Learning from Performative Mid-Century Enclosures:
Kahn’s Weiss House
Important features often accompanying mid-century modernism were solar control devices, included in work of leading architects as well as main street practitioners. Although the application of solar devices was largely intuitive, the Olgyay brothers published a book in 1957 called Solar Control and Shading Devices that related theory to projects utilizing mathematical and graphic analysis. Prior to this point published studies of solar design principles focused on generic massing strategies, and did not relate solar design to specific architectural details or aesthetics. By uniting the art and science of architecture, and not utilizing examples that are primarily functional, the Olgyays sought to inspire other architects. This approach is similar to most contemporary case-study books that select examples from designers of high aesthetic reputation. After air-conditioning became standard in the US in the nineteen-fifties, use of overt solar design devices waned. When interest in solar design reinvigorated during the energy crisis of the seventies, the aesthetics of solar design were folky and peripheral to mainstream architectural culture. Interest in vernacular buildings accompanying the revival. Reprinted editions of Victor Olgyay’s Design with Climate and Reyner Banham’s The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment enjoyed cult status. It would take another couple of decades for interest in environmentally grounded architecture to return with a broader focus on materials and engineered systems. Despite the beautifully rendered book, Lessons from Modernism: Environmental Design Strategies in Architecture, 1925-1970 published in 2014, there has been little recent historical research on mid-century solar design. A result has been a loss of the benefits of historical solar design knowledge. Abandonment of valuable knowledge is consistent with a larger culture of obsolescence and fashion. Rapid movement from one style to another has complicated comparisons requiring extra effort to harvest fundamental knowledge. A corollary is a lack of critical attention to building projects that fall short of promised performance, but are valuable for comparison. Shift to high-tech building products and systems have eclipsed the value of performance of older buildings where the shape of building elements is central to performance. This paper revisits examples of mid-century solar design that have evaded comprehensive history books and are largely unavailable to contemporary architects. At the center is a house designed by Louis Kahn and Anne Tyng in the late 1940’s for the Weiss family that exemplifies how modern design can support human needs through an innovative widow wall system that mediated light, privacy, ventilation and thermal comfort with integrated adjustable panels, horizontal louvers, and heating elements. Aspects of the system translated to sliding panels that control light and views at perimeter study carrels in Kahn’s Exeter Library, one of his later works.