Humanities and Arts

Cultural Institutions as Formative Elements in the Work of Behrens, Utzon and Kahn

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This paper is concerned with the role of human institutions as generators of architectural form, with reference to the writings and works of Peter Behrens, Jorn Utzon, and Louis Kahn. In contrast with the narrow functionalist approach promoted by some of their contemporaries, these architects regarded human institutions as living entities that ought to have a determinative influence on the design of the buildings constructed to house them. The paper considers these architects’ assumptions regarding the concept of ‘institution’ within a broad social and political context and offers some suggestions for a more systematic investigation in that respect.The paper begins with a brief outline of functionalist theory, then turns to the theatre as a primary cultural activity and the prominent place it held in Behrens’s thinking during the opening years of the 20th century. Affinities are explored between Behrens’s concept of the theatre and Utzon’s subsequent treatment of the theatre as a central civic institution in his design for the Sydney Opera House. A parallel is seen in Louis Kahn’s insistence that an architectural project should begin with a vision of the human institution which the project is to serve, a perception of their role that was present in utopian and radical schemes from the 19th century onwards. The concluding sections of the paper raise some questions about the doctrines of Behrens, Utzon, and (especially) Kahn, by considering how institutions are adapted to their socio-political settings and how they affect architectural outcomes in practice.