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Louis Kahn’s unbuilt Philadelphia

The architect’s unrealized utopian vision for Philly

For all the fame that has followed Louis Kahn, what’s even more noteworthy is that many of the architect’s biggest hits were built within a span of just a few decades—and in some cases, four decades after his death.

Those works stand as monuments to the master builder. But what of the thousands of other drawings of buildings and concepts that Kahn conceived?

Both before and during the height of Kahn’s career, he had dozens upon dozens of more ideas swirling around his head that were ultimately put to paper, but never broke ground. Chief among them were his grand and utopian visions for his hometown, the city of Philadelphia.

Kahn imagined everything from a new City Hall to giant, parking towers dotting the edge of the city to create a more pedestrian-friendly Center City. But in the end, red tape, politics, and dollars got in the way. Today, Kahn’s ideas of Philadelphia are simply pipe dreams, now preserved at PennDesign’s Architectural Archives.

City planner Edmund Bacon, who despite butting heads with Kahn professionally maintained that they were close friends, once said of Kahn’s ideas, “It would have been an incredibly tragedy if they had built any of Lou’s buildings.”

Tragedy or not, these five projects tell the story of Kahn’s unbuilt Philadelphia.

The Triangle Plan

In 1946 the City Planning Commission hired a design team called Associated City Planners that included Kahn and Oscar Stonorov, landscape architects, and a realtor. Their commission: To redesign a 200-acre triangular parcel in Center City bordered by the Ben Franklin Parkway, the Schuylkill River, and Market Street.

The initial concept included a sunken pedestrian esplanade similar to NYC’s Rockefeller Center, according to Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia. Kahn also envisioned separating the area into distinct hubs dedicated to residential, recreation, and transportation.

One might consider this the turning point for Kahn and Bacon’s professional relationship. When their opposing views of what makes a good city came to a head, the duo parted ways on the project in 1950. As detailed in Imagining Philadelphia, Bacon would later say:

I would say, “Let’s make a model so we really show the earth transparent and show the concept.” Kahn would say, “Oh that’s lovely but I would like to put a tower over here and a curving staircase over here and a little grove of trees over here.” And I saw that Lou’s creative genius, which is entirely appropriate and necessary at another phase of a total organic process, was simply obscuring the purity of [...] the concept.”

City Tower

After Kahn left his role as architectural consultant to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, he continued studying and reimagining Philadelphia’s downtown on his own. The City Tower project was Kahn’s vision for a new type of office high-rise. His ideas began to develop in 1952, and over the next few years Kahn worked closely with Tyng to create a concrete, tetrahedron structure.

At the same time, Bacon and the city were considering a new City Hall for Philadelphia at Reyburn Plaza (today Thomas Paine Plaza). Kahn wanted the project badly. Kahn wrote to Tyng, who played a major role in its design, “I cannot allow the grass to grow under my feet. [...] How long must I wait? [...] If a building must go there, who could do it better?”

Kahn wrote letters to everyone from Bacon to the mayor, imploring them to hire him. But it wasn’t meant to be. City Hall remained standing and Reyburn Plaza ultimately became home to Vincent Kling’s Municipal Services Building.

The Docks

At about the same time as the City Tower concept, Kahn also envisioned a downtown Philadelphia designed for pedestrians. Vehicles, he envisioned, could be parked in large, “architecture of stopping” cylinder parking garages placed strategically on the edge of the city, from Schuylkill River near Logan Square to Market East next to Independence Mall. He called these gigantic parking terminals the “docks,” explaining his concept in nautical terms:

Expressways are like rivers. These rivers frame the area to be served. Rivers have Harbors. Harbors are the municipal parking towers; from the Harbors branch a system of Canals that serve the interior; ... from the Canals branch cul-de-sac Docks; the Docks serve as entrance halls to the buildings.

The center of the docks, Kahn opined, were meant for cars, while apartments and offices could be situated on their edges.

Kahn’s “city of movement” or “docks” concept was never put into play, but it did have the support of urban writer and activist Jane Jacobs, according to Becoming Jane Jacobs.

Mikveh Israel Synagogue

In 1961, Kahn was commissioned by Mikveh Israel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Philadelphia, to design its new home on the edge of Independence Mall. His mission: To create the “synagogue of the American Revolution.”

But in retrospect, the project was troubled from the beginning. Kahn’s hiring was considered controversial, since the architect was a close friend of Dr. Bernard J. Alpers, the vice president of the synagogue.

Still, Kahn took the project, providing six schemes for the new synagogue over the course of a decade. Though he was asked to go back to the drawing board by the synagogue multiple times, light was always a key feature of Kahn’s designs, with each proposal featuring numerous light towers throughout the synagogue.

However, Mikveh Israel Synagogue was never able to raise enough money to go through with the project, and the congregation never fully supported Kahn. He was fired from the project in 1972 and never saw his designs come to fruition. In her book Louis Kahn’s Jewish Architecture, Susan Solomon writes, “Kahn, who had experienced many disappointments in his professional life, found the loss of Mikveh Israel to be one of the most stinging.”

Philadelphia College of Art

In 1966, the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts) made a splash when it revealed its first major campus expansion on Broad Street. In the journal Arts Education Policy Review, the announcement heralded Kahn’s design, which was to be built over the next 10 years and cost $15 million:

The most exciting part, both visually and architecturally, of Kahn’s design are the instructional buildings, their shape determined by the college’s need for the maximum amount of diffuse north light in the studio areas. To meet this demand, Kahn has introduced a huge light shaft that spans the interior of the buildings and has slanted the lower portion of the north, all-glass walls to catch the greatest light.

The expansion never went forward, however, and today the site is home to the Raphael Vinoly-designed Kimmel Center.