There are places – primarily in the Southwestern United States, Santa Fe and Taos, in New Mexico, among the most often mentioned – where, it is said, the power of life force is so strong, you can actually feel a vibration, or hear a hum under and around everything, or sense some sort of infrasonic waves above or beneath our ability to truly perceive them. A third-eye experience; an encounter, if you are inclined to believe in such things, with the spiritual, even the holy.
In the city, our hums are likely the evidence of a busy self-defrosting refrigerator, our vibrations a passing truck full of the stuff that once was or is soon to become another structure that will want money from us. There are few places that even begin to hint at the profound. Yet, in Philadelphia there is one that we seek out often. It is in an unlikely neighborhood, but created by the likeliest of architects, sadly a prophet without honor not only in his own city but beyond.
Down a small street, just at the curve of a cul de sac, in the Chestnut Hill section of the city – an area noted more for wealth than wonderment – is the so-called Esherick House, a collaborative venture by the noted woodworker and designer Wharton Esherick and the architect Louis Kahn, who had too few residential commissions (or any type of commissions, really) despite – or, perhaps, because of – his singular vision and use of “unfriendly” materials. To describe it plainly, and, thus, superficially, the house – built for Esherick’s niece – is situated contiguous with a public park among mainly nice if not spectacular, though expensive, homes. In a pairing that easily might not have worked, this Modernist rectangular solid brings together Kahn’s material of choice – concrete – with splashes of Esherick’s wood and planes of glass in a geometric Rubik’s Cube of a structure, sitting low to, and even below, the ground, and set back from the street in what could be described as a modest, even submissive pose. And as if it weren’t different enough in its context, its minimalist, yet impactful landscaping by Frederick Peck (in a true partnership of artistic intentions with Kahn) – a sunken cubist grid of planting areas interspersed among hardscape – appears at first to be nothing more than an afterthought, even, perhaps a building-code mandated bit of yard, but it separates the place even more, delineates it, frames it, completes it, creating a castle in a moat, or an island in a sea: a place of its own, open enough to see and nearly touch, yet different enough and removed enough and integrated enough, house-to-land, to be its own planet, but one we haven’t the craft, yet, to land on.
And in that paragraph we perfectly display the inadequacy of mere description in the transmission of awe. “Submissive” it is not; anything but. All you need do is drive by the large houses all around, some of them mini-mansions, and ooh and aah at their size and sprawl, their allusions to history, their voluptuous gardens – and then arrive at Kahn’s Esherick House. You are brought to silence because it envelops you in its silence. Like Santa Fe, like Taos, it has a sound that cannot be heard, a vibration that cannot be felt – and yet your mind receives these, and knows them, and becomes one with them. As in his works that are the most like tuning forks of the soul – the Salk Institute and, most impressively, the Dhaka government building, in Bangladesh – Kahn in the Esherick House has been able to alchemically change cold, faceless concrete into emotion, slabs into heartbeats, geometry into brain waves, and all into – dare we say it? – a near-religious experience. How does this transubstantiation occur? It doesn’t matter – it occurs, and the human imperative to analyze must not stand in the way of us giving ourselves up to its primal powers. It’s been said that the Esherick House is no picnic to live in, its interior spaces ill-formed and ill-suited to the way we have become accustomed to dwelling, day to day. But, from the outside, it takes up residence in our interior space, and creates an almost meditative hush. How did Kahn know how to create something that was waiting, silently, for us to stumble upon, to lock DNA with and be changed by? “Don’t talk,” it whispers to us, “just breathe me in, and, when you leave, take my peace with you.”