A Lesson for Urban Cultural Centers

A new show at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art sheds light on one of America's greatest and most artistic architects: the late Louis I. Kahn.

click to enlarge Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Arts United Center - Photo: Tiffany Street / Courtesy of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art
Photo: Tiffany Street / Courtesy of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art
Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Arts United Center

Cincinnati’s method toward creating state-of-the-art homes for its arts and cultural institutions has been to use historic preservation — restoring and modernizing its landmark buildings like the 19th- century Music Hall and the Art Deco Union Terminal. We’ll begin seeing the results of that soon; Music Hall reopens Oct. 6-7.

But not all cities have done it like this. Some have sought to create new multi-building campuses for the cultural arts as a statement of their growth and urban renewal. And Cincinnati has tried a smaller version of that — the Cesar Pelli-designed Aronoff Center for the Arts.

There are minuses of thinking big (and new): You have to be able to deliver. One community that thought really big was Fort Wayne, Ind. In a burst of post-war forward-thinking civic optimism, it hired one of America’s greatest and most artistic architects — the late Louis I. Kahn — to build a civic center for the city’s Fine Arts Foundation (now known as the Arts United) that would be the envy of far bigger cities. 

Kahn is famous for manysuch buildings as La Jolla, Calif.’s Salk Institute, Yale University’s Center for British Art and Fort Worth, Texas’ Kimbell Art Museum, which often gets praised because of its use of natural light — and for being the subject of the an Oscar-nominated documentary My Architect. 

But he’s not famous for his Fort Wayne project, which was the last one he personally completed before his death in 1974. (Some were finished posthumously). By the time it was finally done in 1973, vastly scaled down from his original proposal and the foundation’s dreams, he had been involved since 1961 and had worn the city’s patience out. 

That may be one reason why the Arts United Center, as the one completed building is called, is so little known nationally or even regionally, even though it’s Kahn’s only project in the Midwest and his only theater. 

Kahn originally had envisioned 12 elements of a sweeping campus, nine of which would be buildings. When he subsequently proposed an amphitheater, performing arts theater, philharmonic hall, art museum and art school, the price tag was $20 million — roughly $127 million in today’s dollars. In 1963, the foundation said it could only realistically fundraise for the performing arts center and a school; in 1967 it estimated those would cost $10-$12 million. Eventually, the school was removed from the plan.

The building as finished is not perfect but it has fascinating and lovely design features, inside and out, that show a very humane touch. The front brick façade has arched windows and an entranceway that form inviting facial features; there is an actors’ meditation balcony behind the stage; and a  graceful folding wooden partition encloses the large curved entrance to a studio. The 500-seat theater is what Kahn called a “concrete violin” (with concrete catwalks) encased by an exterior “brick violin case.” For all the problems, this wasn’t just a commission for Kahn — he saw it as a mission to further the meaning and impact of the arts in a city.

Fort Wayne seems to want to promote the Arts United Center to outsiders. There’s an excellent exhibition at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (fwmoa.org) now through Oct. 15, On the Pursuit of Perfection: The Legacy Architecture of Louis I. Kahn in Our City. For the first time, it brings together his blueprints, drawings, newspaper stories of the time and the often-shocking correspondence from the civic leaders trying to get the project built. For instance, in 1969 — after Kahn had disregarded a plea by the foundation to scale back his plans (and costs) because of fundraising problems — the organization’s president wrote him this:

“I am at a loss to understand why you continually assume that we can and will somehow come up with the additional funds for a far more costly building.”

Best of all, the Arts United Center is adjacent to the museum (which was built in the 1980s), and its management is encouraging visitors to tour. (Reservations can be made by calling 260-424-0646 and leaving a message for Miriam Morgan). You can easily get to Fort Wayne and back in a day from Cincinnati, and it’s well worth doing for this exhibit and building. The show adds immensely to understanding Kahn — and also to understanding the ambitions of cities. 


CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

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