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The Architecture of the Unfinished and the Example of Louis Kahn NEIL LEVINE In one of the most celebrated and oft-quoted statements defining the romantic condi- tion of early modern art and thought, Friedrich Schlegel noted in his Athenaeum Fragments (1798) that, whereas ‘many works of the ancients have become fragments’ and are known only in the form of ruins, ‘many works of the moderns are fragments at the time of their origin." For Schlegel, as for many writers and artists since, the fragmentary nature of ancient and medieval ruins was of contemporary import precisely because it reflected and thereby expressed the sense of incompleteness, openness, ambi- guity, and potentiality that has been at the core of the modern achievement and dilemma in the production of art.’ Throughout the ongoing architectural debate in the later eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries over questions of structure, function, ornament, and represen- tation, the ruin generally served as the avatar of the unfinished in a dynamic, dialectical relationship with its double. Almost by default, the peculiarly modern aesthetic of the unfinished was invariably represented by the more obvious historical image of the ruin. Nowhere is this subtle interchange more evident than in the work of Louis Kahn. Com- menting on his design for the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy (1965-72; fig. 11) in an interview that was published the year after the building’s opening, Kahn responded to the question of whether ‘the architect ever build[s] just for needs’ in the following way: No. Never build for needs! ... I think a space evokes its use. It transcends need. If it doesn’t do that then it has failed. ... When a building is being built, there is an impatience to bring it into being. Nota blade of grass can grow near this activity. Look at the building after it is built. Each part that was built with so much activity and joy and willingness to proceed tries to say when you're using the building, ‘Let me tell you about how I was made.’ Nobody is listening because the building is now satisfying need. The desire in its making is not evident. As time passes, when it is a ruin, the spirit of its making comes back. It welcomes the foliage that entwines and conceals. Everyone who passes can hear the story it wants to tell about its making. It is no longer in servitude; the spirit is back.’ Kahn had previously spoken of the unglazed, freestanding screen walls he designed to provide protection from the sun for the enclosed spaces of some of his structures as ‘wrapping ruins around buildings,’ so it is not surprising that most historians have focused on the end result of the story he tells of the intercourse of ‘need’ and ‘desire’. But for Kahn the ‘breakthrough’, the ‘wonder’, was always to be found in ‘beginnings’, the ‘Volume 0, . . . which has not yet been written’.’ And so it is also not surprising 324 NEIL LEVINE to note that earlier iterations of his unfinished/ruin narrative downplay the role of the ruin in order to give proper weight to the conceptually more significant state of incompleteness. In an essay entitled ‘Architecture: Silence and Light,’ published in 1970, Kahn remarked: I note that when a building is being made, free of servitude, its spirit to be is high — no blade of grass can grow in its wake. When the building stands complete and in use, it seems to want to tell you about the adventure of its making. But all the parts locked in servitude make this story of little interest. When its use is spent and it becomes a ruin, the wonder of its beginning appears again.* In Kahn's little tale, the ruin simply perpetuates and reflects the suggestive poten- tiality of the unfinished. As for Schlegel, the perception of the sense of incompleteness ina building was felt by Kahn to be a fundamental reality of modem artistic thought and thus had to be embodied in the completed work itself. In their willful and abiding sense of incompleteness, Kahn's buildings then are part of a major development in the history ‘of modern art and architecture. To view them in this way not only gives new meaning to them but also helps us to understand more fully the larger ramifications of that historical development as a whole. The Aesthetic of the Unfinished The aesthetic of the unfinished emerged with the Renaissance, at the very beginning of the postmedieval era.’ Both Leonardo and Michelangelo were plagued at various points in their careers by an inability or lack of will to bring certain of their paintings and sculp- ture to completion. But of the two, it was Michelangelo who is responsible for having made an aesthetic of the idea, if not entirely self-consciously, then at least in the eyes of history. The very term non finito was in fact coined during the period to describe works like the ‘Slaves’ or ‘Captives’ (1513-16) and the Rondanini Pieta (c.1555-64).* Giorgio Vasari, a colleague and friend of the sculptor and author of the first work of modern art history, explained the lack of finish in part as an index of the artist’s ‘great and terrible conceptions’ that could never be given complete physical expression.’ Michelangelo's case was rather unique, and it was not until the early nineteenth century that his non finito was taken as a prescription for practice and appropriated to serve as a sign of modem ideas of suggestiveness, ambiguity, and subjectivity. The romantic readings of Michelangelo stressed the aspect of intentionality, of self- consciousness, and of the Neoplatonic distinction between conception and realization, between idea and form." Finish, in this modern understanding of the Renaissance sculptor, implied superficiality, mere virtuosity, and, most of all, an academic conven- tionality devoid of individual expression and divorced from the complexities of contemporary life.’ The unfinished, by contrast, revealed the difficult transaction that takes place in art between the unknown and the known, between the abstraction of thought and the material demands of brute matter. ‘The most immediate and direct indicator of an artist's original idea, and therefore of his or her imaginative faculty, was thought to be the sketch. With Constable and Turner in England and Delacroix in France, the vitality and spontaneity of the initial sketch ‘THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE UNFINISHED AND THE EXAMPLE OF LOUIS KAHN 325 were incorporated into the final work, which now rejected the tight contour drawing and smooth shading of the academic manner in favor of a looseness and roughness in the handling of the pictorial surface.” By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, with Manet and the Impressionists, lack of conventional finish became a defining term of modernism." In seeking to create the image of an immediate and direct transcription of a person, object, or event, these artists emphasized as never before the essential character of the medium of paint as perceived in natural light and at a specific moment in time. While there were deviations from the purely painterly effects of sketchiness in certain types of modernist art of the following century, a refusal to adopt the broader idea of conventional finish either in terms of form or of subject matter characterized the advanced art of the period. From Fauvism and Cubism through Abstract Expressionism, the effects of the unfinished were employed to manifest a range of meanings — from the ‘expression of spontaneity and creative vitality, to the insistence on the nature of the ~. medium, to the porousness and openness of the image to interpretation, to the very ambiguity and occlusion of meaning the last may imply. Indeed, by the 1950s, when Kahn began designing his first mature buildings, the aesthetic of the unfinished had come to be taken for granted as a fundamental determinant of modern art.'* The aesthetic of the unfinished has played a much less obvious role in the evolution of modern architecture than in that of the other arts - or so it would seem. It also took a more varied course, involving a broad range of motivations producing often quite dis- parate effects. Despite the fact that the very first building recorded in the Western literary tradition, the Tower of Babel, was unfinished — and gained its meaning thereby - the deliberately unfinished as an architectural concept would appear to be an oxymoron. Alberti’s church of San Francesco at (c.1450) and Palazzo Rucellai (late 1450s) are both unfinished, but we generally either read that out of our consideration or use it as a basis for reconstructing the artist's intentions. For buildings to function, it would seem, they must be finished. Visibly unfinished buildings like the Guggenheim Foundation in Venice, where only the ground floor of the eighteenth-century former Palazzo Venier dei Leoni that it occupies was ever constructed, strike us as bizarre, not simply because they are unfinished but because we use them and think of them as if they were finished. On the other hand, a work like Gaudf’s church of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (begun 1880s) is understood less as unfinished than as being continu- ously in the process of construction — and thus akin to the medieval cathedrals on which it is modeled. Although Michelangelo never translated his non finito into the realm of architecture, other architects of the period associ- ated with him played with the idea in a way that suggests how it would ultimately be understood in later romantic and modern thought. Giulio Romano's Palazzo del Te, outside Mantua (1526-31), is a perfect example (fig. 1). The entrance to the central court is through a passage covered by an + Palazodel Te, ouside Mantua by Galo elaborately decorated barrel vault composed of alternating Romano, 1526-31: entrance.