Dowse collection for The Design Museum

By Susannah Dowse



‘The sun never knew how great it was until it struck the side of a building.’ Louis Kahn


Earlier this year I was thrilled to be asked to create a collection to accompany the upcoming exhibition at The Design Museum London, Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture. 

To my shame I had to admit to not having heard of Kahn before, so what followed was a wonderful period of discovery. It seems his work isn't as heavily documented as many of the other great modernist masters but I soon realised I was familiar with some of his buildings, though maybe not his name. I soon learned the significant importance of his vision and legacy and became fascinated with his work and life. 

Born in Estonia in 1901 he became, by the time of his death in 1974 one of America's greatest architects. Influencing generations of architects with his purity of intent and his refined use of basic materials. 


His buildings are monumental though not grandiose, they respond to the human scale. With a deep philosophy and poetic sensibility, he devoted his career to the pursuit of formal perfection and emotional expression. 

'A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable.' Louis Kahn


He worked with simple materials such as brick and concrete and with this created spaces reflecting his belief that modern buildings could have the monumental and spiritual qualities of ancient buildings. His conversation with a brick whilst professor of architecture at The University of Philadelphia shows his humour and theory on his materials. 


 'You say to a brick, 'What do you want, brick?' And brick says to you, 'I like an arch.' And you say to brick, 'Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel.' And then you say: 'What do you think of that, brick?' Brick says: 'I like an arch.' Louis Kahn


He has been criticised by some for creating intimidating buildings. Looking only at the exteriors they may have a point, they appear as abandoned modern cathedrals. But it's with his use of basic geometric shapes appearing as though sliced from the sides of the buildings that the magic really happens. They create wonderful light wells within the interiors that are exhilarating. These interior spaces are a celebration of light and space.

‘All material in nature, the mountains and the streams and the air and we, are made of light which has been spent, and this crumpled mass called material casts a shadow and the shadow belongs to light’ Louis Kahn


The spaces he created have been known to generate great feeling in those who spend time in them. These people often reflect on the sense of respect Kahn must have had for those who would use his buildings. In the wonderful and revealing documentary about his father My Architect Nathaniel Kahn interviews many people whose lives have been touched by Kahn and his buildings. Often a tear is shed in memory of him in this very human film. 




'Design is not making beauty, beauty emerges from selection, affinities, integration, love.' Louis Kahn


 For the collection I focused on what I saw as two of the stand out aspects of his work. In the metal I wished to capture the harmony he created with simple geometric shapes and with the screen prints aimed to express his uncompromising vision for his monumental buildings and the light of the environments these structures absorb and reflect. Choosing a palette of metallic ink and pastel colour for the background pattern to capture this light and also some of the more personal elements gathered for the exhibition, such as his watercolour and pastel sketches. 



Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture at The Design Museum London July 9th 2014 - October 12th 2014. 

The Dowse collection is available exclusively from The Design Museum Shop and Dowse.