Revisiting Kahn: a theological case for kenotic design
Lindstrom, RS, Revisiting Kahn: a theological case for kenotic design, Fabulation: Myth, Nature, Heritage, 5-8 July, University of Tasmania Launceston, Tasmania, pp. 590-604. ISBN 978-1-86295-658-2 (2012) [Refereed Conference Paper]
When Louis Kahn fabulated his conversation with brick, he bequeathed to
modern architecture one of its best-known myths. His interest in the brick’s
‘desires’, coupled with his broader question, ‘What does the building want to
be?’, reveals Kahn’s philosophy of deference to an essence preceding design.
Kahn’s approach has been extensively examined in the arenas of history, theory
and philosophy. Theology, however, offers an alternative means to amplify our
understanding of submission in the creative process. Although a non-observant
Jew, Kahn was not without religious instincts. He viewed the universe as
being animated by a creative spirit and, in his own description of world origins,
employed Biblical-like prose, imagining ‘an ooze without shape or direction’,
wherein a prevailing, metaphysical ‘force of joy’ is ‘the essence of creativity’.
He would have been familiar with a sixteenth-century Kabbalistic concept of
creation called ‘tzim-tzum’, meaning ‘self-withdrawal’ or ‘self-contraction’, but
an antecedent Christian concept further illuminates the connection between
theology and the role of submission in creativity.
This paper explicates a central construct of Christian theology, the paschal
mystery, with particular emphasis on its grounding in kenosis – Greek for
‘emptying’, but theologically applied as ‘self-emptying’ – and its inextricable link
to creation and the creative act. In that light, it is argued that Kahn’s design
philosophy is a kenotic one, in which strength (solution) is, paradoxically, found
in weakness (deference), and in which essence is found in immanence. The
analysis then turns to contemporary philosopher Gianni Vattimo, whose paradigm
of weak thought, and nihilistic interpretation of Heidegger’s end-of-metaphysics
philosophy, sees secularisation as kenosis and, consequently, as the fulfillment of
an always kenotic but, now, non-metaphysical and immanent Christianity. Finally,
the paper considers the dynamic between this postmodernist view of kenosis,
and the kenosis demanded by Kahn’s modernist search for essence.