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Just livable or beyond ?

As I was scrolling through Instagram, I came across some images of Kahn’s Exeter library and I (thankfully) asked myself why I was drawn to it. It got me thinking – What do we appreciate in an architect’s work ? One like Kahn or Corbusier – why are we drawn to it ?

The one thing that struck me was that these buildings went beyond being livable.

A space being livable is the bare minimum one can ask of it. It’s not just about the program. Program is something that can be achieved. The space program could be resolved and yet not feel ‘livable’.

In the case of Kahn’s Exeter library, the building works perfectly fine as a library. The reading spaces are along the periphery to get enough light, the bookshelves are lined around the central court. The program works well, and I would assume that the quality of light and its spatial planning (among other things) renders the space ‘livable’ as a library.

Exeter Plan

The Exeter Library; Direct in its planning. Courtesy : Google

What drew me to this building were multiple things.

One, the plan – that perfectly square plan. Kahn strove to master Geometry – one of his personal pursuits with architecture. And I would go as far as to say that he had mastered it. It wasn’t about “fitting the program within” but more of what scale/grids would help him achieve the square.

Second, the most obvious, being the central atrium. An atrium is the most obvious and efficient way to light that space – but look at how he’s treated that space. The massive circular openings make that space seem monumental (another typical Kahn pursuit).


The Atrium – Monumental and materials – Kahn’s Forte ; Courtesy : Google

And third, the material palette. Such restraint – only concrete and a warm tone of wood; Two stark materials – one, seemingly cold and a brutalist favourite and the other, a warm and comforting tone of wood. The balance of the two goes beyond its aesthetic.  This is yet again Kahn’s forte – an articulate understanding of materials and what they naturally yield themselves to.

Maybe that was it. Having that personal pursuit brings a certain depth to your project, making it much more than livable. Kahn’s personal pursuits drove him to explore materiality, scale and geometry (but not limited to them) and maybe that’s what made that space more than mere livable.


So that brings me to question whether a space can truly be ‘livable’ without these driving thoughts ? Something that goes beyond the Vitruvian triad. Something beyond our conscious traversing of a space.  Because our subconscious mind can sense it – and your gut will tell you whether you’re comfortable in that space or not.

I’m still looking for my something beyond. As most architects are. Some you’re naturally drawn to, some you chose to pursue. But these are what essentially make the building. That something beyond..


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