Fleisher Art Memorial’s Louis Kahn Lecture Room Acquired by The Philadelphia Museum of Art

PHILADELPHIA, June 24, 2022 — Fleisher Art Memorial is pleased to share that the Louis Kahn Lecture Room, designed by Siah Armajani and originally installed at Fleisher in 1982 as a gift from the Association of Public Art, is being acquired this summer into the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s contemporary art collection.

Founded in 1898, Fleisher Art Memorial is one of the country’s oldest nonprofit community art schools and is committed to advancing the vision of founder Samuel S. Fleisher, who believed that art is one of society’s greatest assets and equalizers. From the doorway of his Graphic Sketch Club, he “invited the world to come and learn art” with the mission of making art accessible to everyone, regardless of economic means, background, or artistic experience. Every year, tens of thousands of students and visitors continue to experience the transformative power of art at Fleisher by participating in studio classes, exhibitions, and community-based programming.

The Louis Kahn Lecture Room, created by Siah Armajani, was given to Fleisher in 1982 by the Association for Public Art, previously known as the Fairmount Park Art Association. Armajani (1939 – 2020) emigrated to the United States in 1960 from Iran and became a central figure in contemporary public art. His bridges, temporary interior workspaces, gathering rooms, and outdoor garden structures are works of art in service of the activities of daily life, often incorporating passages from favorite writers that extol shared democratic values. The Lecture Room was dedicated to Philadelphia-based Louis Kahn, who attended Fleisher as a child and became one of the most important architects of the 20th century.

Designed to accommodate a class-sized group, the Lecture Room features grayish rose pew-like benches that face a raised lectern and blackboards, as is typical of a classroom or lecture hall. Installed throughout the room are various hardwood elements (from surrounding benches to shutters), each painted in bright yellow and “Pennsylvania Dutch” blues. Armajani’s approach suggests the simplicity of early American furniture and architecture but does not place emphasis on a single center. Rather than assigning a hierarchy to the arrangement of the room’s built elements, Armajani enables participants to grant their own meaning to the space through its ongoing activation and use. A glass transom at the entrance to the room from the street has one of Kahn’s designs etched in it, with display surfaces on the walls intended for rotating reproductions of Kahn’s drawings (from the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania). Mounted on the cornice are quotations from Kahn, one of which reads: “Schools began with a man under a tree who did not know he was a teacher, sharing his realization with a few others who did not know they were students.” An intentionally open space between the sets of seating is occupied by stencil-cut letters inlaid into the wooden floor, bearing a verse by Walt Whitman that begins: “When the materials are prepared and ready, the architects shall appear.”

The room’s simple elegance, suggestive of a Quaker meetinghouse, was intended by Armajani to evoke a meditative quality similar to the feeling of Fleisher’s adjacent Sanctuary. The Sanctuary was originally built as the Church of the Evangelist in 1886, designed by architects Louis C. Baker and E.J. Dallett of Furness & Evans Co. Incorporated into the school around 1920, the Sanctuary reflects Fleisher’s history and uniqueness. Serving as the heart of the campus and an iconic symbol of the organization, the Sanctuary currently provides a unique and flexible space for classes, exhibitions, meetings, performances, and events.

In 2015, Fleisher Art Memorial’s Board of Directors approved a Master Plan prepared by Atkin Olshin Schade Architects to guide the use and improvement of its campus. The plan called for the removal of the Louis Kahn Lecture Room in order to improve access and use of Fleisher’s adjacent Sanctuary, as Armajani’s work was no longer able to be used in the way the artist originally intended. Studios were established on other floors of the building, changing the nature of the room from a quiet space for contemplation into a circulation path to the rest of the building. The Master Plan identified the need to create a separate entrance to the Sanctuary accessible to all visitors, as well as increased restroom facilities and equipment storage.

Working with various staff members at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including curators and conservators, Fleisher is gifting the room to the museum, along with a design model that reflects the artist’s earliest thinking about the Lecture Room. This collaborative effort to honor Armajani’s work and preserve the integrity of the original installation also provides an opportunity for both institutions to honor the history of the Louis Kahn Lecture Room as a unique memorial to the artistic and cultural legacy of Philadelphia. “Siah Armajani’s legacy is much treasured and beloved at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and we are delighted to receive the extraordinary gift of the Kahn Lecture Room into our collection,” said Carlos Basualdo, the Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Armajani’s installation is like a mirror that reflects the best of Philadelphia and allows us to think about the extraordinary heritage of our city in the most hopeful light. His work is about conversation and learning, about beauty and simplicity. We look forward to exhibiting it and to activating it in the future within the walls of our museum.”

Barbara Armajani, widow of the artist, also expressed her appreciation for the care taken by the two institutions to preserve the work by her late husband. “I am thrilled to know that one of Siah’s most important public works – ‘useful for the folks’, as he would say, will be preserved. Siah so admired the work of Kahn and he was so happy he could honor him in the city of Philadelphia. Now it is an honor in Siah’s memory that the Museum is caring for the Lecture Room.”

About Fleisher Art Memorial

Founded by industrialist Samuel S. Fleisher in 1898 as one of the nation’s first community-based art centers, Fleisher Art Memorial is renowned for its long-standing mission of making art accessible regardless of economic means, background, or artistic experience. Fleisher provides free and low-cost studio art classes along with opportunities for emerging and seasoned artists to exhibit their work. Extensive arts education and community-based programming also reflects the organization’s commitment to strengthening communities by developing, sharing, and promoting creative resources.

About The Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is Philadelphia’s art museum. A place that welcomes everyone. A world-renowned collection. A landmark building. We bring the arts to life, inspiring visitors—through scholarly study and creative play—to discover the spirit of imagination that lies in everyone. We connect people with the arts in rich and varied ways, making the experience of the museum surprising, lively, and always memorable. We are committed to inviting visitors to see the world—and themselves—anew through the beauty and expressive power of the arts.

Image: Siah Armajani photographed by Rob Wright at Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, Special Format Records: Photographs, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives

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