Louis Kahn

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Louis Kahn
Louis Isadore Kahn.jpg
Born(1901-02-20)February 20, 1901
DiedMarch 17, 1974(1974-03-17) (aged 73)
Parent(s)Bertha Schmuilowsky
Leopold Schmuilowsky
Awards AIA Gold Medal
RIBA Gold Medal
Buildings Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban
Yale University Art Gallery
Salk Institute
Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad
Phillips Exeter Academy Library
Kimbell Art Museum
ProjectsCenter of Philadelphia, Urban and Traffic Study

Louis Isadore Kahn (born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky) (March 5 [ O.S. February 20] 1901 – March 17, 1974) was an American architect, [2] based in Philadelphia. After working in various capacities for several firms in Philadelphia, he founded his own atelier in 1935. While continuing his private practice, he served as a design critic and professor of architecture at Yale School of Architecture from 1947 to 1957. From 1957 until his death, he was a professor of architecture at the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania.

Old Style and New Style dates 16th-century changes in calendar conventions

Old Style (O.S.) and New Style (N.S.) are terms sometimes used with dates to indicate that the calendar convention used at the time described is different from that in use at the time the document was being written. There were two calendar changes in Great Britain and its colonies, which may sometimes complicate matters: the first was to change the start of the year from Lady Day to 1 January; the second was to discard the Julian calendar in favour of the Gregorian calendar. Closely related is the custom of dual dating, where writers gave two consecutive years to reflect differences in the starting date of the year, or to include both the Julian and Gregorian dates.

Architect person trained to plan and design buildings, and oversee their construction

An architect is a person who plans, designs and reviews the construction of buildings. To practice architecture means to provide services in connection with the design of buildings and the space within the site surrounding the buildings that have human occupancy or use as their principal purpose. Etymologically, architect derives from the Latin architectus, which derives from the Greek, i.e., chief builder.

Philadelphia Largest city in Pennsylvania, United States

Philadelphia, known colloquially as Philly, is the largest city in the U.S. state and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the sixth-most populous U.S. city, with a 2018 census-estimated population of 1,584,138. Since 1854, the city has been coterminous with Philadelphia County, the most populous county in Pennsylvania and the urban core of the eighth-largest U.S. metropolitan statistical area, with over 6 million residents as of 2017. Philadelphia is also the economic and cultural anchor of the greater Delaware Valley, located along the lower Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, within the Northeast megalopolis. The Delaware Valley's population of 7.2 million ranks it as the eighth-largest combined statistical area in the United States.


Kahn created a style that was monumental and monolithic; his heavy buildings for the most part do not hide their weight, their materials, or the way they are assembled. Famous for his meticulously built works, his provocative proposals that remained unbuilt, and his teaching, Kahn was one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. He was awarded the AIA Gold Medal and the RIBA Gold Medal. At the time of his death he was considered by some as "America's foremost living architect." [3]

AIA Gold Medal

The AIA Gold Medal is awarded by the American Institute of Architects conferred "by the national AIA Board of Directors in recognition of a significant body of work of lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture."


Early life

Jesse Oser House, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (1940) JesseOslerHouseElkinsParkPA.jpg
Jesse Oser House, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (1940)

Louis Kahn, whose original name was Itze-Leib (Leiser-Itze) Schmuilowsky (Schmalowski), was born into a poor Jewish family in Pärnu, [4] formerly in Russian Empire, but now in Estonia. He spent his early childhood in Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa, then part of the Russian Empire's Livonian Governorate. [1] At the age of three, he saw coals in the stove and was captivated by the light of the coal. He put the coal in his apron, which caught on fire and burned his face. [5] He carried these scars for the rest of his life. [6]

Pärnu City in Pärnu County, Estonia

Pärnu is the fourth largest city in Estonia. Located in southwestern Estonia on the coast of Pärnu Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Livonia in the Baltic Sea. It is a popular summer holiday resort with many hotels, restaurants, and large beaches. The Pärnu River flows through the city and drains into the Gulf of Riga. The city was served by Pärnu Airport.

Russian Empire former country, 1721–1917

The Russian Empire, also known as Imperial Russia or simply Russia, was an empire that extended across Eurasia and North America from 1721, following the end of the Great Northern War, until the Republic was proclaimed by the Provisional Government that took power after the February Revolution of 1917.

Estonia Republic in Northern Europe

Estonia, officially the Republic of Estonia, is a country in Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland with Finland on the other side, to the west by the Baltic Sea with Sweden on the other side, to the south by Latvia (343 km), and to the east by Lake Peipus and Russia (338.6 km). The territory of Estonia consists of a mainland and 2,222 islands in the Baltic Sea, covering a total area of 45,227 km2 (17,462 sq mi), water 2,839 km2 (1,096 sq mi), land area 42,388 km2 (16,366 sq mi), and is influenced by a humid continental climate. The official language of the country, Estonian, is the second-most-spoken Finnic language.

In 1906, his family emigrated to the United States, as they feared that his father would be recalled into the military during the Russo-Japanese War. His birth year may have been inaccurately recorded in the process of immigration. According to his son's 2003 documentary film, the family could not afford pencils. They made their own charcoal sticks from burnt twigs so that Louis could earn a little money from drawings. [7] Later he earned money by playing piano to accompany silent movies in theaters. He became a naturalized citizen on May 15, 1914. His father changed their name to Kahn in 1915. [7]

Russo-Japanese War 20th-century war between the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan

The Russo-Japanese War was fought during 1904–1905 between the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan over rival imperial ambitions in Manchuria and Korea. The major theatres of operations were the Liaodong Peninsula and Mukden in Southern Manchuria and the seas around Korea, Japan and the Yellow Sea.


Kahn excelled in art from a young age, repeatedly winning the annual award for the best watercolor by a Philadelphia high school student. He was an unenthusiastic and undistinguished student at Philadelphia Central High School until he took a course in architecture in his senior year, which convinced him to become an architect. He turned down an offer to go to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to study art under a full scholarship, instead working at a variety of jobs to pay his own tuition for a degree in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts. There, he studied under Paul Philippe Cret in a version of the Beaux-Arts tradition, one that discouraged excessive ornamentation. [8]

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts museum and art school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is a museum and art school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was founded in 1805 and is the first and oldest art museum and art school in the United States. The academy's museum is internationally known for its collections of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. Its archives house important materials for the study of American art history, museums, and art training.

University of Pennsylvania School of Design

The University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design is the design school of the University of Pennsylvania. It is currently ranked 3rd in urban planning by The Best Colleges, 10th in urban planning by Planetizen, and 8th in architecture and 2nd in landscape architecture by DesignIntelligence. PennDesign offers degrees in architecture, landscape architecture, city and regional planning, historic preservation, and fine arts, as well as several dual degrees with other graduate schools at the University of Pennsylvania, including the Wharton School and Penn Law. The Weitzman School of Design is known for its distinguished faculty, which have included architects Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi and pioneer of landscape architecture Ian McHarg. Denise Scott Brown also graduated from the School of Design in 1960. On February 26, 2019, it was announced that the school has been renamed in honor of the contributions of University of Pennsylvania alumnus and fashion designer Stuart Weitzman.

Paul Philippe Cret French-American architect and industrial designer

Paul Philippe Cret was a French-born Philadelphia architect and industrial designer. For more than thirty years, he taught a design studio in the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.


After completing his Bachelor of Architecture in 1924, Kahn worked as senior draftsman in the office of the city architect, John Molitor. He worked on the designs for the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition. [9]

The Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.) is a bachelor's degree designed to satisfy the academic requirement of practicing architecture.

Sesquicentennial Exposition 1926 exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

The Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition of 1926 was a world's fair in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its purpose was to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence, and the 50th anniversary of the 1876 Centennial Exposition.

In 1928, Kahn made a European tour. He was interested particularly in the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, France, and the castles of Scotland, rather than any of the strongholds of classicism or modernism. [10] After returning to the United States in 1929, Kahn worked in the offices of Paul Philippe Cret, his former studio critic at the University of Pennsylvania, and then with Zantzinger, Borie and Medary in Philadelphia. [9]

In 1932, Kahn and Dominique Berninger founded the Architectural Research Group, whose members were interested in the populist social agenda and new aesthetics of the European avant-gardes. Among the projects Kahn worked on during this collaboration are schemes for public housing that he had presented to the Public Works Administration, which supported some similar projects during the Great Depression. [9] They remained unbuilt.

Louis Kahn's Salk Institute Salk Institute1.jpg
Louis Kahn's Salk Institute

Among the more important of Kahn's early collaborations was one with George Howe. [11] Kahn worked with Howe in the late 1930s on projects for the Philadelphia Housing Authority and again in 1940, along with German-born architect Oscar Stonorov, for the design of housing developments in other parts of Pennsylvania. [12] A formal architectural office partnership between Kahn and Oscar Stonorov began in February 1942 and ended in March 1947, which produced fifty-four documented projects and buildings. [13] [14]

Kahn did not arrive at his distinctive architectural style until he was in his fifties. Initially working in a fairly orthodox version of the International Style, he was influenced vitally by a stay as Architect in Residence at the American Academy in Rome during 1950, which marked a turning point in his career. After visiting the ruins of ancient buildings in Italy, Greece, and Egypt, he adopted a back-to-the-basics approach. He developed his own style as influenced by earlier modern movements, but not limited by their sometimes-dogmatic ideologies.

In 1961 he received a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts to study traffic movement in Philadelphia and to create a proposal for a viaduct system. [15] [16]

He described this proposal at a lecture given in 1962 at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado:

In the center of town the streets should become buildings. This should be interplayed with a sense of movement which does not tax local streets for non-local traffic. There should be a system of viaducts which encase an area which can reclaim the local streets for their own use, and it should be made so this viaduct has a ground floor of shops and usable area. A model which I did for the Graham Foundation recently, and which I presented to Mr. Entenza, showed the scheme. [17]

Kahn's teaching career began at Yale University in 1947. He eventually was named as the Albert F. Bemis Professor of Architecture and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1956. Kahn then returned to Philadelphia to teach at the University of Pennsylvania from 1957 until his death, becoming the Paul Philippe Cret Professor of Architecture. He also was a visiting lecturer at Princeton University School of Architecture from 1961 to 1967.

Awards and honors

Kahn was elected a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1953. He was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964. He was awarded the Frank P. Brown Medal in 1964. In 1965 he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate Academician. He was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1968 and awarded the AIA Gold Medal, the highest award given by the AIA, in 1971, [18] and the Royal Gold Medal by the RIBA, in 1972.


In 1974, Kahn died of a heart attack in a restroom at Penn Station in Manhattan. [3] He had just returned from a work trip to India. Owing to police miscommunications in both New York City and Philadelphia, his wife and his office were not notified until two days after his death. After his long career, he was in debt when he died.

Personal life

Kahn had three children with three women. With his wife, Esther (1905-1996), whom he married in 1930, he had a daughter, Sue Ann. With Anne Tyng, who began her working collaboration and personal relationship with Kahn in 1945, he also had a daughter, Alexandra. When Tyng became pregnant in 1953, to mitigate the scandal, she went to Rome, Italy, for the birth of their daughter. [19] With Harriet Pattison, he had a son, Nathaniel Kahn. Most biographical works on Kahn fail to describe the profound impact his female partners had on his designs.[ citation needed ] Anne Tyng was an extremely talented architect and teacher, while Harriet Pattison was a pioneering landscape architect. [20]


Kahn's obituary in the New York Times written by Paul Goldberger mentions only Esther and his daughter by her as survivors. All of his children and their mothers attended the funeral. In 2003 Nathaniel Kahn released a documentary about his father, entitled, My Architect: A Son's Journey. The Oscar-nominated film provides views and insights into the architecture of Kahn while exploring him personally through people who knew him: family, friends, and colleagues. It includes interviews with such renowned architectural contemporaries as Muzharul Islam, B. V. Doshi, Frank Gehry, Ed Bacon, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Vincent J. Scully, and Robert A. M. Stern. It also provides insights into Kahn's unusual and complicated family arrangements.


Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (1966-1972) Kimbell Art Museum.jpg
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (1966–1972)
Play of light inside Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban Sangshad inside.jpg
Play of light inside Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban

Google Map - location of Louis Kahn's Buildings

Timeline of works

Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, Dhaka; considered as Kahn's magnum opus National Assembly of Bangladesh, Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban, 2008, 5.JPG
Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, Dhaka; considered as Kahn's magnum opus
Interior of Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter, New Hampshire (1965-1972) Exeter library interior.jpg
Interior of Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter, New Hampshire (1965–1972)

All dates refer to the year project commenced


Salk Institute Panorama.jpg
360° panorama in the courtyard of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California (1959–1965)
Louis Kahn Memorial Park, Eleventh & Pine Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Louis Kahn Memorial Park.jpg
Louis Kahn Memorial Park, Eleventh & Pine Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Louis Kahn's work infused the International style with a fastidious, highly personal taste, a poetry of light. His few projects reflect his deep personal involvement with each. Isamu Noguchi called him "a philosopher among architects." He was known for his ability to create monumental architecture that responded to the human scale. He also was concerned with creating strong formal distinctions between served spaces and servant spaces. What he meant by servant spaces was not spaces for servants, but rather spaces that serve other spaces, such as stairwells, corridors, restrooms, or any other back-of-house function such as storage space or mechanical rooms. His palette of materials tended toward heavily textured brick and bare concrete, the textures often reinforced by juxtaposition to highly refined surfaces such as travertine marble. He is often well remembered for his deliberation about the use of brick, on how it can be more than the basic building material:

If you think of Brick, you say to Brick, 'What do you want, Brick?' And Brick says to you, 'I like an Arch.' And if you say to Brick, 'Look, arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over you. What do you think of that, Brick?' Brick says, 'I like an Arch.' And it's important, you see, that you honor the material that you use. ... You can only do it if you honor the brick and glorify the brick instead of shortchanging it. [17]

While widely known for the poetic sensibilities of his spaces, Kahn also worked closely with engineers and contractors on his buildings. The results often were technically innovative and highly refined. In addition to the influence Kahn's more well-known work has on contemporary architects (such as Muzharul Islam, Tadao Ando), some of his work (especially the unbuilt City Tower Project) became very influential among the high-tech architects of the late twentieth century (such as Renzo Piano, who worked in Kahn's office, Richard Rogers, and Norman Foster). His prominent apprentices include Muzharul Islam, Moshe Safdie, Robert Venturi, Jack Diamond, and Charles Dagit.

Many years after his death, Kahn continues to provoke controversy. Before his Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island was built, [30] a New York Times editorial opined:

There's a magic to the project. That the task is daunting makes it worthy of the man it honors, who guided the nation through the Depression, the New Deal and a world war. As for Mr. Kahn, he died in 1974, as he passed alone through New York City's Penn Station. In his briefcase were renderings of the memorial, his last completed plan. [31]

The editorial describes Kahn's plan as:

... simple and elegant. Drawing inspiration from Roosevelt's defense of the Four Freedoms—of speech and religion, and from want and fear—he designed an open 'room and a garden' at the bottom of the island. Trees on either side form a 'V' defining a green space, and leading to a two-walled stone room at the water's edge that frames the United Nations and the rest of the skyline.

A group spearheaded by William J. vanden Heuvel raised over $50 million in public and private funds between 2005 and 2012 to establish the memorial. Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park officially opened to the public on October 24, 2012.

Kahn was the subject of the 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary film My Architect: A Son's Journey , presented by Nathaniel Kahn, his son. [32] :127 Kahn's complicated family life inspired the "Undaunted Mettle" episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent .

In the 1993 film Indecent Proposal , character David Murphy (played by Woody Harrelson), referenced Kahn during a lecture to architecture students, attributing the quote "Even a brick wants to be something" to Kahn.

Architecturally inspired ice cream sandwich maker Coolhaus, based in Los Angeles, California, named a cookie and ice cream combination after Kahn. Dubbed "Louis Ba-kahn", the sandwich consists of chocolate chip cookies and Brown Butter Candied Bacon ice cream. [32] :126 [33]

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan, with collaborators Jenny Kallick and John Downey (Amherst College, class of 2003), composed the chamber opera Architect as a character study of Kahn. The premiere recording was due to be released in 2012 by Navona Records.

In Showtime's Billions (Season 4, Episode 6), Taylor Mason and Wendy Rhoades meet at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park and discussed Kahn's genius and his relationship with his estranged son. [34]

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  1. 1 2 Karin Paulus, Olavi Pesti (2006). "Kus sündis Louis Kahn?" [Where was Louis Kahn born?] (in Estonian). Eesti Ekspress.
  2. Voolen, Edward (2006). Jewish art and culture. Prestel. p. 138. The Estonian-born architect Kahn (1901–1974), who immigrated with his family to Philadelphia in 1906
  3. 1 2 Goldberger, Paul (March 20, 1974). "Louis I. Kahn Dies; Architect was 73". New York Times. Retrieved May 2, 2018.
  4. Kahn biography
  5. "Kus sündis Louis Kahn?" (in Estonian). Eesti Ekspress. Retrieved 2006-09-28.
  6. Commstock, Paul. "An Interview with Louis Kahn Biographer Carter Wiseman," California Literary Review. June 15, 2007.
  7. 1 2 My Architect: A Son's Journey Archived 2008-01-02 at the Wayback Machine , SBS Hot Docs, 15 January 2008
  8. Lesser (2017), pp. 56-60.
  9. 1 2 3 "Louis Isadore Kahn (1901–1974)", Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
  10. Johnson, Eugene J. "A Drawing of the Cathedral of Albi by Louis I. Kahn," Gesta, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 159–165.
  11. Howe, George (1886–1955), Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
  12. Stonorov, Oskar Gregory (1905–1970), Philadelphia Architects and Buildings]
  13. "The Pacific Coast Architecture Database". The Pacific Coast Architecture Database. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
  14. "List of Buildings and Projects by Stonorov & Kahn Associated Architects". Philadelphia Architects and Buildings. Philadelphia Architects and Buildings. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
  15. Philadelphia City Planning: Market Street East Project Page Archived 2011-09-28 at the Wayback Machine
  16. MoMA.org | The Collection | Louis I. Kahn. Traffic Study, project, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Plan of proposed traffic-movement pattern. 1952
  17. 1 2 Kahn, Louis I.; Robert C. Twombly (2003). Louis Kahn: Essential Texts. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN   0-393-73113-8.
  18. AIA150 – The 150th Anniversary of the American Institute of Architects
  19. Saffron, Inga (January 7, 2012). "Anne Tyng, 91, groundbreaking architect". Philly.com. Retrieved 2012-01-08.
  20. https://www.curbed.com/2016/4/20/11472750/harriet-pattison-landscape-architect
  21. Marvin Trachtenberg, Salk Institute architecturalrecord.com
  22. Goldberger, Paul (Dec 26, 1982). "Housing for the Spirit". New York Times.
  23. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2017-10-23. Retrieved 2017-10-23.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link).
  24. McCarter, Robert (2005). Louis I. Kahn. London: Phaidon Press. p. 258,270. ISBN   0-7148-4045-9.
  25. Kahn-designed Weiss House in East Norriton on the state’s ‘At-Risk’ list
  26. Margaret Esherick House from Flickr.
  27. http://www.artsunited.org/the-arts-campus/au-center/
  28. Foderaro, Lisa W. (October 17, 2012). "Dedicating Park to Roosevelt and His View of Freedom". New York Times. Retrieved November 14, 2012. The work was commission in 1972, and Kahn was carrying his designs for the project when he died.
  29. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-03-05. Retrieved 2011-10-30.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  30. Press Releases from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Archived 2007-12-06 at the Wayback Machine
  31. "A Roosevelt for Roosevelt Island," New York Times. November 5, 2007.
  32. 1 2 Natasha Case; Freya Estreller; Kathleen Squires (2014-05-20). Coolhaus Ice Cream Book: Custom-Built Sandwiches with Crazy-Good Combos of Cookies, Ice Creams, Gelatos, and Sorbets. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN   978-0-544-12978-8 . Retrieved 2014-10-29.
  33. "Coolhaus menu". Coolhaus official site. n.d. Archived from the original on 2014-10-30. Retrieved 2014-10-29.
  34. https://tv.avclub.com/the-past-haunts-just-about-everyone-on-a-table-setting-1834079214


Further reading