Louis Kahn Plays the Organ

Philip Hendren, AIA, recounts how in 1970, in a home in Old West Austin, Louis Kahn played the organ for a crowd of 400. Kahn's impromptu performance took place at a reception following the legendary architect's standing-room-only lecture at UT Austin.

: photo by Philip Hendren, AIA

On January 12, 1970, Louis Kahn was the guest of honor at the First Annual Le Corbusier Lecture Series at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. The lecture committee, Professor Dick Oliver and I, hatched up the idea of calling it a “Le Corbusier” series, thinking it might make it easier to get big names to come to Austin. It worked when we called Louis Kahn’s office in Philadelphia. The person on the other end of the phone said that Kahn loved Le Corbusier — he had in fact visited him in Paris in 1928 — and would probably be honored to participate. 

At that time, Kahn was arguably the most beloved architect on the planet, especially in academia — maybe because he started designing and building in his mid-fifties after being a much-admired teacher. By 1970, Kahn’s buildings had caught the attention of the world. He was just beginning to work on the Kimbell Art Museum, and we knew he would draw a big audience.

We reserved Batts Hall, the largest available lecture hall at UT Austin, and Oliver designed wonderful posters, which we pinned up all over campus and mailed to local architects. On the night of the lecture, the sky was bleak and it was very cold, but the weather did not deter the crowd already filling the room hours before the talk. When Kahn began speaking, the hall was at full capacity, standing room only, and people were on the lawn outside the building. 

Kahn’s lecture, supplemented by slides of his recent work, was mesmerizing, especially the part about the Kimbell. Everyone who was there that night came away with a new appreciation for the roles that light plays in architecture. Kahn’s words and images seemed almost to turn light into a religion. He was very animated about the elements of architecture and spoke about a beam of light or a brick as though the materials could understand him. 

After the lecture, when the applause finally ended, Oliver announced, to my surprise, that there would be a reception for Mr. Kahn at my home. I had agreed to host a reception but did not anticipate that he would 

invite the entire audience. I raced home to get ready for what I knew would be a large crowd. But it was too late; they had already started arriving, and all I could do was light fires in the fireplaces and start pouring wine. Kahn arrived with the newly appointed Dean Alan Taniguchi. As our parking lot filled with cars, I noticed more and more vehicles lining the neighborhood streets in every direction. Some estimated there were 400 to 500 people there that night. After more than 40 years, I still run into architects who remember it well.

During a short tour of the home, Kahn paused at my bookcases and read every title. If one caught his eye, he would pull it out and skim through it before carefully putting it back. But he seemed most interested in my encyclopedias of the history of music. When I asked if he loved music as much as I did, he replied, “It’s my life.”

Moments later, when Kahn saw the beautiful antique Estey pump organ in the living room of the main house, he immediately asked if it worked. I was temporarily storing the instrument for a friend who had acquired it from the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Three Rivers, Texas. I had just fixed up an electric blower, making the organ easy to play without pumping the pedals to make it work. I was proud to answer Kahn’s question: “Yes, it does, and you don’t even have to pump it.” He beamed, walked over, and climbed onto the organ bench. Kahn had been an organist for many years and loved to play Bach. When he began, the crowd grew suddenly quiet, and the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard began pouring out of the organ.

Kahn played entirely by ear, with his eyes closed, and seemed to transport himself to a higher sphere. Maybe architecture really is “frozen music.” I think we all felt as though we were in the presence of the Johann Sebastian Bach of architecture that night.

Philip Hendren, AIA, is a former teacher at Rice University and The University of Texas at Austin. 

Published in the March/April 2014 issue of Texas Architect.

by: Philip Hendren, AIA

Talk About It

About 2 years ago: Charles Mercer, AIA

Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story. I began my studies at UT in 1971 and remember how revered Louis Kahn was at the School of Architecture. Now I have a pretty good reason why. Wish I had been there year earlier.