Happy Birthday, Louis Kahn.
The enigmatic architect was born February 20, 1901. claass HAUS takes a look at Kahn’s Esherick House on today’s post.
Built between 1959 and 1962, the Margaret Esherick House is one of only nine built residential commissions by Kahn, who is probably best known for his large-scale institutional projects. Widely considered a domestic masterpiece, the sophisticated suburban villa is a clear expression of Kahn's unique architectural vision, a rigorous display of exuberant space and transcendent light.
Here are ten things you should know about the Esherick House.
1. Maybe his most memorable residential design.
The well-studied Esherick House is Kahn at his best, understated but unapologetically modern, the house a true testament to the architect’s proclivity for the monumental even in the most modest of circumstances. Drawing on architectural history, Kahn utilizes pure geometry to create a monolithic expression that defies era or classification.
2. Commissioned by Margaret Esherick.
In the fall of 1959, Margaret Esherick, owner of a small bookstore in Philadelphia, approached Kahn to design a small suburban hideaway. Upon accepting the project, the architect agreed to collaborate with Margaret's uncle, famed American sculptor and fellow Philadelphia designer, Wharton Esherick. Though Wharton's work was ultimately limited to the interior, he created the home's impressive (and pretty stunning) kitchen of quirky knotted wood, curving countertops, and a large copper sink.
Confident and primed in matters of design, Margaret (also the sister of Bay Area architect Joseph Esherick) proved to be an ideal client for Kahn, and the pair worked closely to create a modern home that showcased both the architect's complex ideas and the client's artistic sensibilities.
3. Located in the fashionable Chestnut Hill.
A suburban-type neighborhood within the city limits of Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill is home to a number of architecturally significant residences representing nearly every notable architect in the city's history. Located at 204 Sunrise Lane, the Esherick residence stands just down the street from one of Modern architecture's most iconic buildings (a building that changed America)- the Vanna Venturi House by Robert Venturi.
4. A staunchly modern exterior reveals a warm and delicate interior.
Simple in terms of geometry, the two-story home is an orthogonal monolith punctured by window openings of various shapes and sizes. The surprisingly monumental posture of the small villa opens to a warm interior where Kahn exploited every opportunity to imbue the space with natural light. Most obviously, the double-height living room, enclosed on three sides with glass, is transformed by the day's changing light, blurring the division between interior and exterior. Here, Kahn rejects rigid functionalism in favor of personal contemplation. Demonstrating his keen understanding of the relationship between architecture and inhabitant, the Esherick House exhibits the pure emotional pleasure of space.
5. Composed of a surprisingly simple symmetrical plan.
In some ways a play on the traditional double-pile house, the floor plan of the Esherick residence seems deceptively simple. Composed of four rectangles or strips, the plan allows for balance, openness, and clarity, its different functions clearly expressed. With the cubic layout of the Esherick House, Kahn adapts a familiar American plan to suit his own version of modern domesticity.
6. Only has one bedroom.
Intended for Margaret and her books, the 2,500-square-foot house has a single bedroom, an airy room on the second floor.
7. A testing ground for new ideas.
Like many of Kahn’s residential designs, the Esherick House worked as a place to experiment and test new methods. The home's assertive monumentality, structural clarity, and separation between "servant" and "served" spaces can be seen in the architect's later institutional commissions.
8. In a sad twist of fate, Margaret Esherick never saw the house completed.
Despite lagging construction, Margaret moved into the unfinished house in the fall of 1961. But the following April, she died unexpectedly, leaving her modern villa empty. A shocked and heartbroken Kahn would later go on to design a significant addition to the home for a prospective owner, but the project was abandoned.
9. Listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2009.
Known primarily for his massive institutional work, the Margaret Esherick House is one of just two Kahn-designed residences (the other being the Fisher House) with historic designation.
10. Sold in 2014 for just under $1 million.
After failing to sell for a much higher price (probably due to its small size and single bedroom), the iconic house finally found new owners in 2014. You can read more about their experience here.
And if you're a Kahn lover and haven't read Wendy Lesser's biography, go out and get it right now. And have a good week!
Image at top:
By Smallbones (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.