Art and science in transition: Four laboratory designs of Louis I. Kahn considered as mediative representation

Randy Stuart Swanson, University of Pennsylvania


The laboratory designs of Louis Kahn are examined for the expressive impact of typological forces of the laboratory and institutional values of science. The effort is initiated by a proposition by M. Tafuri that the institutions which Kahn sought to embody architecturally are artificial and that this may be a cause for weakness in his work. "Mediative Representation" is a position based upon the work of Joseph Rykwert where an architecture of value initiates a mediative event between an individual, himself, and his world. The method of analysis is based upon Umberto Eco's, Theory of Semiotics, where poetry is defined as being the active agent in all art forms and is initiated by ambiguous and self-focusing characteristics. These characteristic are sought out as indicators of expressive events. Four laboratory designs are examined; The Research Institute for Advanced Study, (unbuilt), Baltimore, Md., 1956-1958; the Richards Medical Research Laboratories, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa., 1957-64; The Salk Institute, La Jolla, Calif., 1959-65; and the University of Virginia Chemistry Building, (unbuilt) Charlottesville, Va., 1961-63. Analysis begins with the preparation of a typological study of the laboratory type to establish conventional demands and building characteristics. Analysis proceeds with a search for ambiguities along the public path of Kahn's designs. Ambiguities arise when the building form fails to correspond with strict utilitarian demands and conventional means of accommodation. Relations between ambiguities are sought through design sketches for a correspondence and verification with the architect's intentions. All the designs offered the potential of mediative representation. The ambiguities found were not principally the result of a strong personal vision but were due to circumstance and working method. His method is not characterized as radically innovative, but rather at a level between the application of modes of replication and modest innovation. Kahn's success was found to reside in large part with correspondence of his method of design and the institutional forces that were at play in his projects.

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Recommended Citation

Swanson, Randy Stuart, "Art and science in transition: Four laboratory designs of Louis I. Kahn considered as mediative representation" (1993). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9413915.