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The Louis Kahn Lecture Room
by sculptor Siah Armajani

Commissioned by the Fairmount Park Art Association in recognition of Philadelphia’s Century IV Celebration

Influenced by the social sciences, philosophy and history as well as architecture, sculpture and furniture, Siah Armajani’s work refers to places and forms which are defined by individual and communal use. When Armajani considered a project for Philadelphia, he wanted to create a work for a school; and he asked simply that the space be “useful and used.”

In 1982, Fleisher was in the process of renovating a previously uninhabited building with funds from the City’s Office of Housing and Community Development. Free and available to the public, the school annually attracts thousands of students and visitors from all walks of life and all areas of the Delaware Valley. When Armajani discovered that the architect Louis Kahn had attended the school as a child, his concept for a Louis Kahn Lecture Room immediately began to evolve. Kahn probed the essence of the activities to be accommodated by his buildings, and he asked, “What does the building want to be?”

Similarly, Armajani explored the nature of this potential gathering space. The lecture room is to serve a dual purpose as a community meeting room and as a gallery for a changing group of Kahn’s drawings. The educational and public functions of the space are therefore activated by the forms within it. Kahn wrote about the school, “It was a meeting availability, a place full of offerings. One Saturday morning I came early. I walked in to see the work of the masters of the school on the walls. Someday, I hoped I would be selected too.” On painted blue cornices on the north and east sides of the Room, Armajani used quotes by Kahn that speak to what a school should be and the relationship between student and teacher, “Schools began with a man under a tree who did not know he was a teacher, sharing his realizations with a few others who did not know they were students.”

The expression of this wish turned prophecy alludes to the spirit of democratic ideals important to Armajani’s work. The seating areas and lecturer’s space evoke the adjacent Sanctuary, originally built as a church.

Adapted from the FPAA catalogue: Penny Balkin Bach, Form and Function: Proposals for Public Art for Philadelphia, 1982, page 19.

For more information on the Louis Kahn Lecture Room and Siah Armajani, please go to the Fairmount Park Art Association's website.

Photograph: James G. Mundie

Statement by Louis I. Kahn, Architect FAIA

The city is essentially a meeting place. It is valued by the character of its availabilities. Our way of life is born of freedom which has inspired availabilities the like of which no nation has. The character of this freedom is so great that even a law must adjust to its unmeasurable qualities.

When I was in my early teens, I went to the Graphic Sketch Club. I walked from 7th and Poplar to 8th and Catharine. I was given an easel, paper and charcoal in the life class. All I could hear was the swishing of the strokes and the soft and privately directed voice of the critic. It was a meeting availability, a place full of offerings.

One Saturday morning I came in early. No one seemed to be around. The room to the right of the entrance was open. I walked in to see the works of the masters on the walls. Someday, I hoped I would be selected too. I noticed that the piano in the room was open. I had been playing at home on an ancient, large piano given to me, which was also my bed. My instrument had the sound of little bells. When I touched the keys of the school piano, angels filled the room. I sat down to play the Second Hungarian Rhapsody, not the way it was written since I could not read. When I left the room, I found several people had been listening. They asked that I play the next day at a concert which the Symphony Club was giving in this room. I tried everything to refuse but had to agree. Sunday I played the same piece but faintly as I had played it the day before. (Luckily, I was the first to play.) Mr. Fleisher offered me a scholarship to study composition (not piano). When I told the good news to J. Liberty Todd, a Quaker and Director of the School of Industrial Art, he was flabbergasted, “No, you must not accept… nothing but Art !” he said. My mother was heart-broken. My father agreed with him.

At Central High School, William Gray, teacher of Art, gave talks on Architecture. I was to be a painter but he touched the very core of my expressive desires. How circumstantial, but how wonderful is the light thrown upon the threshold when the door is opened.

A city should be a place where a little boy walking through its streets can sense what he someday would like to be. I have designed buildings in India, in Bangladesh. In these countries where commonality is rarely expressed in the institutions available, I might not have had such aspirations.

I have presented the idea that the Bicentennial be the “Congress of Institutions” (Availabilities) designed to present to all visitors those beliefs that inspired our Declaration of Independence, spoke to the heart of human harmony in feeling, and inspired our people to create such richness of availabilities. Such inspiration has been so deeply woven into our way of life that citizens thought in terms of what offerings they could give to honor its beauty of conception.

Louis I. Kahn
December 1973