Louis Kahn in Venice, a modestly scaled exhibition of drawings at the Italian Cultural Institute (IIC) in Westwood, explores the creative interaction of Italy and America and an unrealized project by a great modern master. Travel sketches are juxtaposed with the architect’s designs for the Palazzo dei Congressi, commissioned in 1968 by the tourist board of Venice. The exhibition was conceived by Francesca Valente, the visionary director of the IIC, who recently retired to Rome; and it was curated by architect Barton Myers, a student and associate of Kahn in the mid 1960s. “It was an unforgettable experience,” Myers recalled. “And this was my chance to pay back and enlighten students for whom history begins with the 21st century.”
Courtesy Richard Saul Wurman Collection, University of Pennsylvania
Kahn was a student of the Beaux-Arts curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania, and sketching was an integral part of his design process. He loved charcoal because it allowed him to work quickly and erase with his hands, leaving traces of what was first there. The travel sketches in soft-toned or vibrantly-colored pastels are tiny works of art in their own right, but they are also clues to the way Kahn viewed the buildings and spaces that inspired him. Italy was a crucial stop in his yearlong tour of Europe in 1928–29, and he was architect in residence at the American Academy in Rome at the end of 1950. Those brief sojourns shaped his subsequent work: the mix of intimacy and monumentality that distinguishes the Salk Institute, the Kimball Museum, the Dhaka Capitol and other masterpieces.
For the proposed site of the Palazzo dei Congressi, in the Giardini of Venice, he sketched a 460 x 100-foot suspension structure, supported on massive piers at either end to raise it above the flood level and minimize the number of caissons. The site was judged too sensitive by the city council, and the project was relocated to the Arsenale, where it was to bridge a canal. For this decaying shipyard, shielded from public gaze and hosting innovative art and architecture installations during the Biennales, it was an ideal solution. It would have been the second habitable bridge in Venice after the Rialto, as grand as the one proposed by Palladio.
Courtesy Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania
A charcoal presentation drawing, eleven feet wide, shows the sweep of the building’s underside, which evokes the Siena Campo as a natural amphitheater and supports banks of seating for 2,500. Kahn described it as a section through a theater in the round, where people would look at people rather than all face one way. A large site model shows how well it would have fit in amid the crumbling warehouses and still waters of the Arsenale. The Venetians were supportive, but the project quietly expired even before Kahn’s death in 1974. As an associate explained, “Venice was waiting for money from Rome and the money never came.”