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STYLE : ARCHITECTURE : Monumentally Modern

March 28, 1993|AARON BETSKY

For Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, designing the Louis I. Kahn retrospective now at the Museum of Contemporary Art (through May 30) was a student's opportunity to pay tribute to his master. "When I was young and looking only at modern things," Isozaki recalls, "Kahn taught me about history and its monuments. I learned the importance of simple geometries, the subtle distribution of light in a space and that concrete can be beautiful."

Kahn, who died in 1974, is widely recognized as the last great designer of monumental structures in the 20th Century and is worshiped by many architects. One can sense his aura in the exhibition design. Isozaki left the first, skylight-topped gallery virtually empty so that it resembles what Kahn called "The Room," a space that defined each of his schools, museums and churches as "the meeting place of the mind." Much like the interiors of Kahn's Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn. (1974), and Phillips Exeter Academy Library in Exeter, N.H. (1972), Isozaki's cubical gallery is a chapel to clear geometry and light.

In contrast to this void, the main gallery is crammed with Kahn's sketches, plans and commissioned models, as well as new photographs of his built work. Their framework is gray-stained wood walls inspired by the ruin-like screens that Kahn favored for the never-built Mikveh Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia and the capital complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh (1983).

Critics have said the exhibit walls overshadow the work they are meant to highlight and make the space difficult to navigate, but those remarks come as praise to Isozaki. "It is confusing, and you can get lost in there," he concedes, "but then you go back and find something new, see a drawing again. Kahn's space was a space for discovery."

The works of pupil and master resonate deeply. Kahn used trees to partly obscure the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla (1965) and Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth (1972) so that visitors must find their way through "the first grove where a man who didn't know he was a teacher talked about his ideas to people who didn't know they were students." Isozaki once described MOCA, which he designed in 1986, as "a beautiful, small stone lost in a forest of skyscrapers." Now his building and installation are, he says, "a forest of walls in which you find the beautiful forms of Louis Kahn."

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