The following is based upon the special edition monograph published at the time of the Esherick House being offered for sale by auction in 2008.[i]
The Esherick House on Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia is a small, one-person, two storey box of stucco and stained timber that sits on six acres of established garden. Considered by some to be Kahn’s most important residential work, this deceptively simple residence contains forays into architectural trope that can be tracked in later, much larger works by the architect.
Among these are the management of geometry and natural light and a rigorous plan which is carefully composed into “four” rectilinear rooms or spaces divided into a pair on each level separated by the main stair in plan and section. Further, an accompaniment of “servant” spaces is attached to one side of the composition. Actually, it’s not four primary rooms because one whole half of the composition is a double height space over the Living Room. In effect there are three primary spaces rather than four rooms.
In this house an increased depth of the north and south facades materialises from a pochéd interpretation of wall, recessed/projecting windows, wall storage and structural blades. It is thus an excursion into the layered wall treatments of much of Kahn’s later work as is the use of natural light achieved through the combination of large glass areas on the south wall and recessed vertical slits of window on the north.
The house also reveals the direct physicality of materials that is consistently found in Kahn’s work. An intentionally limited external palette of stucco, concrete and stained timber is extended inside with stained timber and plaster the being most contributive to a set of sophisticated spaces. All these materials are ancient, minimally transformed and manipulated in a craft manner rather than by being overtly machine produced. For example, the staircase in apitong (a teak-like African timber) was constructed by a Japanese joiner to Kahn’s design which seemingly combined aesthetic strains from both the Japanese and the Shaker traditions.
Significantly, the publisher commissioned Todd Eberle, whose photographic work includes many things other than architecture, to produce a set of twenty eight images for the special edition including many detailed pictures. These are abundant in colour, tone and detail but offer an austere interpretation of Kahn’s work at the same time.