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Joseph A. Burton

Philosophical Differences in the Thoughts
of Louis I. Kahn and Martin Heidegger

1Heinrich Klotz and Christian Norberg-Schulz have noted similarities between the thoughts of the American master architect, Louis I. Kahn and the German "Existentialist" philosopher, Martin Heidegger1). Norberg-Schulz has done the most to establish this philosophical connection between the architect and the philosopher.


In "The Message of Louis Kahn", Norberg-Schulz viewed Kahn’s philosophy as incomplete, an architecture theory in progess 2). He states:

2. . . when we take a close look at the writings of Kahn, the outline of a "theory" of architecture emerges. It is certainly not worked out in detail, but the basic structure is coherent. To make Kahn’s theory generally useful, it needs to be interpreted and developed. As it has a philosophical basis, this work cannot be confined within the limits of architectural theory as such. In philosophy the most useful aid is found in the writings of Martin Heidegger, whose ideas in certain respects show a striking resemblance to those of Kahn3)

3Following Heidegger’s critique of Post-Socratic Western philosophy, Norberg-Schulz’ appraisal that Kahn’s theory is insufficient and naive is based in what he sees as Kahn’s Platonism, where essence precedes existence. Plato’s philosophy is understood to be dualistic in its division between essence as reality and existence as illusion, whereas Heideggers’ structurally unified ontology is based upon existence preceding essence. He writes:

4Kahn’s philosophy evidently has Platonic origins. Thus he talks about form in the Platonic sense of idea, and he considers art a result of the will to "express." He even uses the word "shadow" in connection with the concrete things of the world, as did Plato in his Allegory of the Cave. Kahn also subordinates the existentia to the essentia, and thus thinks within the tradition of Western metaphysics.4)

5Although Kahn’s "faulty" thought seems based upon Platonism, Norberg-Schulz argues that it is not really dualistic. He explains that despite Kahn’s amateur status as a philosopher, the architect achieves in his architecture structural wholeness by uniting existence and essence in dynamic tension.
"Being a practicing architect, however, Kahn did not seek to become involved in a philosophical pursuit of perfect forms, elevating them from the imperfections of the everyday world. Rather he wanted to discover or reveal the essentia directly. Thus he really returned to the "beginning." Moreover he defined the essentia in terms of human inspirations and institutions possessing order. Rather than separating the essentia from the existentia he instead conceived the world as an integrated whole. The essentia do not belong to a realm of their own, but are the basic structures of the one and only world. His illustrations of the notion of "beginning" clearly prove that."
What impresses Norberg-Schulz about Kahn’s work is the architect’s ability to make timeless human values concrete in the spatial organizations of his temporal designs. Norberg-Schulz further points to Kahn’s continued programatic renewal of "the institutions of man" as exemplifying an architecture "founded on the general forms of man’s Being-in-the-world."6) According to Norberg-Schulz, Kahn was engaged in a search for the structure of Being parallel to Heidegger:

6. . . Kahn thus takes the total Being-in-the-world as his point of departure, and defines our human task as the uncovering of its structure. Thereby he indeed comes close to the philosophy of Heidegger, who was also deeply concerned with "beginnings."7)

7In a second essay, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture", Norberg-Schulz proposed to bring to fulfillment Kahn’s "immature" theory with the thought of Martin Heidegger.8) Heidegger’s philosophy provides the appropriate means to further the "incomplete" exegesis of Kahn’s oeuvre as well as to give to the architect’s words systematic depth and greater philosophical sanction. In this essay, Norberg-Schulz focuses attention on Kahn’s various uses of the verb "to express". He claims that Kahn’s theory of "expression" is not about self-expression. In Kahn’s theory of expression Norberg-Schulz recognizes that a rudimentary "language of architecture" is being constructed by the architect. He, thus, examines Heidegger’s writings concerning "language", "poetry", "art" and "dwelling" in order to complete Kahn’s frustrated attempt to develop a "language of architecture".
Norberg-Schulz explains that language as poetry creates concrete "existential space".
He reports how Heidegger defined "existential space" as "the fourfold".9) Heidegger’s "fourfold", an analysis of world: "earth, sky, mortals and divinities", possesses a unified dynamic tension between structural concepts and concrete descriptions.10) By creating concrete "existential space", language as poetry, art and architecture allow humankind "to dwell".11) "To dwell" is to exist in "the basic character of Being": in "the fourfold", in "existential space". Therefore, Norberg-Schulz reminds that for Heidegger "language" is "the house of Being".12)
Although Norberg-Schulz gives Kahn credit for initiating the search for an architectural language, ultimately a quest for "existential space", he says that the architect never achieved a complete existential structure of world and space:

8Whereas Heidegger gives considerable attention to the structure of the world, Kahn hardly refers to this basic problem. Indirectly, however, we understand that he considers the world as having an essential structure (" a rose wants to be a rose"). His notion of space is similarly concrete. It comes forth in the statement that "a space which knows what it wants to be is a room".13)

9To understand the difference in Kahn’s thought from Heidegger, it is necessary to look more closely at the architect’s world view and its influence upon his expressionist aesthetic theory.
Kahn’s weltanschauung was founded upon an intuition of a transcendent and omnipresent ground within and behind all physical reality -- a World Soul that he called psyche. Psyche is a unity consisting of antithetical aspects -- thought and feeling. This ineffable source underlying all creation, he explained, possesses an a priori existence will or more clearly articulated, an eternal willing to be. He said:

10I think of psyche as being a kind of prevalence—not a single soul in each of us—but rather a prevalence from which each one of us always borrows a part . . . and I feel that this psyche is made of immeasurable aura, and that physical nature is made of that which lends itself to measurement. I think that psyche prevails over the entire universe.14)
The psyche is expressed by feeling and also thought and I believe will always be unmeasurable. I sense that the psychic existence will calls on nature to make what it [psyche] wants to be.15).

11The a priori existence will within psyche, Kahn explained, is the beginning of "form . . . a world within a world"16) Form is a particular psychic predisposition to be. It consists of ideal and inseparable abstract elements which invoke a nature, "what a thing wants to be"17). Being beyond physical and measurable existence, this psychic entity is never completely realized in concrete terms. Thus, form has infinite potential for expression. According to Kahn, form manifests through unconscious and conscious agencies called thresholds, instruments and at other times singularities 18). It is revealed most dramatically in non-conscious nature through the phenomenal source of light, the sun:

12The sun is the threshold where the urges arise to express,
it is the source of energy and all present.

13From the sun, the natural world of appearances takes its physical being. The human soul partakes of form, he said, through its universal sharing in the pervasive world psyche. Through the medium of the individual human personality, form is realized consciously as art.
descent from non-temporal form into time and space is a complete weltanschauung that unites spirit to matter. Kahn called his world view order
20). Order is all inclusive and self-evident. Reminiscent of the greek concept of kosmos, order gives significance and meaning to existence. This is because order is rooted in the non arbitrary nature of form -- the psyche’s eternal existence will. In two diagrams delineated by Kahn for a 1973 publication, he presented order hierarchically following psyche and form.

figure 1

figure 2

14In figure 1, he denoted the essential and existential aspects of order as: "psychic order" and "physical order" 21). Kahn depicted order, the manifestation of meaningful world, in the poetic imagery of "silence to light, light to silence". Order manifesting as light is a perpetual enantiodrama of polarities forever turning into their opposites.
Kahn’s concept of form -- its universal, timeless nature grounded in psyche -- was an essential component through which he intended to imbue his architecture with meaning and value. Consequently, he founded his art upon form and its manifestations in order.

His aesthetic theory is based upon the assumption that a language held in common can indicate meaning through a system of shared signifiers.

The means to make the non sensible aspect of form sensible, is the symbol, the apt visual metaphor.

15"I see symbol as being multifaceted. It’s like looking into a mirror in which everybody looks alike because the distinction between one and the other is miniscule.

Therefore, the architect must practice his discipline as a poet and search for appropriate visual symbols.

He said:

16When you say a thing is poetic, you are giving it the very highest compliments you can give because it expresses that which is trying to eliminate the word. And so when you are saying that a thing has a poetic quality you’re really saying that it has a transcendent quality. Poetry is the aura of religion bathing over the words of man.22)

17In Kahn’s mind, the art of architecture is a poetic language. It is non verbal, consisting of physical ciphers meant to be read. Architecture "speaks" through silent but evocative, corporeal images directed to the eye. To translate "physical order" and ‘psychic order" into the language of architecture, Kahn dialectically applied two means of poetic production. His architecture is simultaneously a mimetic and a non-mimetic art. In his master work, he used the poetic process of mimesis to make the existent will, the forms of natural "physical order" intelligible. For example, to express the nature of materials -- "what it wants to be" -- he used only constructive methods that imitated faithfully a material’s particular manifest character. Kahn is famous for his application of mimesis to the compressive nature of brick masonry:

18If you talk to a brick and ask it what it likes it’ll say it likes an arch. And you say to it, look arches are expensive and you can always use a concrete lintel to take the place of an arch. And the brick says, I know it’s expensive and I’m afraid it probably can not be built these days, but if you ask me what I like, it’s still an arch 23).

19The mimetic taste of Kahn, the existentialist, is logically opposed to the non mimetic taste of Kahn, the essentialist. To make the "psychic order" of form sensible, Kahn proposed the use of non-mimetic, symbolic images.

Because of physical necessity, therefore, the architect must integrate the "allegory" of "psychic order" within the tangible limits of "physical order", structure and function. The architect must achieve two meanings with one image. It must be multivalent -- a simultaneous mimetic and non-mimetic expression.

In order to further his "allegorical", symbolic ends, Kahn consciously inscribed primordial pictographic-like images within his work. The key to deciphering this "Rosetta Stone" is Kahn’s use of an ancient triangular pictograph, D , signifying the Egyptian pyramid. From the 1950’s on, Kahn employed 2 and 3 dimensional variations of the pyramid in his work as an eternal, yet, still viable, modern symbol of physical and spiritual light.

20Although he did not ascribe any symbolic significance to it, Vincent Scully was the first to note the importance of the pyramidal image used throughout Kahn’s mature work. For example, triangular structures are presented first, clearly and insistently, in the ceiling of the Yale Art Gallery Addition. The design of the Yale Art Gallery Addition ceiling was inspired by a space frame, although it acts structurally as a series of concrete beams ornamented by an infill of concrete tetrahedrons. The technological precedent for this advanced structural image is linked to Buckminister Fuller and the work of office member Anne G. Tyng 24). Kahn’s non-mimetic reasoning for using the static pyramid was justified by its archaic allegorical meaning. A book by a prominent egyptologist in his private library, where Kahn discovered this architectural hieroglyphic, explained the ancient significance of the pyramid symbol. In The Pyramids of Egypt, I.E.S. Edwards writes:

21But what did the benben (the primitive stone fetish of pyramidal shape) and its architectural derivative, the true pyramid, represent? Only one answer suggest itself: the rays of the sun shining down on earth. A remarkable spectacle may sometimes be seen in the late afternoon of a cloudy winter day at Giza. When standing on the road to Saqqara and gazing westward at the Pyramid plateau, it is possible to see the sun’s rays striking downward through a gap in the clouds at about the same angle as the slope of the Great Pyramid. The impression made in the mind by the sense is that the immaterial prototype and the material replica are here ranged side by side 25).


figure 5

22Edwards further detailed that the benben symbolized the material manifestation of the sun god in the Egyptian creation myth. He also said that the triangular form created a celestial ramp on which the dead Pharoh’s soul would make its way upward to heaven. This ancient architectural symbol of light and its two dimensional hieroglyph expressed perfectly Kahn’s personal world view. Kahn used the pyramidal shape and its two dimensional cipher, the triangle, in his "Silence to Light" diagrams, circa 1969, to express in architectonic ideograph his essentialist sense of "order".

23The static formal qualities of the triangle, tetrahedron and pyramid also embody the architect’s scientific conception that the one unvarying absolute in a relative universe is the measure of light. Kahn’s understanding of contemporary physics was based upon that of Albert Einstein. Esther Kahn has related that in the late 1930’s Kahn travelled to Princeton to have tea with the great scientist 26). Kahn apparently agreed with Einstein’s intuition, "that God does not play dice", a suggestion that underlying relativity, there are eternal absolutes, like Kahn’s own concept of form. The architect celebrated Einstein’s vision of the primacy of light in a relative world with the statement, "E=MC2 is a beautiful poem."27) Trained in the drawing methods of an American Beaux Arts education, Kahn would have also recognized the 3D pyramidal form as a kind of perspective cone, the pyramid of vision. Similarly, the 2D triangle would recall the ambiguous, condensed spaces of Post Impressionist art in which flatness alluded to the timeless and the primitive. Kahn used these modes of visual expression in his paintings and travel sketches creating simultaneous, multiple views of the phenomenal world. He also applied these pictorial devices, perspectival space and flatness, to create architectural allegories eliciting Einstein’s relative cosmos premised on light as an absolute. In his master work he repeatedly presents the cube viewed in perspective on its diagonal which forms a pyramidal figure on the retina. (For example Kahn's Exeter Library in Exeter NH.) He juxtaposed at the same time this perspective image with triangular contours seen flat in elevation. This enigmatic triangular and pyramidal imagery creates through a subtle allegory parallels to Einsteinian physics. According to the relativity of one’s frame of reference, the phenomena of light’s complementarity -- both as material particle existing in space / time and pure energy, being of infinity, when travelling at its own measure -- are symbolized paradoxically with concurrent pyramidal perspectives and flat triangular figures in elevations.

24Kahn’s symbolic use of the image of a tomb from a primitive agrarian culture rests in part upon its metaphysical content associated in Egyptian mythology with the daily resurrection of the sun. In this mortuary context, when the cube is viewed in pyramidal perspective, it displays the "cartesian", phenomenal world of x,y and z axes as a tomb 28). Kahn’s eight sided faceted cubes are really octagons. An octagonal volume, like the pyramid, is an architectural symbol across time associated with resurrection. In this manner, Kahn’s architecture parlante, demonstrates that energy as "spent light" is not destroyed in the eternal movement from "Silence to Light, Light to Silence". The architectural hieroglyphic of the pyramid, which literally meant "the castle of eternity", embodied Kahn’s belief in the creative and immortal nature of the individual human soul rooted in psyche. The purpose of humankind is to manifest this invisible quintessence in the visible world consciously. He summarized this philosophy in his expressionist theory:

25It is my belief that we live to express. The whole motivation of presence is to express. And what nature gives us is the instrument of expression which we all know as ourselves, which is like giving the instrument upon which the song of the soul can be played.29)
The sense of physical well-being comes from the desire to live forever: to express 30).

26With Kahn’s use of triangular imagery to signify light, one may further develop the A,B,C’s of his architectural language and infer the meaning of his various uses of the circle and the square. The circle appears to be Kahn’s cypher for psyche, Silence and Volume "0". Following primitive architectural norms, as with his use of the pyramid, the circle and related arcuated imagery in his work recalls the celestial tent traditional associated with divinity and divine authority. The square and the cube presents Kahn’s conceit of matter being "spent light". The square, by time-honored custom, signifies the element of earth and the material world with its 4 cardinal directions. The cube is an alchemical image of perfected earth, as well as embodying the cartesian dimensions of measurement in the phenomenal world. Reading Kahn’s architectonic poetry, his vision of order is made concrete. The material world of spent light manifests within to without from an inner sanctuary of psyche, Silence and form. He presented this "world within the world" in his work by composing structures within structures. In Kahn’s architecture parlante, humankind, like psyche, is also enshrined architecturally as an interior sanctuary for the holy revelation of "inner" light in time and space. The self conscious species existing at the threshold between "Silence and Light" is both microcosm and microtheos, a free and creative vehicle of the world psyche.

27For Kahn, architecture, orders not only physical space, but it also orders humankind’s metaphysical experience of the world. By poetic means, the architect makes the conceptual sensible and the physical intelligible. When a work expresses human existence in this manner, it reunites humankind’s often alienated twin natures -- psyche and soma -- in wholeness. Architecture makes one most at home in the world by offering both spiritual and physical sanctuary. It fulfills a sacred function of de-alienation, conjoining opposites. Kahn described as "well being" the experience of amalgamated polarities that true design precipitates. He said:

28I feel fusion of the senses 31).

29Kahn’s master work parallels Heidegger’s fourfold -- the union of the sky, earth, mortals and immortals. In Kahn’s architecture of "well-being", humankind "dwells" when expressing psyche, epitomized in Kahn’s statement: "the desire to live forever to express." Because of Norberg-Schulz absorbtion in Heidegger’s philosophy, he not only overlooks Kahn’s "essentialism", but is blinded by this philosophical prejudice in his reading of Kahn’s "expressionist theory". He therefore ignored the architect’s real poetic achievement of an authentic architectural language that presents both existentialist and transcendentalist space.

30The crucial difference between the two world views of Kahn and Heidegger -- no matter their parallels concerns regarding: the irrational, the phenomenal world, individual freedom, and overcoming alienation through a dynamic amalgamation of subjectivity and objectivity (otherness) -- Heidegger’s existentialist position is grounded in a nihilistic void, an abyss of "meaninglessness", while Kahn’s mystical and essentialist based cosmos is rooted in a world soul that he called "psyche"32).


1) John W. Cook and Heinrich Klotz, Conversations with Architects: Philip Johnson, Kevin Roche, paul Rudolph, Bertrand Goldberg, Morris lapidus, Louis Kahn, Charles Moore, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (New york: Praeger Publishers, 1974) 181. In a conversation with the architect circa 1972, Klotz noted: "I have the impression that you no longer distinguish between subject and object, you do not acknowledge the difference between human subject and the objective world. I am reminded of Heidegger’s ontology."

2) Christian Norberg-Schulz, "The Message of Louis Kahn", Architecture, Meaning and Place, Selected Essays (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1988), 201-206.

3) Norberg-Schulz, "The Message of Louis Kahn", 201.

4) Norberg-Schulz, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture", 35.

5) Norberg-Schulz, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture", 35.

6) Norberg-Schulz, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture", 31.

7) Norberg-Schulz, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture", 35.

8) Christian Norberg-Schulz, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture", Oppositions 18 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, Fall 1979), 28-47.

9) Norberg-Schulz, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture", 36-37. "In Being and Time he says, ‘in as much as any entity within-the-world is likewise in space, its spatiality will have ontological connection with the world . . . . In particular we must show how the aroundness of the environment . . . is founded upon the worldhood of the world.’ In his later writing Heidegger solves the problem, defining space in terms of earth and sky, that is, as an interrelation of the concrete places which are present between earth and sky. To Heidegger ‘space’ is therefore not an abstract, mathematical concept, but a concrete structure within the world."

Norberg-Schulz, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture", 36. Norberg-Schulz explains that Heidegger achieved this, however, without analyzing the properties of the concrete structure of world. He explains: "Already in Being and Time Heidegger had analyzed "discourse" as one of the basic existential structures. Thus he said, ‘The intelligibility of Being-in-the-world expresses itself as discourse.’ Moreover he stresses that ‘discourse is existentially equiprimordial with state-of-mind and understanding’ and that ‘in discourse being-with becomes explicitly shared.’ We are, in other words, discourse. ‘The way in which discourse gets expressed is language.’ Language therefore does not primarily serve communication, but discloses the basic existential structures. Primarily language speaks, and ‘man only speaks as he responds to language.’"

10) Norberg-Schulz, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture", 41.

11) Norberg-Schulz, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture", 40-41. "To him [Heidegger] ‘dwelling’ means something more than to reside in a place; it means how ‘mortals are in the fourfold,’ that is, an authentic relationship between man and the existential structures. Thus dwelling becomes ‘the basic character of Being.’ Furthermore he says, ‘Dwelling keeps the fourfold in that with which mortals stay: in things. Dwelling preserves the fourfold by bringing the presencing of the fourfold into things.’ That means, man dwells when his able to embody the basic existential structures in things such as buildings or places (locations). In fact Heidegger says that a location (place) ‘installs the fourfold.’ As an art, architecture helps man to dwell in the true sense of the word, that is, poetically. ‘Poetry build up the very nature of dwelling. Poetry and dwelling not only do not exclude each other; on the contrary, poetry and dwelling belong together, each calling for the other.’ As poetry, ‘the nature of building is letting dwell.’ Thus Heidegger discloses the basic existential importance of architecture: ‘Man dwells in that he builds.’"

12) Norberg-Schulz, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture", 37.

13) Norberg-Schulz, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture", 37.

14) Louis I. Kahn, "A Statement by Louis I. Kahn", a paper delivered at the International Design Conference, Aspen, Colorado, Arts and Architecture, 81, (May 1964): 19.

15) Vincent Scully, Jr., Louis I. Kahn (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1962): 118.

16) Louis I. Kahn, "Louis I. Kahn Talks with Students", Architecture at Rice, 26 (Houston, Texas: Rice University, 1969): 24.

17) Louis I. Kahn, "Louis I. Kahn Talks with Students", 13.

18) Louis I. Kahn, "Remarks: Louis I. Kahn.", Perspecta, 9/10 (New Haven, Connecticut, Yale School of Architecture, 1965): 305.

19) August Komendant, Eighteen Years with Architect Louis I. Kahn (Englewood, New Jersey: Aloray Publishers, 1974): 183.

20) Architectuale Forum, Volumme 137, No. 1 (July/August 1972): 46. Kahn said: "I came to a statement that ‘order is’ because I could never write what it is . . . I made a long list of what I thought it was. And when I threw the list away, ‘order is’ remained. it sort of included everything by not trying to say what it is. That word ‘is’ has a tremendous presence."

21) "Louis Kahn, Silence to Light", Architecture and Urbanism, 01 (1973): 47.

22) Robert Wemischner, 3.

23) "Louis Kahn Talks", House and Garden (October 1972): 219.

24) Joseph A. Burton, "Notes from Volume Zero, Louis I. Kahn and the Language of God", Perspecta 20 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1983).

25) I.E.S. Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt (New York: Penguin Books, 1952): 289-290.

26) Esther I. Kahn, conversations with the author (Philadelphia: 1978-1991).

27) Ronner, Jhaveri and Vasella, 447.

28) Plato in his dialogues, The Republic and Phaedo, described the phenomenal world as a prison and a tomb, respectively. This imagery has been explored by architects in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Piranesi, Ledoux and Soane, for example.

29) Ronner, Sharad and Vasella, 447.

30) Ronner, Sharad and Vasella, 449.

31) l’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, 142, 15.

32) John D. Caputo, The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1978): 245-254.