COLLECTING
Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
The Nature of Materials
Louis I. Kahn. Esherick House, 1959-1961. Courtesy of Wright Auctions.

Louis I. Kahn. Esherick House, 1959-1961. Courtesy of Wright Auctions.

The inventory of modern architecture, especially housing, reads like a prescription for physical therapy. It is often dry, cold, and uninspiring—even worse, it can be confusing and off-putting like a drill that your therapist trusts will make you feel better and fully functional. You totally understand the mechanics on a purely abstract level and yet when you try to perform, your movement feels unnatural, manipulated, and foreign. Sweeping as this statement may sound, I feel entitled to it mainly because I am a modernist: by training, conviction, and incurable optimism.

I was reminded of all this as I was browsing through Wright’s, the Chicago-based auction house, catalogs. Wright specializes in modern and contemporary design and pioneered auctions in the category of Modern American architecture. Their contribution on raising awareness about modern architecture, design, and related archival material is substantial. Be that as it may, what caught my attention today was one of Wright’s offerings, Louis I. Kahn’s Esherick House that was offered on auction in May of 2008. As far as I know the two-story structure of 2,500 sq ft (one bedroom, one and a half bathrooms, dining room, custom Wharton Esherick kitchen and large double-height living room) has failed to sell. It may still be available; at least, it was last summer, three years after the initial offering. The house is located in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia and was built in 1959-1961. It was honored with the Landmark Building Award by the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1992.

Louis I. Kahn. Esherick House, 1959-1961. Courtesy of Wright's Auctions.

Louis I. Kahn. Esherick House, 1959-1961. Courtesy of Wright’s Auctions.

I have not visited the house. Looking at the published photographs of the compact, cube-like structure I immediately grasp its innate character. It is simple, restrained, monumental. Its directness is staring at the viewer through multiple openings that allow the residence to participate in nature. Its openings reintroduce the human scale to an otherwise abstract floor plan. Their positioning at a variety of planes adds a discrete playfulness. This is to say that the openings are not flat; they have been broken down to smaller surfaces of wood-encased glass that protrude or recess on a variety of planes. Their composition helps direct movement as they invite the inhabitant to the various nooks and crannies of the house.  Wood is the dominant material of the interior as has often been the case with Kahn’s structures. And this is why I believe that Modern architecture has had great potential. Kahn worked with the human body in mind—he avoided the two-dimensionality of the drafting board and worked his composition from the inside out, in human scale, and with the appropriate materials. Exactly like a furniture maker used to do in pre-industrial times: with a feel for the weight and impact of the material, an understanding of its characteristics, and a determination to explore all possibilities and shape it in a variety of forms adjusted to the human body.

Modernism is an approach to creating that takes full advantage of the nature of materials. This is what has been the case in architecture, in painting and sculpture as well. And this is why we occasionally encounter “modernist” works today even though the expiration date of this movement is well in the past. For all collectors interested in modernism, the task is simple. Don’t just look at pictures before acquiring a work. Look at the piece, touch it, try to understand how, when, and why it was created; become familiar with its materials and the techniques they imply. Let the nature of materials be your guide.

© Thomaï Serdari