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Monday, December 13, 2010

Louis Kahn, Ruins, and the Hurva

Louis Kahn, one of the most influential architects of the last generation, was heavily influenced by ruins. His career blossomed after he spent four months during his fifties in Rome, where he studied the great ruins of the ancient world and decided that they would henceforth inspire his work. This process culminated with an unbuilt project of his - the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem, which occupies a singular place in the collective ruin-loving mind of Israel.

In the fascinating book, Louis I. Kahn: Unbuilt Masterworks, Kent Larson explores this connection as he virtually recreates this unfinished project. The book examines two of Kahn's obsessions: sunlight and ruins. Kahn used his architecture to filter light. In his unbuilt U.S. Consulate in Luanda, Angola, he wrote that he was faced with the problem of controlling the harsh African sun.
"So therefore I thought of the beauty of ruins...of things which nothing lives behind...and so I thought of wrapping ruins around buildings; you might say encasing a building in a ruin so that you look through the wall which has its apertures as if by accident...I felt this would be an answer to the glare problem." (Interview, Perspecta 7 (1961); 9-18)
These were not, of course, literal ruins, but they do demonstrate a certain mode of thinking about ruins and their potential architectural uses.

Kahn's commission for the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem was a
"An extraordinary opportunity to express his most deeply felt ideas about architecture. This was his chance to build the great Jewish monument at the religious center of the new Jewish state...In addition, Hurva was Kahn's first and only opportunity to build in the context of ancient ruins." (Larson, p129)
For the first (and third) iteration of this project, Kahn employed 16 massive "ruin" piers along the perimeter. These piers, though intended to mimic the temple, look similar to the Temple at Luxor. Larson writes that "The pylons are both the sun walls and the ruins of Hurva." In the third iteration, Kahn incorporated a memorial garden built around the ruins of the old Hurva. This was an attempt to juxtapose the new synagogue with the ruins, keeping it separate but with an homage to the past.

Kahn once said that
"In every thing that nature makes, nature records how it was made. In the rock is a record of how the rock was made. In man is the record of how man was made."(Kahn, quoted in Between Silence and Light by John Lobell)
In the context of ruins, this makes absolute sense. Ruins are records of nature's intervention in a building. Preserving a ruin acknowledges this history and maintains that record, teaching us about the history of the site and about nature.


  1. 1. It is still a strange idea- creating "new ruins". Although people do make old-style clothes, furniture, etc. Kahn interpretation of the term into new design concepts is inspiring.
    2. I seem to remember a saying attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright. Roughly: "buildings should be planned so that they look well even when they become ruins". I don't remember any solid source to check it. Do you know it?
    3. The Hurva was recently rebuilt. It seems there was no interesting theoretical thinking about the ruins, as Kahn did. Not that I necessarily like his proposal.

  2. I'm not sure about the FLW quote, but the concept is often referred to by its German name, Ruinwerttheorie (Ruin Worth Theory), the design of buildings with their eventual ruin in mind. Hitler was apparently a big proponent of it. He was impressed by the ruins in Rome that Mussolini showed him, and wanted the Third Reich to have equally impressive ruins. Albert Speer was instructed to plan accordingly.
    At some point we'll have to post a proper entry about the Hurva and its reconstruction. What a waste of a good ruin.

  3. In this case I fully agree with your last sentence.