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Architect and Engineer: The Collaboration of Louis I Kahn and August E. Komendant

Humberto Rodríguez-Camilloni

bert rodriguez camilloniAn international authority on Latin American Art and Architectural History and Preservation, Dr. Rodríguez’s professional experience spans over thirty years as director of major restoration projects in Latin America under UNESCO and the Organization of American States. He is the author of the master plan for the restoration of the Monastic Complex of San Francisco in Lima, Perú, currently under implementation, and of the master plan for the conservation of the Spanish colonial city of Old Santa Fe in Argentina. He is contributing editor on Spanish colonial art and architecture for the Handbook of Latin American Studies; and is the author of Religious Architecture in Lima of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: The Monastic Complex of San Francisco el Grande and Its Restoration, as well as books and numerous articles published in professional journals and                                                         elsewhere.

During the course of 18 years, renowned American architect Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) collaborated with structural engineer August E. Komendant (1906-1992) to create some of the most recognizable icons of 20th century architecture. These included the Richards Medical Research Laboratories of 1957-61 in Philadelphia, PA; the Salk Institute for Biological Studies of 1959-65 in La Jolla, CA; and the Kimbell Art Museum of 1967-72 in Fort Worth, TX, which are the focus of this study. Based on mutual respect and an ever growing friendship, in each of these executed projects, both Kahn and Komendant succeeded in overcoming differences in design approaches that culminated in the meaningful integration of the art of architecture and the art of engineering as lasting exemplary lessons for professionals in both their fields.

This paper documents the relationship between Kahn and Komendant, identifying the special qualities that each of them brought to bear in the realization of their dreams to enhance the man-made environment. Kahn, best know as the great master of “silence and light,” found in Komendant the ideal structural engineer for his choice of reinforced concrete as his preferred building material. In particular, Komendant’s expertise with new methods of construction using prefabrication and post-tensioning of concrete proved to be decisive for the full expression of Kahn’s aesthetic sensibilities.

Being perfectionists at heart, Kahn and Komendant’s views often collided, forcing them to rethink their options in order to arrive at a common ground. In the end, however, their individual contributions fused into the most striking solutions of structural and spatial virtuosity. As once noted by Komendant, “Commonly the architects consider an engineer as an outsider, not so with Kahn. I was always an insider from the beginning of each project to the finished building…We remained friends until the very end, regardless of severe arguments about delays or about arbitrary basic architectural changes in already finished designs or even during construction.” For his part, Kahn paid tribute to his professional partner when he wrote in a letter dated May 3, l972: “To August, whose genius has made my buildings his buildings and are the very ones that have wonder about them.”

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