Louis Kahn

Eugene Ormandy
Franklin Chenault Watkins

Considered one of the twentieth-century’s greatest architects, Louis Kahn was born into poverty on the Estonian island of Saaremaa. Kahn was just four years-old when his family emigrated to Philadelphia. His father was a stained glass craftsman and his mother a harpist. The family remained poor in America. Kahn recalled that their home lacked sufficient space for both his bed and the piano. This problem was solved by having him sleep atop the piano. A talented draftsman, Kahn graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Architecture program in 1924.

H is first major project was as chief of design of the Sesquicentennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1925. Kahn then worked in the offices of several architects, including his professor at Penn, Paul Philippe Cret. In 1935 Kahn established his own private practice, but work was not frequent. Kahn was a practitioner of the International Style, a modernist, minimalist approach to architecture, centered on functionality and rejecting the merely decorative.

Kahn began his teaching career at Yale University in 1948, leaving in 1957 to teach at the University of Pennsylvania where he remained until his death. The turning point in his career came as a result of his travels to Europe in the early 1950s, where he studied and admired its medieval buildings and ancient ruins. Consequently, he developed his own approach to architecture, combining modernism and insights garnered from the ancient.

During his teaching career at Yale, Kahn designed the Yale Art Gallery, which won him major recognition and displayed his unique style. Kahn was interested in many fundamental aspects of architecture, which led him to use strong, simple, geometric shapes; utilize natural lighting to advantage; and weigh the importance of the “served” spaces (such as laboratories) versus the “servant” spaces (such as hallways). A major statement of these fundamentals was one of his first projects while at the University of Pennsylvania, the Richards Laboratories, which were completed in 1961.

From this point Kahn’s prominence in the architectural world only grew, both nationally and internationally. Some of Kahn’s more famous works include the Salk Institute in California (1965), the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas (1972), the Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire (1972), and the new legislative capital in Dacca, Pakistan. His work in the Philadelphia area included dormitories at Bryn Mawr College and Mill Creek Public Housing in West Philadelphia.

In his writings and lectures, Kahn provided an original, ambitious, and philosophical perspective that influenced many architects. He called himself “a maker of spaces,” and described building materials as having needs and desires that it was his job as an architect to fulfill. Kahn was very concerned with the psychological impact of the way a building was configured.

Kahn, the least of whose work had been in the Philadelphia area, expressed surprise when he won the Philadelphia Award in 1970, stating that he would now have to “roll up his sleeves to prove that he was worthy of it.” Mary Bok, widow of award founder Edward Bok, praised Kahn for having “the courage to develop his own potential” under adverse circumstances. Like her husband, Kahn had grown up poor in America, raised by immigrant fathers who had difficulty adapting to American ways.

Kahn died in New York City in 1974, on his return trip from India where he was overseeing a project in Ahmedabad. While many of his projects were in various stages of building at the time of his death, they were all eventually finished. Although he had many plans for other structures, it is in the enduring facades of his buildings that Louis I. Kahn lives on.

Michael Ryan

Sources: “International Style, 1920-1945,” Buffalo as an Architectural Museum, http://www.buffaloah.com/a/DCTNRY/i/intrntl.html.The following are collected in Philadelphia Award Records, Series 2 (Recipients and Nominees), Box 7, folders 8-12: newspaper articles, award proceedings. Photo: Image courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Archives. Comment: An Oscar-winning documentary, My Architect(2003), chronicles the search of his son, Nathaniel Kahn, to learn about his famous father, by interviewing Kahn’s family and colleagues, and through familiarizing himself with his architecture. Nathaniel Kahn was only eleven years-old when his father died, and he had spent little time with him as a child. Louis Kahn had three families (one by marriage), all living within a few miles of each other, but never crossing paths until Kahn’s funeral. Kahn worked very long hours, neglecting all of his families. It is a shame that Kahn’s humanism did not extend to his personal relationships.