The following is a guest post by Ryan Brubacher, Reference Librarian, Prints & Photographs Division.
One of my most favorite rabbit holes to find myself in as a librarian is the deep and wonderful collection of the combined Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), and Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS), collectively referred to as “HABS/HAER/HALS,” or “HHH.” A vast repository of information on historic American structures and landscapes, the HHH photographs, measured drawings, and historical reports have thousands of little burrows to lose yourself in as you wind your way through woodwork details, bridge cable systems, and ancient trees that were witness to important events. Recently, I found myself on such a rabbit-hole journey researching the architect Louis Kahn.
Louis I. Kahn was born in 1901, in what is now Estonia, and his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1906. He earned an architecture degree at the University of Pennsylvania – School of Fine Arts studying under Paul Philippe Cret. After graduating he worked as a draftsman in offices including Cret’s, then on collaborative projects leading up to his formal partnership with Oscar Stonorov, which lasted from 1942-1947, afterwards working on his own. He served as a faculty member at several institutions but primarily at Yale and University of Pennsylvania.
The Stonorov Kahn partnership designed simple dormitory structures for a Jewish Union-Sponsored Children’s Camp – Camp Hofnung, in 1947. This is the earliest HABS survey of a building designed by Kahn.
The design for the camp dormitories on the left (designed just at the time Kahn’s professional partnership with Oskar Stonorov was coming to its end) is very basic, especially in comparison to the Pine Ford Acres Complex on the right (also built in the 1940s), designed slightly earlier by Kahn with George Howe, photographs of which show up in the Library’s Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., collection. In both of these early works we see a clean geometric design, without much adornment and an emphasis on windows as a crucial element of the design.
By the 1960s Kahn was more of a household name, becoming known for designing large expansive complexes. Though he is more famous for the larger works, he also made a small number of residences in Pennsylvania. The Margaret Esherick House in Philadelphia is exemplary of the style that many associate with Kahn, and is the second survey of Kahn’s work in the HABS collection. The HABS photos capture the way Kahn seemed to design with three primary materials: concrete, wood and sky (windows reflecting it or framing it as though the sky itself had a materiality to be moved around like a building block).
The photo below exposes how the inhabitant of the house had a role in playing with these blocks, as many of the windows employed massive shutters that could be opened and closed to whatever configuration was desired.
This photo and another view of the interior below, also illustrate Kahn’s principle, held by other modern architects as well, of not hiding structural elements. The photos are especially useful in helping you view a space as it was designed, without the adornment you would see in a staged photo shoot.
Though not all HABS surveys come with measured drawings, in many ways they are the icing on the cake for the collection. While HABS measured drawings are not the original plans or even the as-built plans, since structures are sometimes documented after decades of alterations and additions, they are a very effective way of explaining the nature of space, and organization of elements in a designed work. They are also free to download in the HABS/HAER/HALS Collection. You don’t need to visit a special library, or even Washington, D.C., to see accurate, scaled drawings that describe some of the most famous buildings in America.
Drawings can require a little more work on the part of the viewer, but bring rewards with that work. The drawings show, among other things, how Kahn planned windows across an entire elevation, not just room by room, and all of the details and workings of the custom doors, windows, and shutters. They also reveal the semi-secret sliding day bed that is installed above the bathtub.
In addition to the photos and drawings, surveys in the collection often come with historical reports, which are one of the most helpful finds in our collections for a building researcher. They can include information about former owners, builders, and architects, timelines of construction and additions, construction materials, regional building history, and the significance of the structure in context. Bibliographies and source lists also point you to original drawings, historical materials, and published sources for more information on the topic. In reading the data pages for the Esherick house, I was drawn into the discussion of the landscape planner, and am ready to jump down another rabbit hole looking for what I can find related to Frederick Peck in the rest of the Prints & Photographs Division.
On a closing note, it is worthwhile to mention that a modernist architecture adventure is now a strong pull in the collection that was once a hallmark collection for Victorian and Colonial period architecture. When HABS started, American Modernism was very young, but as we come closer to the 100 year anniversary of HABS these structures are now entering the corpus. Accordingly, the collection now includes and will grow the number of surveys for buildings by many of modern architecture’s biggest names – Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra, Paul Rudolph, Charles and Ray Eames, and Louis Kahn among many others. Plenty to lose yourself in!
- Explore the HABS/HAER/HALS collection by reading background information, browsing by creator, subject, or place, and searching. You can also sample:
- more documentation of the buildings designed by Louis Kahn that HABS has recorded
- documentation for sites indexed with the term “modern architectural elements”
- architects who employed modern design by searching for creator name, such as Mies van der Rohe and Richard Neutra.
- A Louis Kahn rabbit hole need not stop at HABS. We have many excellent photographs in other P&P collections.
- His striking oceanside complex for the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, is represented in the Look Magazine Photograph Collection, the Carol Highsmith Archive, and the Balthazar Korab Collection.
- An early residence, the Jesse Oser house, is well documented alongside the Pine Ford Acres Complex in the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection.
- We hold one original Kahn drawing: a sketch of his design for housing in Ahmedabad, India. (Original drawings for most of the projects completed by Louis Kahn are in the Kahn Archive at the University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives.)
- Louis I. Kahn is an example of a Jewish American whose work helped form the fabric of American culture through its built environment. Explore Jewish American resources at multiple institutions through the Jewish American Heritage Month portal.