ambitious questions, questions for which you don’t have the answers for fully. Questions which follow you and disturb you unexpectedly, when you have other pressing work to do (like now). Of course the downside is some folks think you are being pretentious, preposterous or pontificating. We won’t go into that.

The question makes one cling to Eisenman’s thought that a column as opposed to a text is simultaneously its signifier and signified, there is no textual slippage no Derridean ‘defer-ing’ of meaning between signifier and signified, which in a text carries with it the inherent promise/potential of freedom from authoritative meanings. And then you have Eisenman;s attempt to displace those meanings in architecture…a post functionalist column/form. And yet this is not fully satisfactory. Even if what is purely architectural about architecture is indeed the wall, the column, the floor, the roof, the idea of space as opposed to volume and the disciplinary knowledge built up over thousands of years of particular canons of syntax formation and transgression. The Renaissance as a transgression of the syntactic codes of what was thought to belong to the Gods applying it to that which belonged to man. Modernism as an attempt to radically break syntactic codes of the renaissance and enlightenment. Of course this is our reading and in actuality, their semantic violations carried the day, entered the discourse far more than their syntactic transgressions. As papa Eisenman would say functionalism was only a variation of the humanisms of enlightenment and renaissance.

Even if this reading, no doubt heavily influenced by Eisenman has a certain intellectual attractiveness, it seems problematic. There are certainly more expressive and less expressive columns although what they signify cannot be distinguished. The slippage is not major enough. The columns of akshardham fail on all counts while the simple stone hewed one in an ordinary Hampi pavilion is expressive. This is where Frampton’s idea of the tectonic could help. The tectonic, the joint as that which is the most architectural about architecture – how things come together not merely as a practical logic of construction, but as a way to order the world. This is not the ‘construction detail’ as taught in BC studio, or the standard ones umpteen firms in Bangalore produce with their cladding/glazing consultants. To quote Frampton, “There is a spiritual value residing in the ‘thingness’ of the constructed object, so much so that the generic joint becomes a point of ontological condensation rather than a mere connection”. An unusual marriage it seems between Eisenman’s virulent anti-phenomenology and Frampton’s selective espousal of Heidegger, but Frampton and Eisenman are no doubt connected by critical theory.


But I will commit even a greater transgression – talk about Kahn, the one who has been so appropriated by phenomenologists. The picture Ryan clicked at Salk in La Jolla. It struck me today looking at that picture and trying to channel those feelings, that Kahn is one of those day dreams you have about architecture. Even for someone like me who completely rejects the purely phenomenological, ‘sensuous’ plane of architecture, that gobledy gook of cause effect relationships that connect form to ‘emotion’, Kahn remains instructive, mysterious. The master of the tectonic and the expressive (not the sensuous).

His work evokes that purely architectural feeling to which you desperately cling on, when it hits you, hoping all the while that it isn’t just a dream. Architecture that just is… (to quote Kahn.) Which lives up to your best hopes of what it can do, at least once in a while – produce a singular moment of existential awareness. Existential awareness that slips in and out of the realization of that which is purely architectural in architecture. This seems to be the eternal magic in Kahn’s work, like the single ray of sunlight coming in from the Parthenon, (which he was so fond of), which cuts the space like a knife, existential but the oculus and the dome itself which is so tectonic.


The oculus a point of absence created by the compression ring at its edge. A point of pure compression where material disappears! While the contrast between the smooth and coffered roof offers an allegory of the compression and tension parts of the dome.  The coffers themselves offers both in its geometry as well as light and shadow both the principle of construction and the forces that run through. But none of these are ‘honest’ one to one relationships, empirical ‘truths’ – the genius is still the conceptual synthesis that brings part and whole together.


He is a master of the purely architectural in architecture with a grasp of how it effects/affects the expressive plane. It is not a one way movement from form/materiality to detail or reverse but a dialectic,that seems to work in both scales. Kahn’s work and Kahn himself for all my analytic emphasis always seems to be out of reach, around the corner, mysterious, with an amused smile, silent with a finger pressed to his lips.


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