Louis Kahn was known for his infusion of culture and creating a sense of place within modern architecture. Although it may not be as well known as some of his other projects around the world, the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York is one of Kahn’s most impressive works. Completed slightly after the Salk Institute in 1967, it replaced their previous church that was designed by Richard Upjohn, founder of the AIA, which was demolished during urban redevelopment in Rochester. The First Unitarian Church combines modern design aesthetic with traditional Unitarian values that promotes community and unites everyone at the heart of the building, the sanctuary.
When Kahn initially started meeting with members of the congregation, the pastor had described the Unitarian Church and its aspirations of rationalism, free will and thought, and the coexistence of science and religion. These meetings resulted in Kahn beginning to sketch on a chalkboard where he conceptually organized the church’s supporting spaces around a central question mark. In his eyes, the question mark symbolized the sanctuary where all the questioning would occur. It is a critical look at religion and the journey that one must embark on to find truth; questioning as the natural process.
In the spaces around the sanctuary Kahn situated classrooms for the school; these classrooms were what Kahn considered to be the origin from which the questions of Unitarianism were raised. The classrooms and sanctuary are bridged by an ambulatory that wraps around the sanctuary where conceptually all methods of thought and belief of the Unitarian church converge to thus be confronted and unearthed. It’s a theological architectural promenade of learning, thought, questioning, and discovery.
The First Unitarian Church, similar to all of Kahn’s projects, is of monumental quality; the church and school take on a dominant stance in Rochester. Kahn’s implementation of brick and cast-in place concrete gives the buildings a massive presence, but the heavy, monumental design presents issues on lighting the interior spaces, especially in places of worship.
Since the classrooms are oriented around the perimeter of the building, there is a sense of regularity by the way in which Kahn approaches lighting the classrooms. The façade has extruded window wells that filter the light within the classrooms. Each extrusion creates small seating spaces for the children within. With the sanctuary being in the center of the building, directing natural light into the space is quite difficult. However, Kahn design four light towers that are situated at each corner of the sanctuary. The towers act as filters that saturate the sanctuary throughout the day constantly changing the perceptive qualities of the space even as the seasons change.
In all of Kahn’s architecture, light has always been a main component of design, but the way he approached lighting the sanctuary interior complimented and provoked the expressive material qualities of the space. Kahn’s implementation of simple materials that do not require any extra detailing after their construction added to the atmosphere and character of the spaces ; he believe in the integrity of each material so much so that the cast-in place concrete would take on the formal qualities of the wood planks. The unfinished aesthetic seems to dematerialize the qualities of each space giving the spaces a new aesthetic found among the details and the light. In the sanctuary, the rough finish of the cast-in place concrete and the brick interior appear to wash away in the light, giving the light deconstructive properties, all the while giving the material luminous qualities that engulf and transform the space.
Even though the First Unitarian Church is not one of Kahn’s more famous buildings, it is just as impressive and spatially intriguing. From the design concept to the design of natural lighting systems are trademarks of Kahn’s architecture. The First Unitarian Church is one Kahn’s finest examples of how architecture can have transformative effects, not simply with light or design, but the theoretical understanding and restructuring of the use of space.