Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn
Born (1901-02-20)February 20, 1901
Pärnu, Governorate of Livonia, Russian Empire[1]
Died March 17, 1974(1974-03-17) (aged 73)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality American
Occupation Architect
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
Projects Center 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. Louis Kahn's works are considered as monumental beyond modernism. 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)

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 seared 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 trained at the University of Pennsylvania in a rigorous Beaux-Arts tradition, with its emphasis on drawing. 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[8]

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.[8] They remained unbuilt.

Louis Kahn's Salk Institute

Among the more important of Kahn's early collaborations was one with George Howe.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12][13]

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.[14][15]

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.[16]

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 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,[17] 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, 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.[18] With Harriet Pattison, he had a son, Nathaniel Kahn.


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 (1966–72)
Play of light inside Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban

Timeline of works

Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, Dhaka; considered as Kahn's magnum opus
Interior of Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter, New Hampshire (1965–72)

All dates refer to the year project commenced


360° panorama in the courtyard of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California (1959–65)
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.[16]

While widely known for his 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,[26] 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.[27]

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.

Critics note that the panoramic view of Manhattan and the United Nations building are blocked by the walls of that room and by the trees.[28] Other as-yet-unanswered critics have argued more broadly that not enough thought has been given to what visitors to the memorial would be able to do at the site.[29] The proposed project was opposed by a majority of island residents who were surveyed by the Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation group currently working extensively on the island.[30]

The movement for the memorial, which was conceived by Kahn's firm almost 35 years ago, needed to raise $40 million by the end of 2007; as of July 20, it had collected $5.1 million.[31] There is a merest hint in Architectural Record about the oft-heard argument that the project must be built because it literally, was Kahn's last;[32] this is rebutted by those who say the plans are not enough like Kahn's other work to be touted as a memorial to Kahn as well as FDR.[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.

Kahn was the subject of the 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 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.[34]:126[35]



  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," The New York Times, p 1.
  4. Kahn biography
  5. "Kus sündis Louis Kahn?" (in Estonian). Eesti Ekspress. Retrieved 2006-09-28. External link in |publisher= (help)
  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, SBS Hot Docs, 15 January 2008
  8. 1 2 3 "Louis Isadore Kahn (1901–1974)", Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
  9. Johnson, Eugene J. "A Drawing of the Cathedral of Albi by Louis I. Kahn," Gesta, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 159–165.
  10. Howe, George (1886–1955), Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
  11. Stonorov, Oskar Gregory (1905–1970), Philadelphia Architects and Buildings]
  12. "The Pacific Coast Architecture Database". The Pacific Coast Architecture Database. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
  13. "List of Buildings and Projects by Stonorov & Kahn Associated Architects". Philadelphia Architects and Buildings. Philadelphia Architects and Buildings. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
  14. Philadelphia City Planning: Market Street East Project Page
  15. MoMA.org | The Collection | Louis I. Kahn. Traffic Study, project, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Plan of proposed traffic-movement pattern. 1952
  16. 1 2 Kahn, Louis I.; Robert C. Twombly (2003). Louis Kahn: Essential Texts. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-73113-8.
  17. AIA150 – The 150th Anniversary of the American Institute of Architects
  18. Saffron, Inga (January 7, 2012). "Anne Tyng, 91, groundbreaking architect". Philly.com. Retrieved 2012-01-08.
  19. Marvin Trachtenberg, Salk Institute architecturalrecord.com
  20. Goldberger, Paul (Dec 26, 1982). "Housing for the Spirit". New York Times.
  21. McCarter, Robert (2005). Louis I. Kahn. London: Phaidon Press. p. 258,270. ISBN 0-7148-4045-9.
  22. Margaret Esherick House from Flickr.
  23. http://www.artsunited.org/the-arts-campus/au-center/
  24. 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. Kahn was carrying his designs for the project when he died.
  25. http://library.gtu.edu/library/information/library-history
  26. Press Releases from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute
  27. "A Roosevelt for Roosevelt Island," New York Times. November 5, 2007.
  28. COMING TO LIGHT: The Louis I. Kahn Monument to Franklin D. Roosevelt
  29. Huxtable, Ada Louise. "Roosevelt Memorial Design Hits Snags; Skillful Blend Museum Idea Dropped Must Look Beautiful," New York Times. May 1, 1973.
  30. New York City, Southpoint Park Plan Complete for Roosevelt Island: The Trust for Public Land
  31. Dunlap, David W., "A Campaign to Build a Long-Delayed F.D.R. Memorial," New York Times. October 26, 2007; "Roosevelt Island May Soon See FDR Memorial," New York Sun. October 26, 2007. Link for New York Times photographs of project site
  32. Is Kahn’s FDR Memorial Back on Track? | News | Architectural Record
  33. Braudy, Susan. "The Architectural Metaphysic of Louis Kahn; 'Is the center of a column filled with hope?' 'What is a wall?' 'What does this space want to be?'" New York Times Magazine. November 15, 1970.
  34. 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.
  35. "Coolhaus menu". Coolhaus official site. n.d. Retrieved 2014-10-29.


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