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Louis Kahn: A spiritual journey through paintings and architecture

Spirituality is not a career. It is a way of life. It is a development of understanding of a world more than mere materials. It is the realisation of the part of ourselves which is more than body and mind.

Louis Kahn (1901-1974) was a modern architect, who was in this search for ‘the spirit of architecture.’ The spaces which tell you more than your eyes can see, and your body can feel. He was in search for spaces which he called ‘unmeasurable’, the quality beyond the material. Here are some of his travel sketches and their interpretation which are linked with his architectural ideas. These are not only for architects, but for anyone who is in touch with creation.

1.) Material is spent light.

Louis Kahn: Northside, the Second Court of Mortuary temple of Ramses III, 1951

Kahn often talked in terms of how natural light is the maker of material or sometimes how material could turn into light. In the sketch above, we can clearly see this imagination. The entire sketch is drawn in terms of only light and shadow. The variations of the colours are derived from the variations of light and shadows and the heat related to it.

“Light, the giver of all Presences; by will, by law… Light is the maker of material, and the material was made to cast a shadow, and the shadow belongs to the light.” – Louis Kahn

In the sketch below we can see similar ideas of how light and materials are same things translated into each-other. Notice how the building on the left is drawn as a light itself.

“If you know the orders, the reverse may be equally true, that the material can turn to light. One does not know.” – Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn: Erechtheion (left) and the Parthenon (right), Acropolis, Athens, Greece 1951

It is interesting to note that this idea is very similar to the idea of wave and particle in quantum physics. Einstein wrote about wave and particle:

“…separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do” – Albert Einstein

2.) The spirit of Architecture and the ‘unmeasurable’

Louis Kahn: Temple of Apollo, Corinth at sunrise, Greece 1951

The spirit of architecture was the central search for Kahn. And he was especially fascinated by the ruins. According to him, when the building is ruin, it is free from service and releases the spirit of Architecture.

“When the building is a ruin and free of servitude, the spirit emerges telling of the marvel that the building was made” – Louis Kahn

The colours and the bold nature of the sketch tries to tell something more than what was there at the site. It seems that Kahn is imagining something more than the structure of columns and beams. By using such mysterious colours, he is creating a fantasy kind of a landscape and trying to find the ‘unmeasurable’ quality through painting the fundamental structure of architecture: columns and beams.

3.) Nature and man

Louis Kahn-Acropolis, Athens, Greece- 1951, Pastels on paper

Another concept for Kahn was the relationship between nature and humans. He always imagined dialogues between nature and man which are fascinating. Here’s one for you.

“A man goes to the mountain, saying, I need you because I feel you can express what I want to express. The mountain says, I`m busy, I`m basking in the sun, I`m having a hell of a good time. What do you want from me? And he says, I tell you, it’s quite marvellous. And out of his pocket comes a little something, with some columns and pediments.

The mountain says, What’s that?

It’s you.

Me? You mean to tell me those blocks are me? Feeling the raggedness of his side, seen so much in the glancing light. If so, I suggest you go around the other end where it will be so much more advantageous to you.

The mountain becomes the collaborator as soon as you show him how beautiful he is in the form that man makes him.

Isn`t it marvellous that, out of what’s around, you get the feeling that you can make with the aid of nature what nature itself cannot make?”

Think about it. It is a simple concept but very interesting. There is a whole nature out there, and yet there are things which only humans can make!

4.) Silence and light

Louis Kahn. Pyramids of Giza, Egypt 1951

Kahn`s most known concept is silence and light. He often associated it with the pyramids. And there is also a sketch where we can feel this silence which he talks about. It is not the quiet. It is the kind of a voice without a sound. An urge to express, which he finds in the great pyramids.

“This urge to express I try to give an aura, rather than trying to describe. The aura is silence, voiceless, wordless, but still a kind of voice you hear when you pass the pyramids.” – Louis Kahn


These are a few of his architectural ideas which can be seen in his paintings and in his lectures. These are some points to conclude.

  • I think what I learned from them is the attempt of finding the fundamental ideas, in simple things such as light, material, nature, silence, and making them so profound to create wonderful things.
  • These ideas show us the stretch of imagination of a person to search beyond materials. Sometimes we can also stretch our imagination in our own area of work to find such ideas. It does not have to be related to architecture.
  • Spirituality can be a part of a daily life and work if we can learn to observe and imagine. It is all about extending our current state. We must put an effort to see more than eyes.
  • Such profound ideas can only come from reflection of our own work and ourselves. I read Kahn`s ideas and I get inspired. But I myself can only find new ideas like these when I reflect on my life, work and my own nature.

Hope you enjoyed the post. Thank you.:)

Also check out my articles on creativity on my new blog:

Creativity and work: 3 essential Components which make your work truly ‘creative’

Creativity and work: 7 ways to start being more creative at your work, today!

All of Kahn`s paintings and sketches are compiled in the book ‘paintings and sketches of Louis Kahn.’


7 thoughts on “Louis Kahn: A spiritual journey through paintings and architecture

Add yours

  1. He’s a very interesting artist to me. He is a very successful example, which should be an example for many professions in order to think with his paintings and drawings.Writing, drawing, depicting are the possibilities of being Permanent, of a different communication. In addition to his architectural superiority, Louis Kahn can reach countries-people that his architecture does not reach……..Hasan Pekmezci-Painter

    Liked by 1 person

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