At one time regarded as “America’s foremost living architect”, Louis Kahn developed a unique take on the Modernist idiom, evoking via his buildings a sense of monumentality and timelessness more often associated with ancient Roman temples and medieval cathedrals. Dissatisfied with the conventional Modernist trajectory of repetitive lightness and brightness of both material and design, Kahn pursued an architecture often unashamedly heavy in construction, with dramatic geometric angles and apertures.
His National Assembly Building (1962-74) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a massive fortress like collection of cylinders and cubes, is considered his magnum opus, being the final realised work of his career.
Although he never designed any in Australia, there is at least one building that, if not directly inspired by Kahn’s work, was certainly created with similar intentions. Any prime public art gallery space, whether at state or national level, should strive to both inspire and awe those who visit not only with its collection but also via its architecture. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), with its vast bluestone facade, enormous arched entrance and water features, dramatically asserts its presence on the main thoroughfare of St Kilda Rd, Melbourne.
Completed in 1968 to a design by Roy Grounds the building was inspired, as with Kahn’s projects, by the architecture of the past. In this case the heavy stone facade alludes to the medieval palazzo fortresses of Italy, whilst the roof, seemingly floating above a row of angled windows, resembles a wide eaved Asian temple feature.
Inside the central spaces soar to cathedral like heights, a spatial comparison emphasised by the kaleidoscope stained glass roof in the gallery’s Great Hall, designed by artist Leonard French.
Although the interior was extensively remodelled in 2003 the NGV building has lost none of it dramatic exterior presence and remains, like much of Louis Kahn’s work, a Modern take on classic monumental form.