Architectural Case Studies

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Louis Kahn: On the Distinction of Service vs Space

On the Distinction of Service vs. Space

Although the exposure of internal mechanics is generally considered a modernist architectural concept, Louis Kahn feels that people should remain ignorant of the functions of the mechanics. To achieve this, Kahn categorizes his spaces into two major categories, Service and Space. Also known as Serve vs. Service, or Served vs. Servant spaces, it is basically the separation and definition of the distinct characteristics of spaces. Consider one large space, populated with many openings, railed off, allowing stair access to a floor below. Kahn would argue that the spaces occupied by the stairs are inherently different from the space that is not, and would want to displace all the stairs, consolidate them, and separate them from the primary space. In this, Kahn prevents the creation of a homogeneous combination of two types of spaces, adding a further sense of order to the overall composition. In Kahn’s interpretation of this concept, servant spaces are generally those that contain the elements in which habitation would be brief/impossible, or spaces that contain mechanical, or purely functional, aspects. This is very evident in many of his works, but is most strongly defined in works such as the Trenton Bath Houses, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Kimbell Art Museum.
The Trenton Bath House is the first building in which Kahn developed and utilized his concept of a definition of service and space. Here, he noticed the structure, the vertical columns, were simply wasted space, and he wanted to maximize the functions of all his spaces. Structurally, he acknowledged that the mass in a column were unnecessary, as all the support was provided by the edges of that mass. Accordingly, he hollowed out the columns, and placed a variety of functions in them, including bathrooms and storage. By arranging the columns carefully, he allows them to define the entrances into the rooms of the spaces. The Trenton Bath House acted as a starting point for his definition of service and space; it developed from this point and presented itself in his future works.
At Salk, Kahn takes the separation and definition to a degree of explicit hierarchy, in that he actually creates new floors in which all the pipes and exhaust ducts exist. As a result, this creates a layered effect; in addition, the laboratory spaces are uncluttered with the heavy mechanics that would otherwise be exposed and, in Kahn’s opinion, would distract the scientists. Although Salk has a very strong sectional distinction, the plan also demonstrates the separation of service and space. In this instance, Kahn takes the transit related spaces, such as stairs and light wells, and places them in a rectangular fashion, bounding the laboratory with the walls which define those spaces. The offices, studies, photo laboratory, and library are clearly separated from the primary laboratory space by the service space. If one were to consider these spaces in a three dimensional quality, it is as if the laboratory spaces are surrounded on all sides by service space, and a ring of served spaces surround that.
The Kimbell Art Museum uses the distinction of service vs. space to convey a sense of containment and control of the service spaces, and again a hierarchy, though vertical in nature this time. Using Kahn’s definition of service spaces, one can clearly see that any service space is either on the edge of the overall space, surrounded by served spaces, or completely surrounded by served spaces, acting as an island in the middle of active space. In the section, the service space is defined by long corridors of flooring, defined of a different material. In doing this, he extends the service space to the floor of the upper level; otherwise the service space would be considered the enclosed ceiling space only. By design, he sets up a grid of extrapolated lines from these vertical service spaces, which allows him to align and size his service spaces on the lower and upper levels.


  • Very beautifully written. Simple, to the point and yet poetic!
    Thank you,

    By Blogger studio2020, at 8:32 AM  

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