The sun on trial: Kahn's gnostic garden at Salk
This dissertation interprets Kahn's architectural practices in the form of a simultaneous reading of selected written and built works. Although it analyzes excerpts culled from the full accumulation of Kahn's writings and interviews over a forty-three year period, the dissertation treats primarily one building, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (1959–1965). The dissertation argues that Kahn's speech intones a theological, as distinct from a philosophical or literary practice; and that Kahn's theoretical interests comport with certain mystical themes, in particular gnostic duality, Kabbalistic restitution, and alchemical transformation.
Especially after 1950 and his mid-life sojourn in Rome—after his epiphanic encounter with the great pyramids and the ruins of antiquity—Kahn directs his mature work toward the perfectibility of “human agreement.” He elaborates this idea in a non-discursive commentary on form and institution, which variously serve as Kahn's synonyms for “type.” Kahn's dualistic “mysticism”—his insatiable interest in origins and in the cosmic signatures of nature—propels a broad project of intellectual reconciliation. At Salk, for example, Kahn seeks to reconcile the fissure dividing science from art. His theoretical investments bear fruit in the composition of the laboratory complex, in particular its courtyard, to the extent that the courtyard is Salk. In the courtyard Kahn symbolizes the reconciliation of being and matter (“the unmeasurable and the measurable”), which parallels the fundamental reconciliation of the high and the low. The reunification of high and low is the essential conflict of gnostic, alchemical, and Kabbalistic traditions.
Joseph Rykwert notes that seventeenth and eighteenth century English intellectuals and architects turned to the occult arts on “the belief, among men of goodwill, that forms of communal practice of the inner life would help to override theological differences and attendant savage intolerance.” Likewise, Kahn draws toward mystical speech not because he practices mystical arts—all he ever practices is architecture—but because, as a man of intelligence and goodwill, he believes that the inner life might help override the brutal contradiction and intolerance of twentieth century experience.