Louis Kahn: Esherick House (1959-61)

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]

South Facade (© Todd Eberle)

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.

South Elevation (© Todd Eberle)

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.

South-West corner (© Todd Eberle)

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.

Living Room (© Todd Eberle)

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.

Stair (© Todd Eberle)

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.

Balustrade Detail(© Todd Eberle)

[i] Julie V. Iovine and Todd Eberle, Louis I. Kahn Esherick House (Wright, 2008) www.wright20.com

8 thoughts on “Louis Kahn: Esherick House (1959-61)

  1. Wow Andrew, thanks for introducing me to Louis Kahn, I had not heard that name before. I particularly love his brutal honesty. And, the use of materials at the Salk Institute is so blunt, clear and orderly as well as dramatic. It is clearly designed to make and impression. But, for me, it’s extreme symmetry doesn’t add to my understanding of biological studies in that place.
    How wonderful, too, is the Exeter Academy Library, a tardis of a library. I love the way the internal perspective implies the stacks recede infinitely like some crystal memory cube. And the symmetry also reinforces the hall of mirrors crystal memory cube idea. If only my usb memory stick had the grandeur and impact of the Exeter Academy Library.

  2. When I was in school we used the Esherick House as the subject for a set of Design Development drawings, working in a group of three. I got to do the plans, including working out the CMU block module for all the dimensions, and the stair details. It’s an incredible little house! Thanks for sharing your photos. We were told by our professor, who had worked in Kahn’s office, that the original Construction Drawings had been done by some student interns. Not sure if that story is just legend. Or not.

    • Thanks David,

      Drawing it is a nice way to connect with a building! The pictures are not mine but Todd Eberle’s – he did them for Richard Wright (www.wright20.com) who auctioned the house.

      Andrew Metcalf

      • It wasn’t until I reread your post that I saw your credit to Todd Eberle, then realized I have copy of the book!

    • Hi. Did you find some detailed drawings of the house? I’m still searching for them… I need them for an important school project.

      • Hi Ulrike,

        There are some drawings in the book I refer to in my post. Other than that you’d need to look at the large number of Kahn monographs (do a library search using his name) and the University of Pennsylvania has the Louis I. Kahn Collection which includes many drawings of all his projects.

        Best wishes,

        Andrew Metcalf

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