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Hypothesis: Kuressaare Castle as the Beginning of Kahn’s Architecture

Heie Treier (1/2012)

Heie Treier

Louis Kahn’s architecture during his peak period has been associated with Egyptian pyramids, Scottish castles etc. If Kenneth Frampton writes that “The beginning of Kahn’s concern with the past is more difficult to establish”[1] at this point let’s propose a hypothesis that the “key” is Kuressaare Castle, i.e. a medieval gothic-style convent-building-type structure. In Modern Architecture, Frampton cites a reference to the Middle Ages by Enzo Fratelli as a motto: “While Kahn is classical in fact, in the stability and symmetry of his forms, he is romantic in his nostalgia for the Middle Ages. He earnestly applies the most advanced technological means, but this does not prevent him from using stone supporting pillars for the Adler House. He has gone beyond the schemes of functionalism in his distribution, but on many instances he utilizes functionalist aesthetics.” [2]
Kuressaare Castle has been examined through a “Kahn filter” by architect and theorist Anne Tyng – Kahn’s colleague and the mother of his child. In 1997, Tyng starts her book with a chapter about Kahn’s childhood – “Born on a Castled Island in the Baltic.” Right at the beginning, we read, “Lou’s description of the castle on Saaremaa had given it a fairy-tale quality.”[3]
There are no direct references to Kuressaare Castle in Kahn’s archival materials and written documents, but based on this hypothesis, one should also consider Kahn’s vocabulary and rhetoric as a reference. For instance, he talks a lot about “beginnings” and he states that he likes “fairy tales”. For the architect, these meaningful metaphors could have also been euphemisms for his primarily childhood memories. Speaking in the language of euphemisms was contingent on the surrounding cultural and political situation during the Cold War.
Anne Tyng travelled to Saaremaa for the first time in 1993, immediately after the end of the Cold War. She describes what she saw and experienced. There is no doubt that she is most interested in Kuressaare Castle, but also in the medieval churches and local wooden architecture. She writes, “The castle must have been etched in the memory of a boy of five with its impressive scale dominating the small town of almost entirely one- and two-story buildings.”[4]
Anne Tyng believes that the architect acquired his earliest lesson about monumentality here.  Kahn wrote an essay titled “Monumentality” in 1944, the Estonian-language translation of which was selected to the special Kahn issue of the Estonian Architectural Review.[5] Anne Tyng also associates the square-shaped Kuressaare Castle and the layout of its inner courtyard with two buildings designed during the peak of Kahn’s creative period – the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem (1967–74, unbuilt) and the Exeter Library in the United States (1972).[6]
The following hypothesis is based on the empirical information I collected during my Kahn journey. I treat the buildings as visual sources, just like archival documents are verbal sources. I was supported by three independent architect-theorists – Anne Tyng in the U.S., as well as Vilen Künnapu[7] and Toivo Tammik[8] in Estonia.
According to this hypothesis, one of Kahn’s most important primary visual impulses was Kuressaare Castle, a convent building built according to the practices of the German Order in the second half of the 14th century. It is located on an island and difficult to access thanks to the moats and sea surrounding it. Both the form and content of medieval convent building shine through the buildings and monuments of Kahn’s peak creative period.
Kahn’s Trenton Bath House (1955) was the first fortification-type structure, similar to the Kuressaare Castle, which is comprised of four cubes with an inner courtyard, located on the edge of a body of water. When he designed the bath house, Kahn had discovered his unique hand. The Bryn Mawr College dormitory building (1960–65) is directly reminiscent of severe medieval fortification architecture, as it is the Exeter Library in New Hampshire (1967–1972) and many others. The floor plan of his most significant work, the National Assembly building in Dhaka (1962–1974) is not square, but the building, which evokes a fortification, is surrounded by moat, and it was largely built with pure manpower, just like in the Middle Ages.
Let’s ignore any national context, be it Jewish, Estonian, German, American, etc. Let’s treat fortification architecture as a universal principle, which transcends nations and cultures. Looking at Kuressaare Castle, and partially also the medieval churches in Saaremaa, through a “Kahn filter”, and Kahn’s buildings through a “Kuressaare Castle filter”, the following similarities and aspects catch the eye.
-          Geometry
The floor plan of Kuressaare Castle is square and observes a specific regularity. The primary geometric shapes and volumes – square/cube, circle/sphere, and triangle – are repeated in the floor plans, but even seemingly trivial details, of Kahn’s buildings and memorials.
-          Fortification architecture as a principle
a) From a bird’s-eye view – both Kuressaare Castle and the National Assembly building in Dhaka are surrounded by water-filled moats.
b) At the grassroots level – elements are repeated in Kuressaare Castle and the buildings designed by Kahn, such as thick walls, strong arches, high-quality building stones, narrow windows like embrasures, “boring” grey colour, etc. Kuressaare Castle represents the principle of passive defence – seeking shelter behind walls, strong gates, etc. Estonia’s geographical location at the intersection of waterways has been strategic. In the U.S., Kahn was forced to defend himself psychologically, as a member of a family of first-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe. Several of the buildings designed by Kahn are based on the concept of protection – the Trenton Bath House as protection against the blazing sun and the gazes of strangers in the dressing room; the Bryn Mawr dormitories as defensive architecture for the young women studying there; Dhaka as defensive architecture for a young nation, etc.  
-          T-motif
The T-motif occurs in the window design of Kuressaare Castle. This was Kahn’s trademark during his period of self-discovery from 1957 to 1963, and it appears in both window placements (Esherick House, Richards Medical Laboratories, etc.) and in interior details. Kahn called the motif a “keystone”[9], a term that is more common in medieval architecture.
-          Ceiling design
The interior spaces of Kuressaare Castle have Gothic vaults or arches. In several of the buildings, he has designed geometric grid-like ceilings (Yale University Art Gallery, Bryn Mawr College dormitories) or special roof or ceiling structures based thereon (Trenton Bath House, Kimbell Art Museum). Here we see an amalgamation of the principles of medieval and modernist architecture. 
-          Corner solutions
The floor plan of Kuressaare Castle pays special attention to the corners – the two defensive towers are located there. In Kahn’s floor plans the corners also have a special function, but in the opposite way – they are often left empty, airily balancing the otherwise heavy architecture (the corner solution with a slight break at the Richards Medical Laboratories, the Exeter Library, Hurva Synagogue, etc.).
-          Windows and openings
Fortification architecture cannot have very large windows if it did it would not be a fortification. Kahn was primarily interested in the drama of light, the directing of light with the help of windows and openings. Thus, he sometimes designed various windows and “air holes” in illogical places (e.g. the under-eave openings instead of windows in Trenton) to simultaneously create a feeling of security for the people in the room and a liberating feeling of space.  
These photos of Kuressaare Castle by architect and photographer Arne Maasik have been made through a “Kahn filter.” The goal was to record the visual manifestation of the Kuressaare Castle as well as its specific atmosphere and the soul of the building, which is difficult to verify or measure scientifically.

[1] Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History. 4th edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007, 243.
[2] Ibid, 238.
[3] Louis Kahn to Anne Tyng, The Rome Letters 1953–1954. Edited with Commentary by Anne Grisworld Tyng, New York: Rizzoli, 1997, 8.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Louis I. Kahn. “Monumentaalsus (1944),” Estonian Architectural Review 2007, no. 47/48, 5–9. Translated by Tiina Randus.
[6] Louis Kahn to Anne Tyng, 210-211.
[7] Vilen Künnapu. “Louis Kahn and the Images of Eternal Architecture,” Estonian Architectural Review 2007, no. 47/48, 127–128.
[8] Conversation with Toivo Tammik, 16 December 2012 in Tallinn. As an independent thinker, architect Toivo Tammik has made presentations about the connection between Kuresaare Castle and Kahn’s architecture, using comparative photo materials, at the New York Estonian House and in China.
Conversation with William Whitaker, 11 November.2007 in Philadelphia.
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