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Feelings Evoked by Kahn’s Design of the First Unitarian Church

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Architecture
Wordcount: 5545 words Published: 18th May 2020

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“Architecture is the thoughtful making of spaces. It is the creating of spaces that evoke a feeling of appropriate use.”
– Louis Kahn


Architecture according to Khan is creating spaces that induce observer the feel of appropriate use. In the following essay we try to understand the rituals and what are the appropriate use for the First Unitarian building? Kahn’s design of the First Unitarian Church has been set as a great example for modernist building even though at the beginning it faced few negative declarations from the committee . Does Kahn’s design succeed in evoking a feeling for them?

History and memory

In 1954 Kahn was selected to design the First Unitarian Church and School in Rochester in New York. Initially in nineteenth century the original church building was designed by renowned architect  called as Richard Upjohn which was demolished considered as part of a redevelopment plan for downtown Rochester.(image 1) This was one of the factor that examines Kahn’s design process from the initial concept through to the final plan. At that time of design Rochester city was at its peak boom time. The original church was prone to a lot of social issues. In the 1800 the church was proving as late evening classrooms and supported other activities for the low income neighborhood. Later in 1930;s the church also acted as office spaces for Planned Parenthood when times were difficult and other accommodations were unavailable. When the campaigns to open the university of Rochester to women was going on the church also provided as classrooms for the Rochester city school. The original church was acting as more than just a church to the community around it. Khan’s intentions were also similar. His design process followed this story line to create and “almost classic in architecture history and theory”.[1]

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The church perfectly sits on the site’s set back from Winton Road on flat and level ground, It also consists of a major slope that gradients away from the building towards the eastern end of the property .Currently the First Unitarian Church is rooted in a residential landscape mostly consisting of single and multiple family residential neighborhood composed of detached houses. Hence Khan s church design wasn’t monumental as a Gothic church but Monumental enough to respect the surrounding context. On the west side of the street across from the church is located a mid-twentieth century Modern brick Jewish temple complex, the Temple Beth El. he church became a good example for its steel reinforced concrete block and poured concrete building which is clad in brick on its exterior. The building measures approximately 230 feet by 115 feet at its longest and widest points.

Image source : https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/pdfs/14000537.pdf

Image 2 ( map of Rochester city )

Image source : https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/pdfs/14000537.pdf

Design process

Kahn started off with a simple question– “So, what is a chapel really?” and “ what is the Unitarian religion?” and moved to deep research and study of their religion thoroughly. When the design was completed the mayor of Lenigard had a comment that it did no look anything like a church. The church committee members had an idea to ask the people to fill out the simple questionnaires to express what they anticipated from their new building. Some of these things express how the building should adapt the faiths of Unitarian religion and express it. They also mentioned that the building should be able to provide and care for the broader community  and should express “the dignity rather than the depravity of man.”[2]

Kahn’s First Unitarian Church and School embodies the richest application of his ‘form and design’ theory to a building. Kahn designates his introductory character for this building as a ‘form diagram’, on behalf of the unequalled ‘form-essence’ on which all Unitarian church/school projects should be modelled. ‘Form and Design’,. Kahn explains his  development  as one which started off to take an ‘unmeasurable’ ‘form’ and decodes it rendering to material means yet, In the end the First Unitarian when completed bestowed an “unmeasurable aura” through sunlit interiors resulting in otherworldly quality.

Khan also explains this theory in his article he wrote while working on this project called Form and Design. Using the First Unitarian Church of Rochester as an example, Kahn said, “A great building, in my opinion, must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable … But what is unmeasurable is the psychic spirit.”[3]

Kahn linked the unmeasurable with what he called Form, saying that, “Form is not design, not a shape, not a dimension. It is not a material thing.” 5″Form … characterizes a harmony of spaces good for a certain activity of man.”5

Image 4 ( spatial arrangement)

Image source : Interaction of Programming and Design: The First Unitarian Congregation of Rochester and Louis I. Kahn , Fehmi Dogan &Craig M. Zimring

Figure 5. Realization of form drawing and first design for the First Unitarian Church of Rochester by Louis I. Kahn, 1959-69 (source: [22])

He started off with drawing a square which denoted the sanctuary and he surrounded it with more squares that was placed in concentric circles which represented the corridor, ambulatory and the school. He arranged them in a way that it looked like a question mark. He explained that “the form realization of Unitarian activity was bound around that which is Question. Question eternal of why anything.”5 (image 3)The sanctuary was placed at the center surrounded by 12 sided room (image 5). He placed an ambulated that seem to be screened from the main sanctuary because he wanted to respect the fact that people of the church have had previous beliefs which should be respected. He kept the sanctuary as a space that was not necessarily or obligation to participate it but as something spiritual and free. Initially the complex was three leveled and the four leveled sanctuary had a complex dome structure. The sanctuary was connected by the three story church school where the pupils could access for observing serviced from spaces above.

The committee however wasn’t very pleased with the designed and asked Khan to come up with entirely new concept. The initially plan was above the budget and the spaces that could be accessed by pupils to observe the services could be a disturbance. They also mentioned the lack of important classroom spaces and suggested that the plan was too rigid.

Khan agreed to the changed requested and came up with new solution . He broke down the rigid square into elongated room by removing the ambulatory spaces and keeping the corridors to provide connection to the classrooms. He places the classrooms in a separate wing to reduce the disturbance of the morning services.(image 7)

Image : Interior plan of Unitarian Church

Kahn talked about the relationship between architecture and religion.[4] Khan’s idea of cathedrals was to be monumental which induced the feeling of showing God’s greatness and man to fell his greatness by being frightened. But in this church designed he went for the opposite. He created a humble atmosphere with beauty to make man respect and understand God and his acts focused on kindness, and forgiveness.

‘Form and design’

Khan also talks about Form and design as when personal feeling transcends into Religion (not a religion but the essence religion) and Thought leads to Philosophy, the mind opens to realizations. Realization of what may be the existence will of, let us say, particular architectural spaces. Realization is the merging of Thought and Feeling at the closest rapport of the mind with the Psyche, the source of what a thing wants to be. It is the beginning of Form. Form encompasses a harmony of systems, a sense of Order and that which characterizes one existence from another. Form has no shape or dimension. For example, in the differentiation of a spoon from spoon, spoon characterizes a form having two inseparable parts, the handle and the bowl. A spoon implies a specific design made of silver or wood, big or little, shallow or deep. Form is ‘what’. Design is ‘how’. Form is impersonal. Design belongs to the designer. Design is a circumstantial act, how much money there is available, the site, the client, the extent of knowledge. Form has nothing to do with circumstantial conditions. In architecture, it characterizes a harmony of spaces good for a certain activity of man.[5]


Kahn started off with a simple question– “So, what is a chapel really?” – From which he carried on to narrate the building type as a central space surrounded by a order of distinct and concentric environments: first comes an ambulatory, followed up by an arcade, then a walled garden. What he laid out was rich layers. He laid out a  spatially miscellaneous architectural matrix where participants could spontaneously regulate their degree of engagement with the program buoyed at the center. “The essential thing, you see”, Kahn noted, “is that the chapel is a personal ritual, and that it is not a set ritual, and it is from this that you get the form”.[6]

Kahn provided an architectural expression to this “ form and design  narrative”. The most pronounced design aspect do not correspond to liturgical function. Hence he evolved his design to create an atmosphere that is capable of adapting to the rituals performed by the participants. The harsh texture finish and porousness of cinder blocks provokes a feeling of ruins making the space look like it has not committed to a single function. It acts as an ancient ruin that later formed a natural stage that has potential of becoming anything the occupants wish to. The light that washed these surfaces become shadow less magical backdrop that had a real use once upon a time and now has been lost and forgotten. This contradicts the very planning and lighting in Gothic Cathedral. The reflection upon light obtains a more significant and more monumental starting point in the Gothic  churches whereas here is less monumental.

The furniture and artwork have been designed to be transformable and transient in nature hence

strengthening the abstractness of the interior making it seem the space could accommodate more than one function. The space lacks figural element and symbolic ornamentation of any sort, this enhances the abstractness and shows the lack of historical references. The wall surface of these materials depict coldness and lack of excitement. The light falling on these surfaces seem to lose its vibrant characteristic by touching them. This seems to make humans and the furniture a more suitable and yielding sight. The diminishing light in the room makes humans look like the animating element.

Figure 9 : Flash mop in action

Source :https://vimeo.com/41196770

Light and shadow

The First Unitarian Church follows the tradition of a typical gothic church ideally provoking feeling of devotion and awe which are conveyed by implementation of large expanse of interior spaces , emphasizing the verticality, vast spread of dark spaces with a striking beam of light piercing though it creating solid and void experience and the monumentality of the entire structure inducing otherworldly experience making experience of other days seem trivial. What remains to contradict the tradition is the exterior façade which is simple, linear, rectangular forms placed in a strictly manner. On each elevation of the building Khan placed a lightwell tower that flanks a narrow opening container like shape subtly hinting essence of a Gothic cathedral. On the interior these lightwells create a image of the customary church that is ideally seeking to convey an mystical religious ideology. Somehow one cant be certain if that was the intension of the design as it gives out an education institutional purpose due to the presence of thick and resilient windows, normality in height of the space and heaviness in the rhythm. One can understand that this was an abstract vision of the an actual Gothic cathedral with missing presence of historical references the space provokes a feeling of assembly but still retains a mysterious ambience and quality because of the light that seeps in through the lightwell seems like it was born in it.


The main door helps to create a visual direction towards the farther end with raised platform where most of the activities happens. There is another perpendicular secondary axis created by the two door  standing opposite to one another.  The raised platform on the farther end has four lightwells that are places symmetrically. Some how this doesn’t not make the space the centre of focus. It continues to remain the least lit area and generates a converging feeling. This enclosure formed by these cubes  lightwells make one fell the absolute containment. The light that seeps in thought these cubes creasing the walls lighting it diffusely creates a peripheral zone. This zone provokes the sense of containment . The “mysteriousness” of shadow was also closely linked to evoking silence and awe. For Kahn, while darkness evokes the uncertainty of not being able to see, of potential dangers, it also inspires deep mystery. It is in the hands of the architect to evoke silence, secret or drama with light and shadow – to create a “treasury of shadows,” a “Sanctuary of Art.[7]

The center cube’s surface is made of cinder blocks that give off an fragile and old look. The while oak induces a feeling of elegance, grace and aged by experience. Somehow the concrete walls seem to merge in with certain rhythm and yet distant. The quality of light seeping in creates haziness while merging some clarity. light makes the room look like everything is vague, distant, porous and detached. The grey shades vibrate a sense of timelessness and eternity. What I think is a perfect fusion .According to Khan a gothic church building such as Albi cathedral’s nave where it lacks direct lighting instead there is an diffused light that originated from the interconnected angles and forms. This was one of the relevant concept to his design of the First Unitarian Church. He was inspired by the Albi cathedral’s interior and took certain important elements from it to incorporate it into his deign such as large vertical expanse of windows, the diffused lighting, thick and high walls ,vaults colonettes. He played around to reorganized and reconfigure these elements in the sanctuary. The gothic colonettes became the concreted columns in Kahn’s interior. The vaults in Gothic church was turned upside down to form hooded light wells that allowed diffused light into the building.


Figure 10 Light iluminating the wooden furniture

[9] Image reference

Figure 1 the light that seeps in through the lightwell seems like it was born in it.


The church became a good example for its steel reinforced concrete block and poured concrete building which is clad in brick on its exterior. Kahn narrated the exterior of the building with intensely creased brick walls created by a sequence of thin, two-story bright hoods which acts as window shield that protects direct sunlight. The light well envelops the cubical sanctuary on the ground floor hosts bench seats in the interior. Khan designed windows on each side of the bench seats to let light indirectly illuminate the room.[10] These light holes produce a contrasting effect by allowing the upper part of the sanctuary appear as a solid to provide an impression of height due to the lightwells and at the same time the lower part of the building to act as a void only illuminating the humans inducing some sort of animation. This results in creating space between two projections.[11] These light wholes also project a sequence of shadow play on the exterior wall that looks like important row of columns. These verticality of shadows gives the viewer an impression of height and monumentality. [12] Even though the main entrance may not be visible from the main street but the four hooded light wells that project out at the centre makes it easy to visualize from the outside. Khan’s idea was to place the ambulatory enclosing the sanctuary to make it look like the sanctuary rooted within the larger building. A simple impression of the “box within a box” approach.

Image 11 : Northwest corner of the church

Source : https://www.archdaily.com/84267/ad-classics-first-unitarian-church-of-rochester-louis-kahn

He design for exterior was inspired by the Comlongon Castle , a rudimentary Scottish castle. The castle has a single main room that was embedded by minor rooms and encircled by vertical walls that were usually thick. These walls were so thick  that an entire inhabitable room could be carved out of them. Similar in the First Unitarian church the the sanctuary can be considered the main central room and the surrounding two storey room can be considered as the carved inhabited walls.[13] At certain angle the exterior windows of these are imperceptible due to its deep recession and the corners were enormous uneven and rough textured  windowless walls. In Kahn’s words, “the school became the walls which surrounded the question.”[14] Khan also tried to maintain the essence of the original church as an respect of the history by using the brick cladding on the thick concrete pour in.

Figure 13: Contradicting facade to the gothic cathedral

Source : https://www.archdaily.com/84267/ad-classics-first-unitarian-church-of-rochester-louis-kahn


On a large scale the degree of meaning and inducing feelings as discussed above were undeviating development of the client’s ambition. The building incorporates many of the Unitarian Universalist faith, ideals and epitomes in its design development ;  The trust on human reason and goodness, on the significance of individual action and development within a supportive community; the understanding of religion as freedom and of faith as a blessing rather than obligation; a notion of eternity not as something overpowering above and beyond man but as a sense of serenity existing within man.[15]

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Initially the building was subjected to negative reactions by the members of the congregation which was followed by broad acceptance and popularity.  Not everyone was certain at first that if the design of the building was successful in evoking the right feeling. Surely one suitable use would be to inspire a friendly and cheerful atmosphere at Sunday services but wouldn’t the plainness of grey landscape of the sanctuary tend to dampen spirits instead?

The Unitarian religion expresses open-mindedness, liveliness and dynamic presence within and interaction with this world, these traits that oppose the plainness, introverted bearing of the sanctuary .Although some of Unitarian beliefs have been successfully implied , the liveliness and dynamic spirits remain dormant within the space. The reason for this seems to fall within the scope of Khan’s highly abstract concept, which is based on the intellectual outline of what Unitarians are about and not a direct implementation of what they are like. The concept is delivered through the expense of the sensation. The concept in also implied in the plan of the church which follows their practice of questioning by means of reason. In this way, a large degree of message relating to the Unitarian religion are communicated intellectually and abstractly but it still lacks the intensity of the feelings that bring the congregation to life seems to be lost. 

Apparently even if the sanctuary seems to have lost the intensity of feeling the occupants grew to adapt another appropriate use when the stealthily organized a “flash mob” that playfully took over the conclusion of a Sunday service.

We can notice the chemistry between the congregation and building during this event; the architecture perfectly works with the rituals acting as a backdrop, not against it. This sort of enthusiastic liveliness wouldn’t work in most classical churches because their floor plans are very rigid and their atmosphere doesn’t encourage exuberance. But the planning in Unitarian church is designed for flexibility. Apart from its expressive shortcomings of the sanctuary had some negative comments for being plain it grew to become lively because of the occupants and their rituals.  It would be impractical and inappropriate to stage that event here, for example, or here or here.

The walls of the sanctuary at First Unitarian with their lack of specific religious symbolism combine with the complete dynamism of the room and its magnificent ceiling to expand the feeling of what constitutes appropriate use within. In our case that includes a strong sense of play, and here again Louis Kahn served us well. Apart from its shortcomings this church is a fine piece of architecture , multidimensional and simple in its expression yet very bold in its design using light as an important element to induce feelings. Light is used as an  instrument here not simply as a apprehension with which architects has to work with. Khan expresses light as “nature’s own means of expression” delivering the artist with boundless and widespread source of expressive ability.

The building understands religion as a freedom rather than an obligation. It successfully conveys a feeling of eternity without being overpowering letting man feel that serenity in within him instead of it being unreachable. The church is a simple and yet bold, multidimensional and yet subtle. It can be said therefore Light used here is a masterful manipulation of light and shadow. Observer interacts with in the fortified walls of the church and yet experiencing the day light that enters the space without looking at the sky.

Image: External façade view



  • P.Kohane, Louis I. Kahn and the library genesis and expression of Form, (1990)
  •  McCarter, Robert (2005). Louis I. Kahn. London: Phaidon Press. ISBN 978-0-7148-4045-1.
  • Sonit Bafna , Symbolic construction in non-discursive media: The design development of
  • Kahn’s Unitarian Church in Rochester
  • Georgia Institute of Technology, USA
  •  Kahn, Louis (2003). Twombly, Robert (ed.). Louis Kahn: Essential Texts. New York: W. W. Norton
  •  The role of light in the expressice symbolism of Louis Kahn’s first Unitarian Church, Mr Potamianos Lakovos University of Michigan
  •  https://www.archdaily.com/362554/light-matters-louis-kahn-and-the-power-of-shadow
  • Columns of Light Louis Kahn’s Design For Sanctuary Of The Mikveh Israel Synagogue (Philadelphia, 1961-72) Peter Kohane UNSW Sydney


[1] Katrine Lotz (2007). “‘Architectural Gaits’ – Architectures as Technologies and Techniques”. Nordic Design Research. 

[2] McCarter, Robert (2005). Louis I. Kahn. London: Phaidon Press

[3] Kahn, Louis (2003). Twombly, Robert (ed.). Louis Kahn: Essential Texts. New York: W. W. Norton.

[4] rownlee, David; David De Long (1991). Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.

[5] 1 Louis I. Kahn, “Form and Design,” in Robert Twombly, Louis Kahn: Essential Texts (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 63–64. (Original text from Voice of America – Louis I. Kahn. Recorded November 19, 1960 folder, Box LIK 53, Louis I. Collection, University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, hereafter cited as the Kahn Collection).


 “Form and Design” for India ,Achyut Kanvinde’s Reflection on Louis Kahn ,Maryam Gusheh ,UNSW Sydney

[7] https://www.archdaily.com/362554/light-matters-louis-kahn-and-the-power-of-shadow

[8] https://www.archdaily.com/84267/ad-classics-first-unitarian-church-of-rochester-louis-kahn

[9] https://www.flickr.com/photos/32215181@N08/6780806017

[10] McCarter, Robert (2005). Louis I. Kahn. London: Phaidon Press. ISBN 978-0-7148-4045-1.

[11] Sonit Bafna (June 2005). “Symbolic construction in non-discursive media: The design development of Kahn’s Unitarian Church in Rochester”

[12] Goldhagen, Sarah (2001). Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

[13] McCarter, Robert (2005). Louis I. Kahn. London: Phaidon Press. ISBN 978-0-7148-4045-1.

[14] Kahn, Louis (2003). Twombly, Robert (ed.). Louis Kahn: Essential Texts. New York: W. W. Norton

[15] The role of light in the expressice symbolism of Louis Kahn’s first Unitarian Church, Mr Potamianos Lakovos University of Michigan


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