Louis Kahn

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Louis Kahn
Louis Isadore Kahn.jpg
Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky

(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.


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]


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 the 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]

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]


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]


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]

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 the 1950s and 1960s as a consultant architect for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission Kahn developed several plans for the center of Philadelphia that were never executed. [15]

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. [16] [17]

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. [18]

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, and the Royal Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), in 1972. [19] [20]


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.

Louis Kahn - A pencil sketch by Sarbjit Bahga Louis Kahn - A pencil sketch by Sarbjit Bahga.jpg
Louis Kahn - A pencil sketch by Sarbjit Bahga

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. [21] 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. [22]


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 Shamshul Wares, 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, S. 11th & Pine Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Louis Kahn Memorial Park.jpg
Louis Kahn Memorial Park, S. 11th & 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. [18]

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, [32] 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. [33]

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. [34] :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.

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. [35]

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  2. Van Voolen, Edward (30 September 2006). My Grandparents, My Parents and I: Jewish art and culture. Prestel. p. 138. ISBN   978-3791333625 . Retrieved 23 July 2019. 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". The New York Times. Retrieved May 2, 2018.
  4. Kahn biography
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  18. 1 2 Kahn, Louis I. (2003). Robert C. Twombly (ed.). Louis Kahn: Essential Texts. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 158. ISBN   978-0393731132.
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  20. "List of Royal Gold Medal winners 1848-2008" (PDF). RIBA. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-02-02.
  21. Saffron, Inga (January 7, 2012). "Anne Tyng, 91, groundbreaking architect". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 23 July 2019.
  22. Sisson, Patrick (20 April 2016). "Pioneering Landscape Architect Harriet Pattison Finally Gets Her Due". Curbed . Retrieved 23 July 2019.
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  28. Margaret Esherick House from Flickr.
  29. "Arts United Center". Arts United.
  30. Foderaro, Lisa W. (October 17, 2012). "Dedicating Park to Roosevelt and His View of Freedom". The New York Times. Retrieved November 14, 2012. The work was commissioned in 1972, and Kahn was carrying his designs for the project when he died.
  31. Glenn, Lucinda (November 2001). "Library History". Graduate Theological Union. Archived from the original on 2012-03-05. Retrieved 2011-10-30.
  32. "The Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, Four Freedoms Park" (Press release). Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. 26 September 2016. Archived from the original on 2007-12-06.
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  34. Case, Natasha; 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.
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Further reading