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  • Writer's pictureD. Maurice Kreis

Post-Pandemic Road Trip Fantasy: Rochester, N.Y.

When the Old Man of the Mountain toppled to earth on May 3, 2003, I instantly had an idea for a replacement New Hampshire Icon. Rather than continuing to rely on a natural formation that no longer existed, I thought the Granite State ought to pivot to the built environment as its official totem.

Specifically, what I had in mind was the circle/square superimposition that is the central and unforgettable theme of New Hampshire's finest building: the Class of 1945 Library at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter. Completed in 1971, it is one of the most celebrated designs of the best American architect of the 20th Century, Louis Kahn.

Unlike the architect more frequently cited as America's best from the years 1901 through 2000, Frank Lloyd Wright, Kahn produced relatively few designs. World-class architects tend to peak late in their careers and, while Wright seemed to live forever, Kahn suffered a fatal heart attack -- ironically, in a mens' room at in that most dismal and schlocky example of 20th Century modernism, Penn Station in New York -- just a few weeks after his 73rd birthday.

It's been my good fortune to have visited three of Kahn's designs. I get sucked into the Phillips Exeter Academy Library vortex any time I pass through Exeter -- the place is just so captivating, and in non-pandemic times the elite prep school cheerfully suffers architectural gawkers. Last year, when visiting Manhattan, I took the tramway to Roosevelt Island to check out the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, remarkable just just for its moving simplicity but for the fact that it was only completed in 2012, more than 40 years after its architect's death.

And in 2011, after traveling to San Diego for a conference, of course I made the pilgrimage to La Jolla to check out the most celebrated Kahn Building of all, the Salk Institute. Yes, it was started by that Salk -- Jonas Salk, because wouldn't you just expect that a scientist smart enough to cure polio would also be insightful enough to commission a building by Louis Kahn?

Although it's vitally important to visit important buildings in order to understand their architecture, photographs of the Phillips Exeter Academy Library, the FDR Memorial, and the Salk Institute do seem to communicate at least a bit of why these designs are special. It would be possible, with a well-curated slide show, to demonstrate why Kahn, like Wright, stood apart from mainstream 20th Century modernism as it came pouring out of Europe ahead of World War II and into the U.S. thanks to expatriates like Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer. A Louis Kahn building always looks good enough to eat; the use of materials is always that natural and luscious.

Another Kahn Building -- one I have not visited -- is a different story. I've studied every photograph I can find of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York, a Kahn design completed in 1962. And I can't seem to get it.

It's not that the building seems awkward, ugly, or not-compelling to me. It is, rather, so obvious that the virtues of the First Unitarian Church elude photography. In that sense it is like the Seattle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas, which looks like a bizarre experiment in geometry in photos but, upon a visit, proves itself to be an entire world of joyful activity that is effectuated rather than undermined by the building that hosts all of the endeavors occurring within it. Other great buildings that resist capture by camera are the Davis Museum at Wellesley College (Rafael Moneo) and even Wright's Fallingwater in Pennsylvania (because the iconic view of the house, downstream of the waterfall, actually leaves out so much of what would make you wish the house were yours).

The venerable architectural writer Carter Wiseman recently published a handy little book about Kahn -- Louis Kahn: A Life in Architecture, a kind of Cliff Notes version of his earlier book on the same subject, Louis I Kahn: Beyond Time and Style. Wiseman tracked down an unpublished monograph written by Jean France, a local architectural historian who is apparently affiliated with the Rochester congregation and played a key role in choosing and working with Kahn all those years ago.

From France's monograph Wiseman extracted this Kahn pronouncement about this particular commission: "Having heard the minister give a sense of the Unitarian aspirations, it occurred to me that the sanctuary is merely the center of the questions."

Wiseman likes the fact that Kahn referred to Unitarian "aspirations" as opposed to doctrine, faith, or religion. So do I.

What does a sanctuary whose purpose is to serve as a center of questions, as well as an expression of aspirations, look like? I need to find out, as a person who happens to belong to a Unitarian-Universalist congregation myself.

My congregation is saddled with a classic, 1850s New England church -- gothic arches, kitschy stained glass windows with representation of Jesus in them, rows of pews oriented classroom-style toward a pulpit. How boring and uninspiring! So of course I use the word "saddled" because, let's face it, no congregation in the third decade of the 21st Century is going to replace a historic home like that, however ill-suited such a home actually is to the aspirations and answer-seeking proclivities of the spiritual community that owns the place. (I hasten to add that I am not talking about the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Concord, whose building has something of a Louis Kahn sensibillity to it. Ironically, my home in Concord is just a few doors away.)

One of these days, the pandemic will end. Contemplating that, you're probably dreaming of a beach in Mexico or a lakeside cabin in Maine or a stroll along the Seine. But I want to go to Rochester.

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