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Revisiting Kahn: a theological case for kenotic design

conference contribution
posted on 2023-05-23, 07:25 authored by Randall LindstromRandall Lindstrom
When Louis Kahn fabulated his conversation with brick, he bequeathed to modern architecture one of its best-known myths. His interest in the brick’s ‘desires’, coupled with his broader question, ‘What does the building want to be?’, reveals Kahn’s philosophy of deference to an essence preceding design. Kahn’s approach has been extensively examined in the arenas of history, theory and philosophy. Theology, however, offers an alternative means to amplify our understanding of submission in the creative process. Although a non-observant Jew, Kahn was not without religious instincts. He viewed the universe as being animated by a creative spirit and, in his own description of world origins, employed Biblical-like prose, imagining ‘an ooze without shape or direction’, wherein a prevailing, metaphysical ‘force of joy’ is ‘the essence of creativity’. He would have been familiar with a sixteenth-century Kabbalistic concept of creation called ‘tzim-tzum’, meaning ‘self-withdrawal’ or ‘self-contraction’, but an antecedent Christian concept further illuminates the connection between theology and the role of submission in creativity. This paper explicates a central construct of Christian theology, the paschal mystery, with particular emphasis on its grounding in kenosis – Greek for ‘emptying’, but theologically applied as ‘self-emptying’ – and its inextricable link to creation and the creative act. In that light, it is argued that Kahn’s design philosophy is a kenotic one, in which strength (solution) is, paradoxically, found in weakness (deference), and in which essence is found in immanence. The analysis then turns to contemporary philosopher Gianni Vattimo, whose paradigm of weak thought, and nihilistic interpretation of Heidegger’s end-of-metaphysics philosophy, sees secularisation as kenosis and, consequently, as the fulfillment of an always kenotic but, now, non-metaphysical and immanent Christianity. Finally, the paper considers the dynamic between this postmodernist view of kenosis, and the kenosis demanded by Kahn’s modernist search for essence.


Publication title

Fabulation: Myth, Nature, Heritage


S King, A Chatterjee and S Loo






School of Architecture and Design


Society of Architectural Historians Australia & New Zealand

Place of publication


Event title

29th Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians Australia & New Zealand

Event Venue

University of Tasmania Launceston, Tasmania

Date of Event (Start Date)


Date of Event (End Date)


Rights statement

Copyright 2012 Society of Architectural Historians Australia and New Zealand

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  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Expanding knowledge in built environment and design

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