Kahn and the Bath House


Louis I. Kahn had a modest portfolio to show for his thirty years of practice when the Trenton Jewish Community Center Association chose him to design its new home in suburban Ewing Township. It was the most complex commission Kahn had yet received, requiring him to wrestle with a new type of resource. Suburban community centers that included elements such as swim clubs and day camps in addition to main buildings were new to the 1950s.

After several years of planning and reviewing a number of designs, the Jewish Community Center built only two components of Kahn’s plan—the Olympic-sized swimming pool and Bath House, and the four modest pavilions at the Day Camp—before they dismissed him. The Center rejected Kahn’s overall vision for the site and hired another architect for the main community center building. The community center opened in 1962 and remains in use.

Nonetheless, for Kahn the Trenton project was a turning point. “I discovered myself after designing the little concrete block bathhouse in Trenton,” he told New York Times writer Susan Braudy in 1970. Like most of his later work, the Bath House is geometrically simple yet elegant. It is built of prosaic building materials, such as unadorned cinder block, concrete, wood, and asphalt roof shingles. It exploits natural light and evokes ancient monuments.

The significance of the Bath House transcends its strong aesthetic impact. On this project Kahn clarified his ideas about the specific purposes of spaces within a building. It was here that Kahn first articulated his notion of “spaces serving” and “spaces served.” Typically, “serving” spaces, such as those for toilets and utilities, are tucked away and hidden. But in Kahn’s work, beginning with the Trenton Bath House, the serving spaces are not only evident, they are integral to the design. “The Trenton Bath House is derived from a concept of space order in which the hollow columns supporting the pyramidal roofs distinguish the spaces that serve from those being served,” he wrote in 1957.