Orientation Specific Solar Control

Four Postwar Louis Kahn Buildings Contrasted



Photo of Clifton Fordham

Clifton Fordham

Assistant Professor

Temple University



During the postwar era, and before the universal adoption of air-conditioning in the United States, leading architects participated in the design of solar houses and the use of solar shading devices as means of controlling heat gain. Much of the progress in solar design in residential designs was due to flexibility in shaping plan arrangements and building volumes to relate glazing exposure to different program elements and site conditions. Solar homes were more expensive than non-solar homes due to the use of insulated glass to mitigate large glazed areas. Thermal storage typically in the form of water tanks also added to costs. Central air and through-wall systems were cheaper to install and offered the advantage of greater control and more rapid cooling than passive systems.

Since non-single family buildings are less flexible and more expensive than independent residences, there are fewer examples of large postwar buildings shaped to mitigate and harvest solar energy. However, solar shading devices were applied to buildings with varying degrees of effectiveness. Successful examples exist, for instance, Richard Neutra’s design for the Northwestern Mutual Fire Insurance building (1951) in Los Angeles utilizes horizontal shading devices on the southern side and operable vertical shading devices on the east face of the building. Most shading devices from the postwar era, and today, are horizontal regardless of orientation.

Despite technological advances within the last seventy years, the paucity of particular treatments of building orientations and the generic use of shading devices is striking. This paper focuses on shifts in the architecture of Louis Kahn across four projects designed within a short period of time to demonstrate how the culture of shading devices shifted around 1950 leading to a steep decline in use of solar shading devices. By investigating four cases including the Pennsylvania Solar House prototype, the Weiss Residence, the Philadelphia Psychological Hospital Radbill addition and Yale Art Gallery addition, the author seeks to demonstrate how shading devices entered and left an architect’s repertoire. Another goal is to relate these factors to the current paucity of appropriately positioned solar shading devices on buildings.


Designed by Lewis Kahn starting in 1951 and completed in 1953, the Yale Art Gallery addition (Fig. 1) was an innovative building aesthetically, structurally and organizationally. The most striking part

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There is a reviewed interest in the history of solar design and houses exemplified by the recent book A House in the Sun by Daniel Barber. Despite this development, Louis

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Libby-Owens-Ford Solar House

Figure 3: Pennsylvania Solar House south elevation. (Source: University of Pennsylvania Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania Architectural and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.)

Kahn, and his partner

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Perhaps bigger questions remain as to why Kahn abandoned solar shading devices on the museum addition and later projects. One reason is that shading devices, not part of roof overhangs

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Cooper, Gail, Air Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment. Johns Hopkins Press, 2002.

Brownlee, David. Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture. Rizzoli, 1991.

Barber, Daniel. A House in the

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