The Room, the Street and Human Agreement

essay by Louis I. Kahn

A+U recently published its 500th issue. To commemorate the occasion, the guest editors selected notable essays that appeared throughout past editions of the magazine. Here, we republish one of these articles by Louis Kahn, who ruminates upon the very essence of architecture and urbanism, poetically knitting them together with his observations on the building fabric of human experience.

JA+U : Archives - Louis I. Kahn's Essay "The room, the street and human agreement" ©Shinkenchiku-sha

Photo: A+U January, 1973 : “Louis I. Kahn - Silence and Light”

I have some thoughts about the spirit of architecture. I have chosen to talk about the room, the street, and human agreement.

The room is the beginning of architecture.

It is the place of the mind.

You in the room with its dimensions, its structure, its light respond to its character, its spiritual aura, recognizing that what ever the human proposes and makes becomes a life.

The structure of a room must be evident in the room itself. Structure I believe is the giver of light. A square room asks for its own light to read the square. It would expect the light either from above or from its four sides as windows or entrances.

Sensitive is the Pantheon. This non-directional room dedicated to all religions has its light only from the oculus above, placed to invest the room with inspired ritual without favoritism. The entrance door is its only impurity.

So powerful was this realization of appropriate space that even now the room seems to ask for its release to its original freedom.

Of the elements of a room the window is the most marvelous. The great American poet, Wallace Stevens, prodded the architect, “What slice of the sun does your building have?”.

To paraphrase: what slice of the sun enters your room. What a range of mood does the light offer from morning to night from day to day from season to season and all through the years.

Gratifying and unpredictable are the permissions the architect has given to the chosen opening on which patches of sunlight play on the jamb and sill that enter, move, and disappear.

Stevens seemed to tell us that the sun was not aware of its wonder until it struck the side of a building.

Enter your room and know how personal, how much you feel its life. In a small room with just another person what you say you may never have said before.

It is different when there is more than just another person. Then in this little room the singularity of each is so sensitive that the vectors do not resolve. The meeting becomes a performance instead of an event everyone saying their lines, saying what they said many times before.

Still in a large room the event is of commonalty. Rapport would take the place of thought.

This room we are in is big without distinction. The walls are far away yet I know if I were to address myself to a chosen person whose smile would tell me of appreciation I believe the walls of the room would come together and the room would become intimate.

If I were now reading, the concern would be diction. If this room were the Baptistry of Florence, however, its image would have inspired thoughts in the same way as person to person, architect to architect.

JA+U : Archives - Louis I. Kahn's Essay "The room, the street and human agreement" ©Shinkenchiku-sha

Photo: A+U January, 1973 : “Louis I. Kahn - Silence and Light”

So sensitive is a room.

The plan is a society of rooms.

The rooms relate to each other to strengthen their own unique nature. The auditorium wants to be a violin. Its lobby is the violin case.

The society of rooms is the place where it is good to learn, good to live, good to work.

Open before us is the architect’s plan. Next to it is a sheet of music.

The architect fleetingly reads his composition as a structure of elements and spaces in their light.

The musician reads, with the same overallness, his composition as a structure of inseparable elements and spaces in sound.

A great musical composition is of such entity that when played conveys the feeling that all that was heard was assembled in a cloud over us. Nothing is gone as though time and sound have become a single image.

The corridor has no position except as a private passage. In a school the boy walks across a hall as in his own classroom where he is his own teacher observing others as others do. The hall asks for equal position with the library.

The society of rooms is knit together with the elements of connection which have their own characteristics.

The stair is the same for the child, the adult and the old. It is thought of as precise in its measures particularly for the young boy who aspires to do the floors in no time flat both up and down. It is good also to consider its landing as a place to sit, near a window with possibly a shelf for a few books. The old man ascending with the young boy can stop here showing his interest in a certain book and avoid the explanations of infirmity.

JA+U : Archives - Louis I. Kahn's Essay "The room, the street and human agreement" ©Shinkenchiku-sha

Photo: A+U January, 1973 : “Louis I. Kahn - Silence and Light”

The landing wants to be a room.

The bay window can be the private room within a room.

A closet with a window becomes a room ready to be rearranged.

The lightless corridor, never a room, aspires to the hall overlooking the garden.

The library, the work court, the rooms of study, the place of meeting want to group themselves in a composition that evokes Architecture.

The libraries of all university schools sit well in a court entrance available to all its students as a place of invitation.

The entrance courts and their libraries and the gardens and paths knitting them together form an architecture of connection.

The book is an offering of the mind.

The work court of a school of architecture is an inner space encircled by work shops available to construct building experiments. The rooms of study and criticism are of a variety of dimension and spaces in their light, small for the intimate talk and work and large for the making of full size drawings and group work.

Rooms must suggest their use without name.

To an architect a school of architecture would be the most honored commission.

The Street is a room of agreement.

The street is dedicated by each house owner to the city in exchange for common services.

Dead end streets in cities today still retain this room character. Thru streets, since the advent of the automobile, have entirely lost their room quality. I believe city planning can start with realization of this loss by directing the drive to reinstate the street where people live, learn, shop and work as the room out of commonalty.

Today we can begin by planting trees on all existing residential streets, by redefining the order of movement which would give these streets back to more intimate use which in turn would stimulate the feelings of well being, and inspire unique street expression.

JA+U : Archives - Louis I. Kahn's Essay "The room, the street and human agreement" ©Shinkenchiku-sha

Photo: A+U January, 1973 : “Louis I. Kahn - Silence and Light”

The street is a community room.

The meeting house is a community room under a roof. It seems as though one came naturally out of the other.

A long street is a succession of rooms given their distinction, room for room, by their meeting of crossing streets. The intersecting street brings from afar its infiltrates any opening it meets. One block in a stream of blocks can be more preferred because of its particular life. One realizes the deadliness of uninterested movement through our streets which erases all delicacy of character and blots out its sensitive nature given to it of human agreement.

Human Agreement is a sense of rapport, of commonness, all bells ringing in unison – not needing to be understood by example but felt as an undeniable inner demand for a presence. It is an inspiration with the promise of the possible.

Dissension does not stem from need but from the mad outburst of frustration. From the mad outburst of frustration. From the hopelessness of the farawayness of human agreement.

Desire, not need, the forerunner of the new need, out of the yet not said and yet not made seems to be the roots of hope in dissension.

How inspiring would be the time when the sense of human agreement is felt as the force which brings new images. Such images reflecting inspirations and put into being by inspired technology.

Basing our challenges on present day programming and existing technologies can only bring new facets of old work.

The city from a simple settlement became the place of the assembled institutions. The settlement was the first institution. The talents found their places. The carpenter directed building. The thoughtful man became the teacher. The strong one the leader.

When one thinks of simple beginnings which inspired our present institutions it is evident that some drastic changes must be made which will inspire the re-creation of the meaning, City, as primarily an assembly of those places vested with the care to uphold the sense of a way of life.

Human agreement has always been and will always be. It does not belong to measurable qualities and is therefore eternal. The opportunities which present its nature depend on circumstances and events from which human nature realizes itself.

A city is measured by the character of its institutions. The street is one of its first institutions. Today these institutions are on trial. I believe it is so because they have lost the inspirations of their beginning. The institutions of learning must stem from the undeniable feeling in all of us of a desire to learn. I have often thought this feeling came from the way we were made, that nature records in everything it makes how it was made. This record is also in man and it is this within us that urges us to seek its story involving the laws of the universe, the source of all material and means, and the psyche the source of all expression, Art.

The desire to learn made the first school room. It was of human agreement. The institution became the modus operandi. Agreement has the immediacy of rapport, the inspiring force which recognizes its commonalty and that it must be part of the human way of life supported by all people.

The institution will die when its inspirations are no longer felt and operates as a matter of course. Human agreement, however, once it presents itself as a realization is indestructible. For the same reason that a man is unable to work below his level of comprehension.

JA+U : Archives - Louis I. Kahn's Essay "The room, the street and human agreement" ©Shinkenchiku-sha

Photo: A+U January, 1973 : “Louis I. Kahn - Silence and Light”

To explain inspiration I like to believe that it is the moment of possibility when what to do meets the means of doing it.

City planning must begin to be cognizant of the strength and character of our present institutions and be sensitive to the pulse of human relations which senses the new inspirations which would bring about new and meaningful institutions. Traffic systems, sociological speculations, new materials, new technologies are servants to the pulse of human rapport which promises revelations yet not felt but in the very core of human desires.

New spaces will come only from a new sense of human agreement which will affirm a promise of a way of life and will reveal new availabilities and point to human support for their establishment.

In India and Pakistan I realized that a great majority of the people are without ambition because there is no way in which they are able to elevate themselves beyond living from hand to mouth and what is worse talents have no outlet. To express is the reason for living. The institution of learning, of work, of health, or recreation should be made available to all people. All realms of expression will be opened. Each singularity will express in his way.

Availabilities to all can be the source of a tremendous release of the values locked in is of the unmeasurable in living, the art of living.

One city can distinguish itself from the other by just the inspirational qualities that exist in sensing natural agreement as the only true source of new source of new realizations.

In that sense the spaces where it is good to learn, where it is good to live and work may remain unexpressed if their nature is not redefined.

It is not enough just to solve the problem. To imbue the spaces with new found self-quality is a different question entirely. Solution is a ‘how’ design problem, the realization of ‘what’ preceeds it.

About Inspired Technology.

The wall that enclosed us for a long time until the man behind it, feeling a new freedom, wanted to look out. He hammered away to make an opening. The wall cried. “I have protected you.” And the man said. “ I appreciate your faithfulness, but I feel time has brought change”.

The wall was sad, man realized something good. He visualized the opening as gracefully arched, glorifying the wall. The wall was terribly pleased with its arch and carefully made jamb. 

The opening became part of the order of the wall.

The world with its many people, each one a singularity, each group of different experiences revealing the nature of the human in varied aspects is full of the possibility of more richly sensing human agreement from which new architecture will come. The world cannot be expected to come from the exercise of present technology alone to find the realms of new expression. I believe that technology should be inspired. A good plan demands it.

JA+U : Archives - Louis I. Kahn's Essay "The room, the street and human agreement" ©Shinkenchiku-sha

Photo: A+U January, 1973 : “Louis I. Kahn - Silence and Light”

A word about silence and light.

A building being built is not yet in servitude. It is so anxious to be that no grass can grow under its feet, so high is the spirit of wanting to be. When it is in service and finished, the building wants to say. “Look, I want to tell you about the way I was made.” Nobody listens. Everybody is busy going from room to room.

But when the building is a ruin and free of servitude, the spirit emerges telling of the marvel that a building was made.

When we think of the great buildings of the past that had no precedent, we always refer to the Parthenon.

We say it is the building that grew out of the wall with opening. We can say, in the Parthenon, light is the space between the columns; a rhythm of light, no-light, light no-light which tells the tremendous story of light in architecture that came from the wall.

We are simply extending what happened long ago; the beginning may be considered the most marvelous; without precedent yet its making was as sure as life.

Light is material life. The mountains, the streams, the atmosphere is spent light.

Material, non-conscious, moving to desire; desire to express, conscious, moving to light meet at an aura threshold where the will senses the possible.

The first feeling was of Beauty, the first sense of harmony, of man undefinable, unmeasurable and measurable material, the maker.

At the threshold, the crossing of silence and light, lies the sanctuary of Art, the only language of man. It is the treasury of the shadows. Whatever is made of light casts a shadow. Our work is of shadow. It belongs to light.

When the astronauts went through space, the earth presented itself as a marvelous ball, blue and rose, in space. Since I followed it and saw it that way, all knowledge left me as being unimportant. Truly knowledge is an incomplete book outside of us. You take from it to know something, but knowing cannot be imparved to the next man. Knowing is private. It gives singularity the means for self-expression.

I believe that the greatest work of man is that part which does not belong to him alone. If he discovers a principle, only his design way of interpreting belongs to him alone. The discovery of oxygen does not belong to the discoverer.

I invented a story about Mozart. Somebody dropped a dish in his kitchen, and it made a hell of a noise. The servants jumped, and Mozart said, “Ah! Dissonance.” And immediately dissonance belonged to music, and the way he wrote interpreting it belonged to him.

Architects must not accept the commercial divisions of their profession into urban design, city planning and architecture as though they were three different professions.

The architect can turn from the smallest house to the greatest complex, or the city. Specializing ruins the essence of the revelation of Form with its inseparable parts realized only as an entity.

A word about Beauty.

Beauty is an all prevailing sense of harmony, giving rise to wonder, from it, revelations.

Poetry. Is it in beauty? Is it in wonder? Is it in the revelation?

It is in the beginning, in first thought, in the first sense of the means of expression.

A poet is in thought of beauty and existance. Yet a poem is only an offering which to the poet is less.

A work of architecture is but an offering to the spirit Architecture and its poetic beginning.

Louis I. Kahn, 24 June 1971

The 500th issue of A+U May, 2012 : “500th issue - Word and Image” features other notable essays reprinted from past issues of the magazine by the likes of Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi, Paul Rudolph, Colin Rowe, and others.