Master of the Class

Kahn teaching in his Penn Master ClassProfessor Louis I. Kahn discusses drawings with his students.

Unique, unconventional, innovative...as an architect, Louis I. Kahn was all these things. But his style and creativity extended beyond the professional to the educational.

"He almost always had a piece of charcoal in one hand. In the other, he was likely to have a small cigar, which dropped ashes on the student's drawings as he bent over them. Kahn seemed oblivious to the mess, working the ashes into the charcoal with a kneaded eraser and ignoring the stains on his hands. One of Kahn's teaching techniques was to have his students make what he called, 'energy drawings,' quick sketches intended to capture the fundamental idea of a project before moving on to a more formal version."

Taken from Department of Architecture Associate Professor James Williamson's book, this quote expresses the lasting impression Kahn made on his students. Williamson's book, Kahn at Penn: Transformative Teacher of Architecture, is an extensive investigation of the Master's Class taught by Kahn as seen through the eyes of his former graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). Intended for exceptional students, master classes are taught by experts of a particular discipline.

Much has been written about Kahn's buildings, but not his far-reaching effect on his students as an unconventional teacher and philosopher. Williamson's book corrects this oversight.

"Instead of another consideration of his buildings, my book is the first in-depth study of Kahn's philosophy of education and his pedagogy, and also the first extensive investigation of the Master's Class taught by Kahn as seen through the eyes of his former graduate students at Penn," Williamson said. "It reflects the views expressed by his students about their teacher as well as the
lasting impact of the Master's Class on their professional lives."

To begin the process, the University of Pennsylvania sent letters to almost 400 students who had taken Kahn's Master's Class from 1960 to 1974. Williamson received about 50 responses from students wanting to participate in the project. Williamson said he wanted to include not only their experiences in class, but also how it affected their careers. 

As a former member of Kahn's Master's Class, Williamson is in a unique position to write on Kahn from this perspective. He was a part of the last Master's Class Kahn taught at Penn in 1974. Kahn died before the end of that semester. 

"Being in his class was a remarkable experience," said Williamson, who has been teaching at the University of Memphis since 2008. "The book seemed to be a natural outgrowth of my experience as a student of Kahn's, as well as the graduate seminar I teach at the University of Memphis, in which we discuss Kahn's ideas and I share my experiences and reflections."

Kahn started teaching his Master's Class at Penn in 1956. During that time, he taught more than 400 graduate students. He also taught at Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Princeton. In addition, he lectured at architectural schools across the country and abroad.

"Teaching was vitally important for Kahn, and through his Master's Class at the University of Pennsylvania, he exerted a significant effect on the future course of architectural practice and education," Williamson said.

To this day, Williamson incorporates Kahn's philosophy into his lectures and design studios at the University of Memphis. In his graduate student seminar, he explores Kahn's work and his philosophy, integrating what he discovered in the process of working on the book.

"I don't think there has been a single day that I didn't refer back to him," Williamson said. "Looking back on my time as a student in the Master's Class, I had long realized how that experience affected virtually every aspect of my career as a principal in my own design firm and as a teacher."

He said Kahn distinguished himself from other architects with his focus on intuition, not analysis. He would always ask the question,

"What does the building want to be?" It's the architect's job to figure it out and inquire into the nature of the building. "Professor Williamson's Kahn Seminar is an in-depth study of Kahn's work, not as purely static visual form, but as an integrated design exercise," said Megan Hoover, graduate student in architecture. "Kahn's process begins with the question: "What does this building want to be?" and his insight into the inherent nature of the building is integral to answering this question. Jim walks us through this process and provides guidance in understanding Kahn's integration of structural systems, mechanical systems and conscientious design."

She said it is an important part of her education to study Kahn because he has made a lasting impression on the world of architecture, and the spaces he has created are timeless. Although he designs with modernist forms, his spaces have an archaic
feel and experience that tries to reach a universal understanding of space. This is a constant topic in architecture, and it's vital to see how Kahn addressed it.

"Kahn's philosophical understanding of architecture and the architect's relationship to the designed and built work has left the biggest
impression on me," Hoover said. "His almost spiritual approach to architecture takes the process of design and conception of space to a new level, which is very much needed in school and in practice." 

Kahn's positive effect as a teacher lives on through those who continue to use his methods and share his philosophy.

"Studying Kahn has allowed me to view architectural design in a different light," Hoover said. "With each architect we study, we learn
something new about the way he or she thinks, processes and solves problems. Kahn presents a unique approach that has been vital to my architectural understanding."

About the Author

Associate Professor James Williamson has two Master of Architecture degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. In 30 years in his own Memphis-based firm, Williamson received more than 30 local, regional and national architectural design awards. In 2005, he was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for his contributions in architectural design and education. In 2014, he received the AIA Edward S. Frey Award for contributions to religious architecture and support of the allied arts. In addition to his other accomplishments, Williamson has held leadership positions in both the AIA and Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture (IFRAA). Williamson is the author of three books: two works of fiction—The Architect and The Ravine
—and Kahn at Penn: Transformational Teacher of Architecture.