Louis Kahn

Louis Isadore Kahn, born on February 20, 1901 was a world-renowned architect of Estonian Jewish origin, based in Philadelphia, United States.

After working in various capacities for several companies 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. Influenced by ancient ruins, Kahn's style tends to the monumental and monolithic; his heavy buildings don't hide their weight, their materials, or the way they are assembled.

He trained in a rigorous Beaux-Arts tradition, with its emphasis on drawing at the University of Pennsylvania. After completing his Bachelor of Architecture in 1924, Kahn worked as senior draftsman in the office of City Architect John Molitor. In this capacity, he worked on the design for the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition.

In 1928, Kahn made a European tour and took a particular interest in the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, France and the castles of Scotland rather than any of the strongholds of classicism or modernism. After returning to the States in 1929, Kahn worked in the offices of Paul Philippe Cret, his former studio critic at Penn and in the offices of Zantzinger, Borie and Medary in Philadelphia. 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 unbuilt schemes for public housing that had originally been presented to the Public Works Administration.

Kahn worked with Howe in 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.

In 1961, he received a grant from the Graham Foundation to study traffic movement in Philadelphia and create a proposal for a viaduct system.
Kahn was eventually named Albert F. Bemis Professor of Architecture and Planning at MIT in 1962 and Paul Philippe Cret Professor of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1966 and was also a Visiting Lecturer at Princeton University from 1961 to 1967. 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 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 RIBA in 1972.

On March 17, 1974, Louis Kahn died of a heart attack in a men's restroom in Pennsylvania Station in New York City. He was not identified for three days, as he had crossed out the home address on his passport. He had just returned from a work trip to India and despite his long career, he was deeply in debt when he died.

Many years after his death, Kahn continues to inspire controversy. Interest is growing in a plan to build a Kahn-designed Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, Four Freedoms Park at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. A modest New York Times editorial opined: “There's a magic to the project. That the task is daunting makes it worthy of the man it honours, 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's Penn Station. In his briefcase were renderings of the memorial, his last completed plan….”

His influences:

Louis Kahn did not find his distinctive architectural style until he was in his fifties. Initially working in a fairly orthodox version of the International Style, a stay at the American Academy in Rome in the early 1950s marked a turning point in Kahn's career. The back-to-the-basics approach he adopted after visiting the ruins of ancient buildings in Italy, Greece and Egypt helped him to develop his own style of architecture, influenced by earlier modern movements, but not limited by their sometimes dogmatic ideologies.

His Philosophy:

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 was also 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 like storage 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.

While widely known for his poetic sensibilities, Kahn also worked closely with engineers and contractors on his buildings. The results were often technically innovative and highly refined. In addition to the influence Kahn's better-known work has on contemporary architects (such as Tadao Ando), some of his work (especially the unbuilt City Tower Project) became very influential among the high-tech architects of the late 20th century (such as Renzo Piano, who worked in Kahn's office and Norman Foster). His prominent apprentices include Moshe Safdie, Robert Venturi and Jack Diamond.

His Expressions:

“All material in nature,
the mountains and the streams and the air and we,
are made of Light which has been spent,
and this crumpled mass called material casts a shadow,
and the shadow belongs to Light.”

“A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable.”

“Consider the momentous event in architecture when the wall parted and the column became.”

“To express is to drive.
And when you want to give something presence,
you have to consult nature.
And there is where Design comes in.

And if you think of Brick, for instance,
and 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 lentil over you.
What do you think of that?"
Brick says:
"... I like an Arch"”

“Every time a student walks past a really urgent, expressive piece of architecture that belongs to his college, it can help reassure him that he does have that mind, does have that soul.”

“Architecture is the reaching out for the truth.” – Louis Kahn

“Design is not making beauty, beauty emerges from selection, affinities, integration, love.” – Louis Kahn

“A Work of Art
... is not a living thing ...
that walks or runs.
But the making of a life.
That which gives you a reaction.
To some it is the wonder of Man's Fingers.
To some it is the wonder of the Mind.
To some it is the wonder of Technique.
And to some it is how Real it is.
To some, how Transcendent it is.

Like the 5th Symphony
it presents itself with a feeling
that you know it, if you have heard it once.
And you look for it,
and though you know it you must hear it again.
Though you know it you must see it again.
Truly a work of Art is one that tells us,
that Nature cannot make what man can make.”

His Legacy:

All dates refer to the year project commenced

  • 1935 – Jersey Homesteads Cooperative Development, Hightstown, New Jersey
  • 1940 – Jesse Oser House, 628 Stetson Road, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
  • 1947 – Phillip Q. Roche House, 2101 Harts Lane, Conshohocken, Pennsylvania
  • 1951 – Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut
  • 1952 – City Tower Project, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (unbuilt)
  • 1954 – Jewish Community Centre (aka Trenton Bath House), 999 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, New Jersey
  • 1956 – Wharton Esherick Studio, 1520 Horseshoe Trail, Malvern, Pennsylvania (designed with Wharton Esherick)
  • 1957 – Richards Medical Research Laboratories, University of Pennsylvania, 3700 Hamilton Walk, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • 1957 – Fred Clever House, 417 Sherry Way, Cherry Hill, New Jersey
  • 1959 – Margaret Esherick House, 204 Sunrise Lane, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • 1959 – Salk Institute for Biological Studies, 10 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, California
  • 1959 – First Unitarian Church, 220 South Winton Road, Rochester, New York
  • 1960 – Erdman Hall Dormitories, Bryn Mawr College, Morris Avenue, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
  • 1960 – Norman Fisher House, 197 East Mill Road, Hatboro, Pennsylvania
  • 1962 – Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India
  • 1962 – National Assembly Building, Dhaka, Bangladesh
  • 1963 – President's Estate, Islamabad, Pakistan (unbuilt)
  • 1965 – Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Front Street, Exeter, New Hampshire
  • 1966 – Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Boulevard, Fort Worth, Texas
  • 1966 – Olivetti-Underwood factory, Valley View Road, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
  • 1969 – Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut
  • 1971 – Steven Korman House, Sheaff Lane, Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
  • 1972 – Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, New York City, New York (unbuilt)