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“Unavoidable Nuisances”: August Komendant, Louis I. Kahn, and the Difficult Relationship between Building Design and Engineering

THOMAS LESLIE

15.01.2007

The buildings of Estonian-born architect Louis I. Kahn are known throughout the world, but it is one of the more curious facts of modern architecture that several of his best buildings came about as the result of his collaboration with an Estonian-born engineer, August Komendant. Kahn emigrated to Philadelphia with his parents at age 3, but Komendant grew up in Estonia and was responsible for several major bridges and other engineering works in the country. Komendant was educated in Dresden, and after his postwar assignment to reconstruct bridges throughout Germany he, too, emigrated to America.

Among Kahn’s collaborators, Komendant stands out as his most difficult and, often, his most devoted. The two met in 1957, after Kahn sought consultation for an ultimately unsuccessful competition entry for the Enrico Fermi memorial at the University of Chicago. Quickly, the two men developed a rapport based in part on their common Estonian birth, but more importantly on their complementary skills and interests. After the competition, Kahn invited himself and several of his students from Penn to the prestressed concrete plant in Lakewood, NJ where Komendant was a consulting engineer. During this visit, an excited Kahn delivered a rhapsodic, impromptu speech on the architectural potential for these technically advanced elements. Komendant was impressed, recalling that his associates had agreed with him that “this Kahn is quite a guy.” Thus began a stormy but uniquely productive relationship.

Following their meeting in Lakewood, Komendant agreed to engineer the Richards Medical Laboratories, which would be Kahn’s only major commission at his alma mater, Penn. From the start, it was understood that Komendant’s contribution would involve precast, tensioned concrete members, and the resulting project reads as an essay in the architectural potential of concrete structural elements; Komendant’s pre- and post-tensioned beams and columns take pride of place in the building’s elevations.

These elements allowed the structure to be rapidly assembled, tinkertoy fashion by crane. More importantly, Komendant designed them as Vierendeel trusses, which allowed large, rectangular voids. It was the porous nature of these trusses that enabled the main services (designed by mechanical engineer Fred Dubin) to branch out efficiently by weaving between the minimal verticals of the Vierendeel system. There was thus no need for a dropped ceiling below the structure to accommodate the sectional space requirements of the ducts and pipes—both structure and services occupied the same interstitial dimension. While the vertical cores defined the architectural expression from the exterior, the effect of the floor beams on the internal spaces was somewhat more pervasive, allowing the ceiling plane to step up in the corners, where both structural and mechanical loads diminished.

While the building was critiqued—particularly at Penn—for its lighting and environmental control shortcomings, it received nearly unanimous praise in the architectural press for its bold adoption of Komendant’s pre- and post-tensioned concrete beams as clearly articulated elements. Part of the structure’s success was due to the relationship between the contractor, fabricator, and Komendant, who willingly consulted with Atlantic Prestressing, a rival to his Lakewood plant, on technical issues ranging from tendon placement to concrete

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