Saturday, February 05, 2011

meaning kahn

On my recent trip to the Salk Institute, we met my good friend who had worked on the project with Kahn and designed the Salk's Administration Buildings. A deeply meaningful experience to me in many ways, I was struck by his description of the architecture as being all about meaning. I discovered meaning in the Salk with regard to the co-presence of different materials and elements. Before I continue I must bring up a frequently quoted phrase of Kahn, that to build with brick, for instance, one must ask the brick what it wants to be.

And now I will proceed: in reflecting on the Salk and meaning, I noticed that two materials were particularly dominant, though not equal, in their expression and use, concrete and wood. On the exterior one finds most of the building as an aesthetic experience of concrete, made porous through its ingenious deployment into elements that enable the movement of light, air, human use, sights, and with joints created by the concrete's constructive process with formwork, and a process of site-casting. And wood, which on the exterior is located when viewing the building from the side of the theater of the ocean -- what I term the central plaza -- looking toward the complex's entrance. The wood fills on alternating levels the space of the walls in the offices of the towers framing the sides of the plaza. While small, in a cumulative aggregation, in comparison to the material of concrete, the wood stands out in its application of its warm, textured bars that enable windows nested in them. These two materials and elements -- wood and concrete -- are in a relationship with one another on the exterior.

On the interior of the administrative floor of the library of the north side of the complex, which is where we went inside, wood had enveloped almost the entire interior, swelling and expanding as a surface coat on almost all of the walls. As we approach a window, from the interior, I noticed the corner between the floor -- covered in wood -- and the wall -- covered in wood -- and in this small crevice, extending briefly outward in both axes (on floor and wall) for about a half inch, a sliver of concrete lay bare, thus exposing the layer below. Here on the interior the was a different relationship between the wood and the concrete, though one not any less important than the one on the outside.

In these two instances I realized meaning. Wood and Concrete met, much like two people in an intimate relationship must at first meet. And much like an intimate human relationship, these two partners explore and develop their relationship through the different encounters -- different experiences -- that as parts to the whole of their relationship -- as meetings, as interactive experiences, as dates or dinners, conversations, traveling, and more -- characterize that whole, and give it meaning. The wood and concrete encounter with each other in one way on the exterior and on another way on the interior. Theirs is not but one encounter of wood and concrete but many. If we return to the question of asking a brick what it wants to be, and reflect: what is it that wood wants to be, or concrete? The question must be answered with meditation on a bit of Hegelian logic. There is no a priori of the brick, concrete or wood. While the material does know very well what it wants to be -- it does not know until it encounters another. To ask Wood what it wants to be in the scope of the Salk is to give an opportunity to meet Concrete, in many ways. And the whole of what it wants to be is expressed through the differentiated parts, the experiences of encounter, that shape its knowing of being. In this sense while there is no a priori, the material does simultaneously assert itself, and express its own identity through these moments -- this is the "essential" found within Kahn's work. There is meaning created in both instances of events of encounter between wood and concrete. And in the simultaneous temporal and spatial presence and observation of these different material encounters, meaning is created within the interaction of the materials and elements.