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The social poetics of urban design: rethinking urban design through Louis Kahn’s vision for Central Philadelphia (1939–1962)


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The architect Louis Kahn is known for the simple yet poetic composition of his words. Through some of the unique features of his unbuilt master plan for the urban centre in Central Philadelphia, this paper argues that we can understand the true quality of Kahn’s design only when we look at his proposals through the lens of linguistics and semiotics. The appeal of Kahn’s design lies in what semioticists and linguists would call ‘poetic quality’, or the production of inventive understandings of both the conventions and new inventions of the shared social milieu. It is precisely because the poetic function in language is humanistic, that Kahn’s use of social poetics has brought the abstract ideas of urban planners down to earth in a way that everyone can appreciate.
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Journal of Urban Design
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The social poetics of urban design: rethinking
urban design through Louis Kahn’s vision for
Central Philadelphia (1939–1962)
Non Arkaraprasertkul
To cite this article: Non Arkaraprasertkul (2016): The social poetics of urban design: rethinking
urban design through Louis Kahn’s vision for Central Philadelphia (1939–1962), Journal of
Urban Design
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The social poetics of urban design: rethinking urban
design through Louis Kahn’s vision for Central Philadelphia
Non Arkaraprasertkul
New York University Shanghai, Shanghai, China
The architect Louis Kahn is known for the simple yet poetic
composition of his words. Through some of the unique features of his
unbuilt master plan for the urban centre in Central Philadelphia, this
paper argues that we can understand the true quality of Kahn’s design
only when we look at his proposals through the lens of linguistics
and semiotics. The appeal of Kahn’s design lies in what semioticists
and linguists would call ‘poetic quality’, or the production of inventive
understandings of both the conventions and new inventions of the
shared social milieu. It is precisely because the poetic function in
language is humanistic, that Kahn’s use of social poetics has brought
the abstract ideas of urban planners down to earth in a way that
everyone can appreciate.
The sun never knew how great it was until it struck the side of a building. (Louis Kahn, cited in
Hawkes 1996, 112)
Known for the simple yet poetic composition of his words, the American architect Louis
Kahn (1901–74) is not only one of America’s most celebrated modernists, but also arguably
one of the most renowned architects of the modern era (Frampton 1980; Anderson 1995;
Goldhagen 2001). Standing out from a series of plans he developed for Center City
Philadelphia over more than two decades from the late 1930s to the early 1960s, his vision
for the centre of the city (1939–62) set in motion what architectural designers and urban
planners in the generations following his would call ‘urban design’. This was due to his archi-
tectural principle that encompasses not only meticulously detailed building designs, but
also the urban system that brings them together to exist coherently with the sum of the
built as well as natural environments. In fact, as the prominent Kahn scholar Peter Reed
(1989) suggests, Kahn did not see any distinction between architecture and urban planning.
To Kahn, these two disciplines shared similar forms and principles. This ‘trans-disciplinary
approach’ to design is in essence the ambiguity that paved the way for the development of
several new, including some very radical, ideas in urban studies.
© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Non Arkaraprasertkul
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The goal of this paper is to explore multiple aspects of Kahn’s master plan for Central
Philadelphia (which Kahn himself preferred to call ‘midtown Philadelphia’; Kahn 1953) but
was never built. Building on the previous work on Kahn’s urban design by this author (also
published in this journal, see Arkaraprasertkul 2008), the evidence presented here will argue
that urban design not only could but also should be understood through linguistic and
semiotic approaches, especially those of linguist Roman Jakobson and social anthropologist
Michael Herzfeld. The aim of this paper is to show how through both the lens of linguistics
and anthropology especially what Herzfeld (2005) calls ‘social poetics’ it is possible to
analyze and understand the true quality of Kahn’s design, which lies in the poetic qualities
displayed in both his works and his words. Although this paper will begin with the notion
of language, ultimately the goal of this paper is to take the analysis beyond language. The
appeal of Kahn’s designs lies in the deformation of conventions, leading to the production
of inventive understandings of both such conventions and the new inventions, and of the
shared social milieu – what linguists would call, ‘poetic quality. This covert and therefore
unquantiable poetic quality of design is precisely what the previous work by this author
touched upon, especially in explaining why Kahn’s design was poorly received primarily by
a handful of mainstream urban planners in the 1950s to 1960s (also see Kahn, Vitrarelli, and
New Yorker Films 2005). The evidence presented in this paper will suggest that such failure
was due to the fact that Kahn chose to operate in a ‘poetic’ idiom. The more ‘prosaic’ planners
argued that his imaginative design, as a result of his poetic derivation, overshadowed too
many other aspects of the design, such as its practicality and feasibility that were central to
the planners’ concerns. Some of them also criticized Kahn for being ‘overly idealistic’ about
the reality of a city. These planners emphatically dismissed Kahn’s ideas of an automobile-free
environment, monumental square and forum for citizens, and elevated highways around
the central city area containing multiple layers of public transportation, for being not only
economically unfeasible but also socially naïve (see Ksiazek 1996; Garvin 2002; Arkaraprasertkul
2008; Knowles 2009; Kativa 2010) (see Figure 1).
Figure 1.Louis I. Kahn. ‘Civic Center, project, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Aerial perspective. c. 1957. Ink on
tracing paper, 11 × 14’ (27.9 × 35.6cm). Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Licensed
by SCALA/ Art Resource, New York.
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Background: Kahn’s design for Central Philadelphia
Kahn, who was known for his ‘poetic language’, found he was not taken seriously by profes-
sional (and often number-crunching) planners who often talked in and designed by numbers
(for examples of some of his most famous quotes, see Tyng 1984; Kahn and Ngo 1998;
Goldhagen 2001; Kahn 2003). He was famous for asking the most simple, yet profound
questions, such as:
At one time, I thought the idea of towers with big open spaces around them [referring to Le
Corbusier’s radiant city idea] was a wonderful thing, until I realized, Where is the bakery shop?
And the park was not good enough. (Brillembourg and Kahn 1992)
The bakery shop, to Kahn, symbolizes the sense of humanism in the monotonous land-
scape of a typical modernist city spearheaded by the modernist architect Le Corbusier
(18871965). However, according to Edmund Bacon (19102005), the famous planner and
the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Planning Commission from 1956 to 1962, the
mention of the bakery shop undermines Kahn’s ability to see the ‘big picture’ of planning.
Bacon’s critique was probably reasonable given that he himself was a dierent type of pro-
fessional (see Cody 2001; Garvin 2002; Knowles 2009). In his famous illustrated book that
became a classic in urban planning and design studies, Design of Cities (Bacon 1967), he
focused primarily on displaying and commenting on macro-planning ideas from various
cities, and the relationships between large-scale systemic elements such as built forms and
nature, nature and human interaction, and so on. This critique brings to the surface points
supporting both sides.
On the one hand, Kahn’s ideas showed that his plan for Philadelphia could have been
environmentally sound within the framework of a much-needed gradual, rather than swift,
process of revitalizing the city for the future had it been properly executed. This is particularly
the case given how often discussions on the subject of urban decay as a result of the planning
that allowed cars to dominate the city have been brought to the table in the past few dec-
ades. On the other hand, Kahn could be overly simplistic in his thinking about the city,
especially when considering one of his most famous comments and diagrams illustrating
his urban planning idea ‘the plan of the city is like a plan of a house’ (Figure 2). Surely most
trained planners would immediately point out, if not rst being totally oended and appalled
by what they would have perceived as Kahn’s downright childish understanding of the city,
that the nature of city design is much more complex.
It should be precisely this point where any keen readers of Kahn’s unbuilt master plan for
Central Philadelphia see it from a dierent perspective, namely how his idea was commu-
nicated. As mentioned above, the background of this paper is the classic debate about the
future of Philadelphia in the mid-twentieth century between Edmund Bacon and Louis Kahn.
After having been rather successful in delivering acclaimed designs for a number of projects,
mainly neighbourhood and medium-sized urban developments, in Philadelphia, Louis Kahn
was asked to produce a master plan for the development of the entire central area of the
city (extensively documented in Reed 1989). In the 1950s, he understood that the city had
suered from half a century of inactive planning. The historic city of Philadelphia dealt with
community collapse, owing to the departure of industries and original occupants. The essay
‘Toward modernist urban design: Louis Kahn’s plan for Central Philadelphia’ (2008) provided
a detailed study of the trajectory of Kahn’s ideas and practices, arguing that he was aware
of both the problems of urban decay as well as his ambiguous position as an architect/
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planner. This essay, however, only lightly touches upon the issue of communication by con-
cluding that his design should not be read literally but read as a metaphor of a total urban
system. In other words, a quick perusal of the documentation shows that Kahn ‘poeticized’
his urban vision by bringing the metaphor of romantic Venetian water transportation to
provide a foundation for the re-organization of the entire trac system of the city. In addition,
he proposed large-scale structures whose forms bring to mind ancient monuments with
blatant platonic forms, to make a statement about the need for a new civic centre.
Unfortunately, both his metaphor and nostalgic proposition not only failed to gain traction,
but were also dismissed by the planners who were, at that time, obsessed with developments
in vertical building and construction technology, motor vehicles and expansive highway
The notion of poetics
Scholars have written about the poetics ‘in and of ’ architecture rather broadly, looking mainly
at the coherence of the design in the context surrounding the architect’s ingenious use of
natural lighting as well as the surrounding environment (e.g., Tzonis, Lefaivre, and van de
klassicistiese architektuur Tzonis 1986; Antoniades 1990; Frampton and Cava 1995; Van Schaik
and Lyssiotis 2002; Weingarden 2009). In other words, Kahn’s architecture is poetic in a
Figure 2.Oscar Stonorov and Louis Kahn. The Plan of the City is Like the Plan of a House. c. 1944.
Source: Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum
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dictionary denition, which is the ‘imaginative and/or sensitively emotional style of expres-
sion’. Most of us would probably agree that this was an impressionistic approach, akin to the
fashion of what the French phenomenologists Bachelard and Jolas (1994) refer to as per-
ception ‘through natural phenomena’. This impressionistic approach, however, only reduces
architecture to spatial aesthetics and, consequentially, pure subjectivity. For example, as
quoted at the beginning of the paper, Kahn is quoted as saying, ‘the sun never knew how
great it was until it struck the side of a building’. Through this statement, it is possible to
begin to feel Kahn’s take on the importance of light as it allows us to perceive the materiality
of a particular element of architecture, but how many of us could actually understand this?
Two-dimensional photographs capturing the beauty of shadow cast on a wall of a famous
building are often used as cover photos of books about the notion of poetics in and of
architecture, but what do these photographs really tell us about the way in which we could
analytically understand how these poetic forms are interpreted, let alone created? Does it
mean that as long as there is light, the building is an example of good architecture? How
much light is needed to make a space feel poetic? In fact, architecture has long been using
jargon from other elds to enhance its own credibility. For example, well-known architectural
concepts such as ‘urban morphology, ‘space syntax’ or ‘shape grammar’ owe their origin to
the eld of linguistics. Rather than dwelling on the second-hand (and sometimes misleading)
usage of a meaningful term, it is better to resort to the original denition of poetic which
could help us understand the social context of Kahn’s urban vision the linguistic
We will begin by unpacking the linguistic denition of poetics. This denition will serve
as a conceptual springboard to analyze Kahn’s design incorporating both the semiotic anal-
ysis of inert signs and the action and acting in the world. In his classic study How To Do Things
With Words (1975), the linguist J.L. Austin (191160) argues that a person communicates
through uttering sounds, and the utterances that work meaning those that are eective
in communication do not necessarily need to have what he also calls ‘truth-value’. In fact,
it is the context in which the utterances are made, and the conscious performance associated
with the words themselves that makes a combination of words operative.1 From this basis,
it is possible to understand what the structural linguist Roman Jakobson (18961982) means
when he writes ‘the notion of poetics deals primarily with the question of what makes a
verbal message a work of art (Jakobson 1960, 351). That is, according to both Austin and
Jakobson, the notion of poetics deals with the overall structure that makes a verbal message
appreciable in a similar way to art, which is not usually directly associated with its content
but other factors such as the composition, form, colour, light, volume and so on, especially
in abstract art forms loaded with indirect referential symbols (Jakobson 1960, 350). In other
words, the poetic function of language focuses on the message for its own sake: the form
over the content. This same logic also applies to the reasons why linguistic jargon such as
morphology, syntax and grammar, mentioned above, are chosen by the architectural theorists
who may or may not know the etymological origins of these terms. It is precisely because
of their poetic qualities, not because of their content. A classic example that Jakobson (1960)
used is the political slogan I like Ike. Owing to the embedded poetic quality, sometimes the
rhyming of the phonetics, the use of parallelisms or sometimes both of these techniques
combined, the listeners perceive the message not through the content but the form of the
slogan. For example, if someone tries to understand the slogan starting with what it means,
then the rst and most obvious question would be the one that concerns the slogan’s
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semantic inadequacy: why should I like Ike? Who is Ike? Even if I have heard of Ike, do I know
him enough to like him? Set in the political context in which Irvin Berlin, the creator of what
Time Magazine ranks the eighth all-time most inuential campaign advertisement, knew
exactly that anyone who heard the slogan would not be able to think of any other Ike except
the presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower. The brevity of the slogan also plays a role in
emphasizing the point as to why this slogan caught on so quickly from when it was rst used
in Eisenhower’s 1952 presidential campaign. In other words, as Jakobson points out, it was
the ‘impressiveness and ecacy’ of the slogan in which the power of public persuasion lay,
not the content. In fact, to look through all of the best political slogans, it is possible to also
nd many similar ambiguous yet straight-to-the-point slogans such as ‘Kenney for Me’ in
1960, or Barack Obama’s highly ambiguous slogans ‘Hope’, ‘Change’ and ‘Be That Change, for
Therefore, any poetic messages should only be analyzed by what Jakobson calls their
‘operative eect’ rather than their meanings. In this paper, the argument presented shows
that Kahn’s proposal must be read visually and textually in the same way we understand
the poetic function of language. In addition, the fact that Kahn’s designs have never left the
pages of his published works reinforces their semiotic qualities, because all interpretations
of his designs, whether good or bad, were based solely on the interpretation of what they
represented and how well he verbally represented them.2
Central to this paper’s argument about the poetic quality of Kahn’s designs is the underlying
idea that urban design is also a system of communicative signs and symbols a semiotic
system that could be analyzed through the lens of semiotics. This is not only verbally, where
something can be perceived as poetic, but also in other systems involving the use of signs
and symbols aimed at communicating a particular message to the receiver/audience, such
as music, lm, art, architecture, graphic design and so on. By looking at Kahn’s vision this way,
it is possible to better understand both the true philological basis from which he derived his
urban vision, as well as how and why some (i.e., the planners) might not take such a vision
seriously. This is precisely why it is worthwhile to look at both the poetic expression of his
verbal message as well as the poetic aspect expressed in the semiotics of his urban design.
Kahn’s poetic way of expressing his ideas had always been his trademark, which was instru-
mental to his success in persuading many high-prole clients to take the risk of investing in
Kahn’s modernist dream. During the two decades between his rst and last projects, he com-
pleted many important projects that later became permanent emblematic monuments. Many
scholars of Kahn have pointed out that owing to Kahn’s perfectionism, he was ultimately
known as an architect whose projects were not only expensive, but usually, if not always, over
budget as construction progressed. His idealism also rendered many of his designs, especially
in the eyes of the planning commissions, impractical and not worth the disruption they would
have created. His poetic way of expressing his ideas, however, could also be a double-edged
sword. Kahn’s failure to convey his design to the Planning Commission of Central Philadelphia
might have been due to the misinterpretation of the message that he sent, and perhaps the
breakdown in the system of semiotics that underlies the mental structure of the design.
Toward social poetics
The social anthropologist Michael Herzfeld (2005) coined the term ‘social poetics’, or the
process of identity reproduction through the system of social interactions where, like the
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notion of poetics in language, the focus is placed on the form rather than the content. For
example, in his anthropological study of a small rural community in Greece the relationship
among its members might appear to outside observers as rather discourteous, vulgar and
insolent, if not downright uncultured. To outside observers, the ways in which his informants
conducted themselves made the existence of this particular community appear rather anach-
ronistic and backward. That said, Herzfeld discovered that the members of this particular
community communicated through what he calls ‘poetic acts’. Such acts included the often
exaggerated expression of masculinity, the use of seemingly vulgar words to denote intimate
social relationships, and the act of stealing as a proof of brotherhood. In the fashion of what
we might call ‘cultural relativism’, Herzfeld urges us to look beyond the supercial under-
standing of a social group and look at the use of symbols, which we may interpret dierently
in our own society, as a way the community bonded, united and sustained itself. As the social
interactions that he observed and reported are not just speeches, Herzfeld’s use of the term
‘social poetics’ explicitly rejects the idea that this is about language. Social poetics analyzes
how people use conventions, many of which are not at all about language, in social
Herzfeld argues that in a society there are elements of what he terms ‘cultural intimacy’,
or aspects of cultural identity that are considered a source of criticism both by outside
observers and the state, but are nonetheless used to provide members of the community
with a sense of comfort, understanding and unity (see Herzfeld 2005; Subotic and Zarakol
2013). In this way, social poetics could be thought of as an expressive form of cultural inti-
macy. Herzfeld’s concept is considered one of the most inuential concepts in contemporary
social sciences precisely because it sheds light on how we might be able to ‘see through’ the
façade of social interaction, in order to decode and comprehensively understand the role
of actions in a studied community. Therefore, most social actions should be understood not
by the literal reading of the form that they take but by the deep cultural intimacy of their
contents. This is how social researchers navigate the total social system and make sense of
an otherwise impenetrable community.
The obvious question, however, is what constitutes an act of social poetics? First and
foremost, Herzfeld explains that what makes something socially poetic is the fact that, like
poetic messages, these acts have the potential to divert our attention to their social forms
which are expressive. Second, what makes a social act poetic is the dynamic between the
invention and the convention. In other words, what makes something poetic is the result of
the creative attempt to break the rules (invention), without actually breaking it (convention).
Embedded in this creative play is also ambiguity, which blurs the boundary between per-
ceptual and interpretative receptions. For example, Kahn could have said that light is crucial
to architecture, but instead he said, ‘the sun never knew how great it was until it struck the
side of a building’, which, needless to say, is a highly ambiguous yet playful and original
quote. In the practice of everyday life, Herzfeld’s concept of social poetics shows that the
furthest one can go in taking risks in breaking the rules without actually breaking them, the
more poetic the system of social interaction becomes.
Rivers, canals and docks: social poetics in Kahn’s visions for Philadelphia
Kahn envisioned the movement in his famous Trac Study Project for Central Philadelphia by
moving elevated high-speed roadways rivers out from the center of the city, consolidating
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‘Go streets’ canals in the center city, and connecting them with parking facilities harbors
along the perimeter of the area he dened as the city center. (Frampton and Cava 1995, 224)
Kahn clearly played with existing conventions, and did so inventively. But how did his
designs play with the conventions that had not worked and produce something that might
be arrestingly dierent, interesting and perhaps even successful? This section discusses the
main elements of his creative play on conventions and how he did so in the actual designs,
not just in the language he used.
Metaphors are another form creative play. In the example above, Kahn uses the metaphors
of water transportation to denote his vision for restricting the trac system. This seemingly
mundane metaphor used to express an urban planning ideal remains one of the most mem-
orable visions for urban design to date (Rudofsky 1964). Why is Kahn’s use of metaphors so
powerful? The short answer is that we always live ‘by them’. Metaphors are usually thought
of as a measure of the poetic quality of prose, but contemporary linguists have discovered
that metaphors are much more pervasive than that. They underpin the foundations of how
we think and act. To elaborate this point, look at some of the following pieces of prose (Lako
and Johnson 1980, 4): ‘Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my
argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. I’ve never won an
argument with him’. These examples of argumentation as war are the cognitive linguists
George Lako and Mark Johnson’s most well-known set of metaphors through which they
make their most groundbreaking point regarding metaphors as fundamental to the way we
think and that we are not usually conscious of their extensiveness. In their most famous
work Metaphors We Live By (1980), they argue that metaphors are omnipresent in everyday
life, not just in language but also in the way we think and the way we act as well as how we
perceive action. Contrary to what many may consider to be mere devices of the poetic
imagination and rhetoric, metaphors are a prevalent fundamental mechanism in our minds,
allowing us to use our physical and social experiences to make sense of the world in which
we are living. In other words, we all think in metaphors. For a city with a limited trac system
and decaying urban environment that was not conducive to pedestrians such as Philadelphia
in the 1950s, it was Kahn’s use of metaphors of waterways that conveyed to the public his
radical idea so well, reecting the core quality that was most desired in the projects that he
proposed, as the art educator Lisa Mazzola (2007, 19) writes:
He felt that in order to preserve the quality of life in urban environments, people, buildings,
and services should be brought to the city center and cars and roadways should be placed on
the periphery, or outer edges. This would, he theorized, allow people to walk safely and easily
from place to place within a city.
The design convention of the time facilitated the inux of private automobiles. Bacon
had a vision of a city that not only welcomed cars but also placed their importance at the
centre (Bacon 1967; Garvin 2002; Knowles 2009; Kativa 2010). Although Kahn disagreed with
this idea, instead of proposing a design that did not recognize such conventions, he proposed
a reorganization of trac that still accommodated the convention but pushed its boundaries.
Reecting his design philosophy of spaces of the served and servant, his proposed design
not only separated the movement of cars from that of pedestrians, but also provided both
of them with ample space to attain complete mobility without crossing the paths of each
other. Such mobility was to be controlled by their hierarchy of speed. Although Kahn’s met-
aphors evoked the image of a romantic canal city, he obviously did not literally mean that
he would like to create a system of urban mobility by digging waterways. The ‘river, canal,
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dock’ metaphors were meant to conjure up the image of a total system of organized urban
social place. Resonating with the philosopher and urban theorist Donald Schön’s (1993) idea
of ‘generative metaphors, Kahn’s ‘river, canal, dock’ metaphors both generate a clear picture
of the problems persisting in the current urban condition of the city and set the direction
for solving the problem. As Kahn saw the city as fragmented, the logical step he took was
to create some sense of structure for it. In that sense, he felt that the system of water trans-
portation provided a much stronger sense of organizational hierarchy, which was, to him,
part and parcel of the civic sense of the city. In other words, it was not the case that Kahn
was over-romanticizing small canal towns, as Bacon accused him of being completely igno-
rant of a much larger system of urban organization. On the contrary, Kahn’s own upbringing
and lifelong residency of Philadelphia, alongside his extensive travels as an architect and
educator, must have given him enough experience to understand the limits of such an idea
vis-à-vis the needs of a city. In this sense, it is possible to see Kahn’s poetic expression through
the lens of social poetics that it could be understood in his indelible push towards the
invention of a new idea of an urban-social place, with graphic references to a highly con-
ventional system of mobility such as waterways.
In terms of practicality, Kahn argues that, rst, lying in the quality of all great architecture
is the apt and robust arrangement of the served and servant spaces (probably most obvious
in his design of the Richards Medical Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania, see
McQuaid 2002, 116–117). Second, what he was proposing was in essence a ‘walking city’
the served space for the city’s real clients, with no private vehicles and their owners, but the
majority of the residents whose movement in the city would be primarily be on foot. In his
design, motor vehicles would enter the served space (what he calls ‘the architecture of stop-
ping’ see Reed 1989, 206) from a high speed roadway (that he later calls the ‘viaduct also
another creative play with the metaphor of the long bridge-like structure in Roman archi-
tecture), and park at a ramped parking garage the servant space then the vehicle owners
would take public transportation provided along the low-vehicular congestion block system
to the inner part of the city. This idea, although many saw it as controversial (especially Bacon)
and being ahead of its time, was not unheard of during the era. In the 1960s, Victor Gruen,
the Austrian-born architect who was best known as a pioneer in the design of shopping
malls in the US, had proposed the idea of creating parking structures around the perimeter
of a downtown area, which in turn would eliminate the disruptive trac from the main
streets (Robertson 1995). Recognizing the city’s historic roots and envisioning its urban
future (Kahn 1957; Reed 1989, 206210), Kahn’s design for the city sought to replace the
inecient trac system obstructing Philadelphia with not only a more lucrative, but more
humanistic future (see Figure 3).
At this point, it is worth remembering that the aim of this paper is not to suggest in a
simple-minded fashion that his design could have been realized if he had rephrased his
words and design dierently. That said, this could well be the case, but there were too many
other factors involved in the politics of urban design and development and such counter-
factual arguments often have no meaningful scholarly ndings. Through the lens of social
poetics, however, his critics may have believed that Kahn had gone too far in his visions, and
therefore actually had broken the conventions, which, according to theorists such as
Jakobson and Herzfeld, would have turned poetics into simply mindless fragments. Rather,
the goal of this paper is to make a point that the design not becoming a realization is what
makes it even more poetic in the minds of subsequent generations of urban designers who
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have tried to replicate his poetic expression. The ‘poetics’ of Kahn’s proposal lies in his vision-
ary idea of ecological urbanity, encompassing not only the sustainability of the city’s physical
design through the reorganization of movement, but also socially viable spatiality that places
emphasis on the building of social capital through innovative forms of interaction.
Timeless forum: monumental civic centre
Like Kahn’s formal vocabulary, that embodied eternal archetypes, the activities associated with
the forum embodied what was essential to man. (Reed 1989, 218)
Kahn’s civic centre was the central element of his plan that urban planners, especially
Bacon, most abhorred. Not only did his civic centre look as though it was an anachronistic
medieval town (indeed, Kahn’s sketches conveyed such an impression), but it also seemed
to lack the element of capitalist commercialization, namely skyscrapers, which were craved
by both the planners and developers alike. It was no surprise to discover how he derived his
basic design principles. His key guidance to how he designed was a simple quote, ‘what does
it want to be?’ The full quote (said by Kahn in his master class at the University of Pennsylvania
in 1971) appears in the documentary My Architect (2003) by his son Nathaniel Kahn as
If you think of Brick, you say to Brick, ‘What do you want, Brick?’ And Brick says to you, ‘I like an
Arch.’ And if you say to Brick, ‘Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over
you. What do you think of that, Brick?’ Brick says, ‘I like an Arch.’ And it’s important, you see, that
you honor the material that you use. … You can only do it if you honor the brick and glorify the
brick instead of shortchanging it’. (Nathaniel Kahn 2005).
This way of thinking is applied to just about everything that Kahn has designed, from a
construction element such as a brick (when he was choosing whether to design an arch or
Figure 3. Louis I. Kahn. ‘Traffic Study, project, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’. Plan of proposed traffic-
movement pattern. 1952. Ink, graphite, and cut-and-pasted papers on paper, 24 1⁄2 × 42 3⁄4” (62.2 ×
108.6cm). Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Licensed by SCALA/ Art Resource,
New York.
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use a column with it, see Kahn and Ngo 1998) to, in this case, an entire civic centre. In a
personal letter to his colleague when he was perplexed by the question of how to deliver
the design for Philadelphia, he wrote, “‘CIVIC CENTER CORE’ [capitalized as in the original
text]. What does it want to be? Is it the creative center of human communication? Is it the
Cathedral of the city?” (cited in Reed 1989, 219)
At the end, Kahn concluded that this civic centre must be both monumental and cultural
therefore he used the term ‘forum’, which invokes an image of a large and open public
meeting place in Ancient Rome. That is, at the heart of this civic centre is the forum the
principal served space accommodated by the ‘architecture of the streets’ and of the buildings.
As Reed (1989, 202—235) writes, Kahn placed great emphasis on what he vaguely dened
as ‘communication (which, as Reed also observes, probably meant ‘interaction’, in both
cathartic and spiritual ways; see Reed 1989, 221). By ‘communication’, not only did Kahn hope
to restructure the ways in which urban environments are experienced, but he also wanted
to recreate social spaces that would provide citizens with a sense of dignity. By not allowing
cars to enter the city, he envisioned that citizens would experience the city dierently
through a slow walking pace rather than the speedy movement of automobiles, and there
would be more meaningful ‘communication’ between citizens. As romantic as several of his
ideas may sound, Kahn also envisioned that the forum would have dierent heights, reso-
nating with the diversity of heights the buildings surrounding it with the interplay of the
horizontal and vertical planes, both visually (via dierent building heights) and physically
(via the multiple levels of planes of the plazas). He hoped that this ‘labyrinth of pedestrian
ways threading in the environment of great buildings and varied activities’ (Reed 1989, 227)
would foster communication between the architecture and the citizens for whom they were
It could be argued that the quintessential quality of Kahn’s architecture is its timelessness,
yet not in a clichéd sense that his architecture would need to be everlasting, or simply stand
the test of time. Kahn’s timelessness is about the way his architecture ages. Deeply rooted
in their context, the users and vernacular, his buildings are designed to age in such a way
that chronological change would assimilate to the circle of life, therefore giving them a
nuanced sense of socio-temporal change that engages profoundly with the people and
environment. His architecture became timeless because the buildings are not aected by
time. The initial design may already express some references to the ancient past, and they
would then become part and parcel of the temporal perception of the people who used
them as they grew older together. In addition, Kahn’s design also provides robust opportu-
nities for extensions. Nevertheless, unlike laissez-faire expansion or bulldozing and rebuilding
both of which were conventions of the time Kahn’s plan for expansion provides both a
systematic and coherent formal quality, as well as structure to the new additions. As the
architectural historian Sigfried Giedion (1949, 691692) observed, Kahn’s provision of both
the scheme and scope for expansion could take place without disrupting the original con-
cept. This was precisely how time was dealt with ‘poetically’ by fostering space to commu-
nicate, age and expand. The way in which Kahn engages with the notion of space and time
is not only humanistic but also anthropological. What else should architecture resonate with
if not these two dimensions of the phenomenal world in which we all live? This is vivid evi-
dence of his creative play on existing social conventions; in other words, the social
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If I were not an architect, I would be a writer. (Louis Kahn 1967)
Kahn’s architectural and urban projects are, like his words, also poetic in the sense that
they make people think about architecture in ways they would not have otherwise thought
of. In his plan for Central Philadelphia, he completely removed our natural inclination to
think about road systems as grand corridors for high-speed cars, and replaced it with the
idea of a space for the ow of environmentally-friendly water vehicles. His vision emphasized
the city as an organism, with the conscious goal of minimizing the environmental eects of
automobile trac. Frequently, he put extremely loaded inquiries into the nature of built
environments in the most fundamental forms. In his famous quote about the ‘bakery shop’,
he was basically confronting the question of whether the idea of a modernist city (Le Corbusier
1976) full of symmetrical and replicable sets of high-rise buildings, which was once conceived
as the most ecient way of living, really works. Ironically, Kahn had never proposed an actual
bakery shop anywhere in his design. The absence of an actual bakery shop renders the use
of the term rhetorical and metaphorical rather than literal. In his interview with the architect
Carlos Brillembourg (Brillembourg and Kahn 1992), Kahn made use of the term ‘bakery shop’
to refer to what he thought was missing in the design which, in his own words, was a ‘reve-
lation to me’ of the architect who he thought of as ‘an inspiring teacher: Le Corbusier’. He
did not answer the question yet only posed it as a rhetorical engagement with Le Corbusier’s
design, as opposed to a practical comment on the missing urban element in the ‘revelation
design by his inspiring teacher’ (Kahn and Brillembourg 1992). Nevertheless, the answer to
the question in its own rhetoric could not be found; it is not in human nature to live in a
sterile city full of high-rise buildings. What is more interesting, however, is that in his response
was not just the answer itself but what Jakobson would call ‘the poetic function’ of his
Another aspect of the design of Central Philadelphia that is often overlooked because it
was not built is the notion of material specicity. Kahn paid remarkable attention to particular
material details of urban space, such as, again, the bakery shop, where humans process
matter (in this case our, water and yeast to make bread) that help to build a complex com-
munity unit, not just with architecture but also with food and tradition. For Kahn, the city
was not just a soulless abstraction, since he knew that it needed to accommodate not just
one but many bakery shops. The modernist architect Le Corbusier (1976) once argued that
the goal of modern architecture is to create ‘a machine for living, a metaphor urging us to
think about the function of architecture, but can we always do that? Moreover, is a ‘machine’
really an apt metaphor with which we would like to relate our human experience? What lies
in the quality of a place where bread and cakes are made or sold is a communal place where
a person who bakes them does so for the customers who come in not just to buy food made
of our, water and yeast, but also to engage in friendly conversations with the baker and
other customers, as well as the aroma of the place. It was precisely this understanding of
urbanism that has since paved the way for much more humanistic approaches to urban
design. The renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs (19162006), for example, was a lifelong and
ardent advocate of small-scale planning that places the emphasis on elements that human
beings actually use such as streets, coee shops, grocery stores and bars, as opposed to
gargantuan structures such as massive elevated highways and high-rise structures that could
often be appreciated only in aerial views (see Jacobs 1961, 1970, 1985) (see Figure 3).
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In this way, it is possible to see a series of almost uncanny similarities between Kahn and
Jacobs, Edmund Bacon and Robert Moses (whose idea of building highways was opposed
by Jacobs), and, perhaps more simply, between the ‘urbanists and urban planners’ as a whole.
Even though neither Kahn or Jacobs had formal training in urban planning, they were able
to see urbanism just as a person wanting to live in a city would see it, rather than as a master
builder or the state which usually has authority over urban planning (see Scott 1998).
In other words, Kahn’s attention to bakeries could suggest a sense of humanity, as well
as groundedness that seems strikingly dierent from an environmental perspective, even
though professional urban planners at the time found it too ‘poetic’ and felt that he was ‘too
caught up in details’. Indeed, because the focus is on form and how form induces reactions
that often remain dicult to describe, poetics is arguably a better way of describing an
architectural aesthetic than many of the other approaches that have been tried to date.
It is also hoped that this paper has brought to the attention of those of us who care about
urbanism the idea of reclaiming the value of such poetics by looking at the profoundness
of Kahn’s design. Despite being criticized for his poetic idealism, Kahn evidently had a very
concrete understanding of who and what inhabited cities. Rather than communicating in
the language of the economists, Kahn communicated his design through poetics in the
language of the public the true clients of the city and that made his ideas powerful and
publicly engaging. It is precisely because the poetic function in language is humanistic that
Kahn’s uses of social poetics has brought the ideas of urban planners down to earth from
lofty, abstract sterile plans. The true function of poetics was evident in the way that the Kahn
communicated his work. Kahn also shows that what makes something a work of art does
not have to be highly complex, but can be very simple yet humanely meaningful. Looking
at the development of architecture in the twenty-rst century, in which everyone tries to
compete to be unique through creating the wildest possible architectural forms, using and
exploiting various means endowed upon us by Mother Nature, one cannot help but think
that perhaps we have not thought through and understood the most fundamental aspect
of architecture. Perhaps, Kahn’s poetic teaching should be revisited: ‘architecture is, simply,
a thoughtful making of space’ (Kahn 2003) which is barely present in today’s architectural
1. Famous examples include the pronouncement of marriage at a church where the combination
of words ‘I pronounce you husband and wife’ has an operative eect compared to if it was being
uttered elsewhere, such as at a bar. When Kahn uttered the combination of words that form a
sentence ‘architecture is the thoughtful making of space’, he was conscious both of his audience
and the context in which he made the speech, therefore making this particular sentence one
of the most profound architectural tenets of his time and beyond.
2. It should be noted here that, considering the impact of the Jakobsonian school of linguistics,
it is certain that any trained linguists will be well versed in Jakobson’s complex four-directional
schematic diagrams of verbal communication as well as the corresponding fundamental
factors. This paper, however, will not use too much specialized terminology or go into too
much depth and detail about linguistics. Concepts will only be provided insofar as they will
help to understand Kahn’s work from such perspectives.
3. The writings of enlightenment philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, for example, are full of
idiomatic proses that are not necessarily grammatical in the strictest sense. His most famous
(far from being a complete) sentence is ‘mankind governed by pain and pleasure’ and then a
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period denoting that this is a full sentence consisting of just these six words despite the lack of
the crucial model verb ‘is’ between the subject and the passive verb form. Yet, it was precisely
an example of what Herzfeld (2005) would call a ‘creative play’ that makes his writings on
utilitarianism widely inuential and accessible. According to Jakobson et al. (1985, 38) ‘Bentham
is perhaps the rst to disclose the manifold “linguistic ctions” which underlie grammatical
structure and which are used throughout the whole eld of language as a necessary resource.
The author is especially grateful to Dr Michael Herzfeld and his colleague Leo Pang who carefully read
the entire manuscript to sharpen the argument and improve its prose with wit and energy. Thanks are
also due to readers on various occasions: Kevin Beier, Alan C. Braddock, Sonia Hirt, Laura Turner Igoe,
Xinyan Peng and Leslie Sklair. The author owes a great debt to the Archivists Bill Whitaker and Heather
Isbell Schumacher at the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania for their uninterrupted
and responsive research support. Finally, this paper is dedicated to the author’s mentor, friend and
colleague, the late Professor Stanford Owen Anderson (19342016) at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT), whose passion for the works of Louis Kahn resonated deeply with him. Stan taught
him the beauty of Kahn’s architectural poetics. Whatever he has learned about architecture in the larger
social context as well as its cultural role, the author shall always be indebted to him.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
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The now-classic Metaphors We Live By changed our understanding of metaphor and its role in language and the mind. Metaphor, the authors explain, is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects. Because such metaphors structure our most basic understandings of our experience, they are "metaphors we live by"--metaphors that can shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them. In this updated edition of Lakoff and Johnson's influential book, the authors supply an afterword surveying how their theory of metaphor has developed within the cognitive sciences to become central to the contemporary understanding of how we think and how we express our thoughts in language.
When Philadelphia's iconoclastic city planner Edmund N. Bacon looked into his crystal ball in 1959, he saw a remarkable vision: "Philadelphia as an unmatched expression of the vitality of American technology and culture." In that year Bacon penned an essay for Greater Philadelphia Magazine, originally entitled "Philadelphia in the Year 2009," in which he imagined a city remade, modernized in time to host the 1976 Philadelphia World's Fair and Bicentennial celebration, an event that would be a catalyst for a golden age of urban renewal. What Bacon did not predict was the long, bitter period of economic decline, population dispersal, and racial confrontation that Philadelphia was about to enter. As such, his essay comes to us as a time capsule, a message from one of the city's most influential and controversial shapers that prompts discussions of what was, what might have been, and what could yet be in the city's future. Imagining Philadelphia brings together Bacon's original essay, reprinted here for the first time in fifty years, and a set of original essays on the past, present, and future of urban planning in Philadelphia. In addition to examining Bacon and his motivations for writing the piece, the essays assess the wider context of Philadelphia's planning, architecture, and real estate communities at the time, how city officials were reacting to economic decline, what national precedents shaped Bacon's faith in grand forms of urban renewal, and whether or not it is desirable or even possible to adopt similarly ambitious visions for contemporary urban planning and economic development. The volume closes with a vision of what Philadelphia might look like fifty years from now.