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How Louis Kahn uses light and shadow as a metaphor in the Salk Institute and National Assembly of Bangladesh Carla Dela Pena

Contents Page

List of Illustrations

Preface Introduction Light and Shadow Salk Institute National Assembly of Bangladesh Metaphor in Architecture Light as Rhythm Light as God Shadows as Subjects Conclusion


List of Illustrations

Figure 1 - Plan of the Salk Institute

Figure 2 - Model of the National Assembly of Bangladesh

Figure 3 - Salk Institute’s rhythm

Figure 4 - Interior of the National Assembly of Bangladesh

Figure 5 - Salk Institute’s Open Plaza

Figure 6 - Interior of National Assembly of Bangladesh

Figure 7 - Shadows in the Salk Institute

Figure 8 - Shadows in the Salk Institute

Figure 9 - Shadows in the National Assembly of Bangladesh

Figure 10 - Shadows in the National Assembly of Bangladesh

PREFACE It is quite often, that we just take things as they are but don’t really delve into other meanings they could portray. Architecture is not merely about buildings, structure and form but it can also be poetic and expressive. This dissertation will focus on how Louis Kahn uses light and shadow in his buildings as a metaphor to symbolise different things, not in its literal form. Initially while writing this dissertation I wanted to write about light and shadow in general however this would mean my topic would be too broad to cover within this dissertation. While researching on light and shadow, there were plenty of articles and books about Louis Kahn and authors often quoted him. So I’ve looked at his works and have found that his works evoked a sense of sacredness. Rather than using light and shadow in extravagant ways he used them sparingly instead as if to allow us, the viewers to read between the lines and interpret what it is he is trying to say through his works. Each good architect has a reason as to why they have designed their building the way they have. From analysing two of Kahn’s buildings: the Salk Institute and the National Assembly of Bangladesh and laying these against Kahn’s quotes, as well as what other notable authors have said, I realised that metaphors can also be successfully and powerfully expressed through architecture and not through the use of language alone. Louis Kahn uses light and shadow in his buildings as metaphors, which I will soon discuss in this dissertation.

INTRODUCTION How often do we pay a conscious mind to light and shadow when occupying a space? When inhabiting a building, we do not always take notice of the nonmaterial factors that generate atmosphere within a building. According to the book ‘Fundamental Concepts of Architecture’ architecture is primarily experienced through the atmosphere it conceives. We fundamentally respond to the atmosphere indirectly rather than consciously. Light and shadow being two key elements that produce atmosphere in a building1 and are absorbed indirectly as we do not always pay attention to them. Several architects have used light and shadow to create an atmosphere and to convey metaphors in the buildings they are designing. They care so much about the little details such as how light and shadow will come into contact with their buildings that we the occupants pay little attention to. 1 2

Janson, A. Tigges, F. (2014) Fundamental Concepts of Architecture, p. 26-28., accessed on

One architect who exemplified in doing this is Louis Kahn (1901-1974). The main focus of my dissertation will be on two of Louis Kahn’s works. I will discuss and analyse the use of light and shadow in the Salk Institute and National Assembly of Bangladesh buildings. It should be noted that there are a great amount of sources that discuss Kahn’s use of light and silence. However, many do not entirely explain the possible reasons why he uses light and silence in his buildings. In this dissertation, my aim is to find Kahn’s reasons for using light and shadow in his works. Kahn’s works are evidently heavily influenced by his philosophical ideologies. Henceforth, in some of his works he uses light and shadow as a metaphor for God and as rhythm. And he uses shadows as a metaphor to symbolise they are subjected to light. By focusing on the two distinct buildings with different uses and from different countries, I will be able to clearly recognise the similarities and differences between them.

LIGHT AND SHADOW Light was always in need and constantly in demand since the olden times. Shadows were just naturally an effect caused by light and were not considered useful unless for determining the time. Thus it was inevitably very much overlooked. In today’s time we have watches and clocks to do this for us, we no longer need a sundial and shadow to tell us the time. However we still need light for visibility, for guidance, for enlightenment and more. We tend to welcome more and more light in as a Western culture whilst pushing shadow aside until it is almost non-existent. In my opinion, light and shadow would always go hand in hand. We need light wherever we are, and shadows being a by-product of light, is something that can’t be overlooked and be forgotten. Many architects tend to use light as a design element in their building, and Kahn was considered a master of light whose architecture was shaped by shadow, according to Thomas Schielke.2 This is evident in his buildings: the Salk Institute and the National Assembly of Bangladesh.

2, accessed on 13/01/2017.

SALK INSTITUTE (1965, San Diego, California, United States) Kahn was commissioned by Dr Jonas Salk in 1959 where Salk desired for there to be a bridge between the arts and the sciences in his institute: ‘where Picasso could be invited to meet the scientists’. The institute is positioned high on the cliffs facing the Pacific Ocean, which is also exposed to an abundant amount of natural light and tranquillity. Kahn was not shy to take advantage of the institute’s location by zoning it into three clusters. Each zone shares the view of the ocean and gets tremendous amount of sunlight: (1) The place of work, such as the laboratories, is near the main road to the east. (2) The place of repose, where the residential buildings are, is positioned along the edges of the canyon, allowing access through the centre of the site. (3) The place of meeting is situated closest to the ocean to the west.3 Figure 1 shows the plan of the Salk Institute. These three clusters form a symmetrical plan. As shown in plan, two structures mirror each other and are separated by an open plaza that has water running down the centre to associate the institute with the Pacific Ocean. With this water element, the Salk Institute is considered as “the thoughtful making of space” as nicely put from Kahn’s mouth. Since its completion in 1965 the Salk Institute has been considered as one of the most inspirational works of architecture in the world.4

Figure 1: Plan of the Salk Institute

3 4

McCarter, R. (2009) Louis I. Kahn, p. 183., accessed on 14/11/2016.

NATIONAL ASSEMBLY OF BANGLADESH (1982, Dhaka, Bangladesh) In 1962, three years before the Salk Institute was completed, Kahn was commissioned to design the National Assembly of Bangladesh. But before Kahn was approached to build the assembly, both Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto received the commission, however they declined and thus gave Kahn the opportunity to design the building instead. Initially Kahn wanted to make a building with monumental presence, however because Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan in March 1971 construction of the assembly was brought to a stop. The project was then continued in December of the same year but instead of resuming with the initial idea it was inversed into a symbol of democracy and pride for the Bengali people. It became a symbol of their pride and freedom by which they feel they are known to the world. Although a large number of citizens in Bangladesh are Muslims it was obvious that there were numerous similarities between Kahn’s plan for the National Assembly and plan of Renaissance centralised churches. Kahn paid much attention to the roof structure to make it symmetrical and orderly5, as shown in figure 2.

Figure 2: Model of the National Assembly of Bangladesh

The building was completed in 1982 costing double the initial estimated cost at $32 million but regardless it stands as one of Kahn’s most prominent works being a symbolic monument to the government of Bangladesh.6 This was a building that Kahn never saw into completion for he died in 1974. 5

McCarter, R. (2009) Louis I. Kahn, p. 258, -269., accessed on 15/11/2016.


METAPHOR IN ARCHITECTURE Metaphor 1 a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest resemblance. 2 something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.7 Metaphors are everywhere; in songs, conversations, media, work and so on. It brings out what little we can see from the object make the unknown familiar. Furthermore, it connotes a mysterious resemblance to the actual thing it is implying and hinting at. Metaphor in architecture is shown to be a tool and medium used by architects, designers and users, to convey the messages of the creator to the readers. The building’s silhouette, volume, height, detail, windows and floors are some forms metaphors can be presented. Although it should be noted that metaphors are not limited to these forms only. Everyday usage of metaphor is obtained from linguistics and literary terms that are applied to other contexts associating meanings and emotions, which in other respect would not have been related but would talk about one thing in terms of another. This is when language meets architecture, a method to communicate the architect’s ideologies not in actual words but through his works. In essence, whilst architects are the overall masters of the work, the final building itself is a result of the metaphoric process called ‘design’, which is the one that creates the metaphor. Design is part of the process whereby architects formulate the metaphor they want to conceive within the building. According to Vincent Scully, architects have a serious responsibility to fill our world with meaning and significance so that we are able to see the graphic, natural form and sculpture and explain in words what we see with our eyes.8 And Kahn himself said that ‘as a human, expression is tremendously important because we actually live to express’.9 Lakoff and Johnson, both cognitive linguists, stated that ‘metaphor appears to be a neural mechanism where anything we can think or understand is shaped by and made possible by, and limited by our bodies, brains, and our embodied interactions in the world’.10 They have found out through scientific research that metaphor is pervasive in our everyday lives, not just as characteristics of language alone but in thought and action also.11 7, accessed on 26/11/2016. Fez-Barringten, B. (2012) Architecture: The Making of Metaphor, p. 1-2, 6., accessed on 26/11/2016. 9 Lobell, J. (1979) Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis Kahn, p. 48. 10, accessed on 13/01/2017. 11 Lakoff, G. and Johnsen, M. (2003) Metaphors We Live By, p. 3., accessed on 13/01/2017. 8

So it is evident that metaphors are used by other means not just through words. I will now be exploring how Kahn uses light and shadow as a metaphor in his buildings.

LIGHT AS RHYTHM “Greek architecture taught me that the column is where the light is not, and the space between is where the light is. It is a matter of no-light, light, no-light, light. A column and a column brings light between them. To make a column which grows out of the wall and which makes its own rhythm of no-light, light, no-light, light: that is the marvel of the artist.”12 -Louis Kahn “I sense a Threshold: Light to Silence, Silence to Light - an ambiance of inspiration, in which the desire to be, to express, crosses with the possible Light to Silence, Silence to Light crosses in the sanctuary of art.”13 -Louis Kahn In figure 3 of the Salk Institute and figure 4 of the National Assembly of Bangladesh you can clearly differentiate the spaces where there is no-light and where there is light. A technique Kahn learnt from Greek architecture. This technique is one example of how Kahn specifically designs his buildings to convey rhythm. In Tanizaki’s book In Praise of Shadows, he mentioned how the atmosphere of Japanese music is rather reserved and introverted compared to the Western culture. How even when they converse it is with soft voice, being the most important component in the conversation are the pauses in-between.14 So the shadows formed in the Salk Institute in-between where the light is are ‘pauses’ in the music of architecture. “Silence is not very, very quiet. It is something that you may say is lightless, darkless. Some can say this is the ambient soul – if you go back beyond and think of something in which Light and Silence were together, and may be still together, and separate only for the convenience of argument.”15 -Louis Kahn The rhythm of light, no-light, light, no-light makes some sort of music in the architecture – where the light is, is when it is loud and where the shadow is, is when it is quiet. This would then produce a rhythm of loud, quiet, loud, and quiet through the use of harmony between light and shadow. 12, accessed on 7/10/2016. 13, accessed on 9/12/2016. 14 Tanizaki, J. (1991) In Praise of Shadows, p. 9.

15 Lobell, J. (1979) Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis Kahn, p. 20.

The tempo would then be in accordance to the distance between the light and no light. The more spaced out the distance is the slower the tempo, the closer the distance the faster the tempo. So figure 3 shows that the tempo is of normal paced with a mixture of loud and quiet dynamics. On the other hand, figure 4 shows that it is with slower tempo with a calm dynamic.

Figure 3: Salk Institute’s rhythm

Figure 4: Interior of the National Assembly of Bangladesh

A potential reason why Kahn used light and shadows as rhythm could be because ever since he was young he was exposed to music, since his mother was a talented musician. His fondness of music inspired him to take a music course whilst in school. In fact, Kahn showed talent in music that a scholarship was offered to him, which was however declined in order to concentrate on the visual arts. Fortunately, he did not allow his talent in music become useless, as a teenager he played the organ at movie theatres to help support his family. 16 This talent in music, although not pursued, would inevitably appear in his buildings’ design like the Salk Institute and the National Assembly of Bangladesh.

LIGHT AS GOD Having come from a Jewish descent would have had played a part in how Kahn would design his buildings. And because Jews believed in a divine God, Kahn may have metaphorically used light to convey and paint a divine being, which is God.

16 Brownlee, D.B. and De Long, D.G. (1997) Louis I. Kahn: In the realm of architecture, p. 13.

However, not all people correctly interpreted the metaphor (light as God) that Kahn was portraying. This included Kahn’s friend Vincent Scully, who is a professor in history of art in architecture at Yale University. From the film My Architect – A Son’s Journey by Louis Kahn’s son Nathaniel Kahn, when Professor Scully was interviewed he implied that Kahn is God: “From the beginning he was after symmetry, order, geometric clarity, primitive power, enormous weight as much as he could get… …he wants materials that will last, which is a permanent work. That was what he was after. He wanted everything to be right and perfect. In Jewish mysticism, which I know almost nothing about, God can only be known through his works. Right? Since the Messiah hasn’t come yet, the works of any Jewish architect might be the works of God. And you take those pictures of Louis when he’s looking into the light and when he’s enjoying silence like this, it makes your hair stand up because he really is like that, it’s as if he’s somewhat communicating with this fundamental thing. That God is in the work. So it has to be perfect you see. It has to be perfect. It can’t be impatient. It’s timeless.”17 Scully suggested that the works of Kahn, as a Jewish architect, might be the works of God stemming from the notion that Kahn pursued perfection through his works by using symmetry, geometry, order and primitive power, which only God holds. However, for Kahn to be God or even be like God through his works would be opposing his Jewish beliefs that God is the only one God and anyone claiming to be God would be a sin. Instead it could be argued that Kahn was only following his belief that he should bring holiness into everything that he does, including with the design of his buildings, to bring praises to God as an act of worship18 this would explain why Kahn’s works are abstractly sacred and how it evokes spirituality when occupying them so that holiness could be brought even in his buildings. As aforementioned before, light could metaphorically be conveyed as God. The use of light and how it enters and come into contact with his buildings could paint a picture of God being present in it. Kahn phrased it beautifully “I sense light as the giver of all presences.”19 The way Kahn allowed light to enter in in the two buildings were done differently; in the Salk Institute he did not try to mysteriously conceal the space by using darkness, instead he allowed light to fill the place and let it form shadows. As shown in figure 5 the open space empower the light to 17 My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003). Directed by Nathaniel Kahn. [Film]. USA. 18, accessed on 15/11/2016. 19, accessed on 16/11/2016.

consume the plaza implying that God is omnipresent. While in the National Assembly of Bangladesh, Kahn masked the space with darkness to heighten our awareness of the light. Figure 6 illustrates how darkness fills the space, which consequently makes the light that enters in to be the focal point. Thereby the occupants are focused on light, which in turn means we are aware of God’s presence and are focused toward God.

Figure 5: Salk Institute’s Open Plaza

Figure 6: Interior of National Assembly of Bangladesh

Although the metaphor of God was portrayed differently in the two buildings, both buildings still relied on the use of light. The institute is filled with light whilst the assembly emphasised on focused lighting. Light is intended to be a central element for us to express awe of it – for us to be in awe of God. This would mean that Kahn did not intend to be like God, as Scully suggested, but rather he is using his works to point the focus to God. He demonstrated this by allowing light as a presence giver to enter in, working and cooperating with shadows. In shadows there is silence, so that our focus is on light (God).

SHADOWS AS SUBJECTS So the use of light is metaphorically pointing to God. We could then also say that Louis Kahn used shadows and darkness as a metaphor of being subjects to light. Louis Khan quoted that: "What is made by Light casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to Light."20 And from the dictionary, shadow is ‘a dark figure or image cast on the ground or some surface by a body intercepting light’.21 Shadows can only be brought up to existence if there is a source of light and a surface but without these they would not be able to exist. The two forces manipulate the shadows formed, as shadows do not have the authority to say how they will come to be. The shape and size of the shadows are dependent upon the object and the source of light. Distance also plays a role in this manipulation - if the object is closer to the light source the shadow formed is larger compared to when the object is further away from the light source where the shadow formed is smaller.22 Because they are controlled it can be said that they are subjects to light, and that they ‘belong’ to light. There are three types of shadows that we encounter, according to Leonardo da Vinci: cast shadow, attached shadow and shading shadow. Cast shadow is where light meets obstructing solids. Attached shadow is formed without direct contact with light, not because of obstruction by some other object but because they face away from the light. Shading shadow has gradients inherent to the form and depends only on the amount of light received. A surface facing the source of light directly will receive more intense light than that with surfaces that receive less light.23 In the Salk Institute and the National Assembly of Bangladesh buildings, shadows are manipulated by light and surfaces to mimic the structure and outline of the building. They can only form the shape that the two factors allow. They cannot form as to how they want; if the surface has a circular shape, a geometric-shaped shadow cannot be formed as they are subjected to and dependent on the light and the shape of the surface. As there is a direct contact with natural light and the walls of the buildings as shown in figures 7-10, this creates a cast shadow of the wall’s shape. The Salk Institute produces shadows shaped like the balcony’s walls, while the National Assembly creates circle-shaped shadows from its circular windows. 20, accessed on 9/12/2016. 21, accessed on 13/01/2017. 22, accessed on


23 Baxandall, M. (1995) Shadows and Enlightenment, p. 2-3.

As what Kahn said: “Light is really the source of all being”24. So shadow would have come from light, and because it came from light, light would have authority over this subject, shadow. This could be argued however, that without shadow or darkness there is no way that we can tell there is light. We can only become aware of the light when there is darkness. So instead of shadows being subjected to light, they are partners. Light is in need of shadow and shadow is in need of light. I gave myself an assignment; to draw a picture that demonstrates light. Now if you give yourself such an assignment, the first thing you do is escape somewhere, because it is impossible to do. You say that the white piece of paper is the illustration; what else is there to do? But when I put a stroke of ink on the paper, I realized that black was where the light was not, and then I could really make a drawing, because I could be discerning as to where the light was not, which was where I put the black. Then the picture became absolutely luminous.25 -Louis Kahn Kahn also expressed that he ‘likened the emergence of Light to a manifestation of two brothers’26 which means he intended light and shadow to be brothers rather than one being inferior to the other.

24 Lobell, J. (1979) Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis Kahn, p. 22. 25 Lobell, J. (1979) Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis Kahn, p. 22.

26 Lobell, J. (1979) Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis Kahn, p. 20.

Figure 7 and Figure 8: Shadows in the Salk Institute

Figure 9 and Figure 10: Shadows in the National Assembly of Bangladesh

CONCLUSION Kahn utilised the skills that he possessed and who he is into his designs. He was an architect, a Jew, a poet, a philosopher, an artist and a musician – all in one. It was evident that his ideologies played a vast role in how he portrayed light and shadow by analysing the Salk Institute and the National Assembly of Bangladesh. By noticing the apparent similarities and differences between the two buildings further proved the key thoughts as to how and why Kahn uses light and shadow. Because he was musically gifted and had interest in music since young he metaphorically applied music into the two buildings by creating rhythms of nolight, light, no-light, light. Like with all music each one is different from another, so too is the music in the institute and the assembly. The institute had a normal tempo based on the distance between light and no-light, and has mixture of loud and quiet dynamics. The assembly had a slower tempo compared to the institute due to the far distance between light and no-light, whilst mixing the dynamics. The Jewish background of Kahn greatly influenced and did not hinder him from applying his beliefs into his designs. He used light, as a metaphor for God to be the main focus so that we are aware God is present within the building. Kahn acquired this by carefully utilising shadows and darkness. He allowed light to take over in the Salk Institute’s open plaza while he manipulated the space in the National Assembly of Bangladesh by filling the space with mostly darkness so that only light that comes in is the central focus. And lastly, he conveyed shadows as subjects to light. Where the shadows formed are manipulated and are only obey the light source and surface. This is evident in how shadows are formed wholly depending on the two factors. However, this could be argued that Kahn did not intend for shadows to be subjected to light but rather to be brothers and be partners with light. Where both light and shadows are in need of each other. Although these points may not cover the whole entirety of why and how Kahn uses light and shadow, at least they are explored to a good extent. Further explorations could be included for a deeper insight into Kahn’s other inspirations - who else inspired him besides his mother and how he applied his inspirations into his works. Another possible discussion is, how does Kahn being a teacher learn from his students? As well as exploring other ideas. But overall, with hope, we as occupants of buildings will pay a conscious mind to light and shadow within the space like how Louis Kahn envisioned it to be, being aware of the use of light and shadow. But furthermore, to grasp that buildings are able to powerfully convey metaphors and not just in literal language devices. This would involve interpretations of the designs of light and shadow in the building. So that the next we are able to find deeper meaning of the buildings and a picture of the architect’s intentions and purposes.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Books: Baxandall, M. (1995) Shadows and Enlightenment. Brownlee, D.B. and De Long, D.G. (1997) Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture. Fez-Barringten, B. (2012) Architecture: The Making of Metaphor. Janson, A. Tigges, F. (2014) Fundamental Concepts of Architecture. Lakoff, G. and Johnsen, M. (2003) Metaphors We Live By. Lobell, J. (1979) Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis Kahn. McCarter, R. (2009) Louis I. Kahn. Tanizaki, J. (1991) In Praise of Shadows.

Articles & Websites:

Film: My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003). Directed by Nathaniel Kahn. [Film].

Light and shadow as metaphors  
Light and shadow as metaphors