Louis I. Kahn

Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) was one of the most significant and influential American architects from the 1950s until his death. His work represents a profound search for the very meaning of architecture.

Louis I. Kahn was born February 20, 1901, in Estonia on the island of Saaremaa. His face was severely burned as a child, resulting in lifelong scars. His Jewish family immigrated to America in 1905 and settled in Philadelphia, where Louis was raised in poverty. A precocious artist and musician in high school, Kahn was inspired to become an architect during an architectural history course he took his senior year. He studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (1920-1924), where the Classical tradition in architecture was taught by Paul Philippe Cret, a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. This would prove to have a significant influence on his later career.

Kahn became a renowned architect only late in his life, after a long period of maturation. After graduating in 1924 he worked for a number of architects, including his former teacher Cret. The Classically-trained Kahn began to develop an appreciation for the emerging architecture of the International Style through his contacts with such Philadelphia architects as Oscar Stonorov and George Howe, both of whom Kahn was associated with in private practice during the 1940s. He especially respected the architecture and writings of the modern master Le Corbusier. Like Le Corbusier, Kahn was drawn to the ancient architecture of the Mediterranean. He made his first trip to Europe in 1928-1929, and in 1950-1951 was a resident at the American Academy in Rome. The timeless, monumental grandeur of ancient Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern ruins was often suggested in his later buildings.

Kahn's rise to prominence began in 1948-1957 when he was a professor at Yale University. In 1957 he returned to the University of Pennsylvania and taught there until his death. Kahn was a highly respected and influential teacher. His exploratory, questioning attitudes probed in a poetic manner the inner meaning of architecture. For Kahn, the designing of buildings went well beyond just fulfilling utilitarian needs. He searched for "beginnings" and wanted to discover what a particular building "wants to be." In creating a building Kahn first sought to understand its "Form," or inner essence, which he considered to be "unmeasurable." Once the "Form" was conceived, it was then subjected to the realities of the "measurable" through "Design." In a successful final product, Kahn believed, the original "Form" can still be strongly felt.

Kahn was entering his fifties when he built his first major design, the Yale University Art Gallery (1951-1953) in New Haven, Connecticut. In this building the open lofts of the galleries are "served" by an inner "servant" core containing such services as stairs and an elevator. The ceiling of each gallery is a concrete space frame (with a pattern of tetrahedrons) which allows the mechanical services to spread horizontally without intruding into the gallery. Kahn was beginning to distinguish between primary, human-oriented spaces and the necessary, but secondary, support spaces. He first crystallized his approach to "served" and "servant" spaces in his modest, but critically important, Trenton Bath House (1955-1956) in New Jersey.

Kahn emerged as a major figure in architecture with his Richards Medical Research Building (1957-1961) at the University of Pennsylvania. This work can be interpreted as a summary of the positive accomplishments of modern architecture in its clarification and expression of functions (once more through "served" and "servant" spaces), honest use of materials, and use of advanced structural systems (precast-prestressed concrete). Yet Kahn was striving for something more. Despite the requisite emphasis on technology in such a commission, he was just as concerned with the human side of the scientists, both as a scholarly community and as independent researchers. Also, his use of picturesque "servant" towers clad in brick provided a visual link with the older and more traditional buildings nearby.

Kahn had thoroughly absorbed his sources. He was able to unite characteristics of modern architecture with those of historical architecture, which he knew well from his Beaux-Arts training. By extending the potential of modern architecture toward a new stability and inner security, while responding to the architecture of the past, Kahn became a pivotal figure in the history of architecture during the 1960s and 1970s.

In the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (1959-1965) at La Jolla, California, the laboratory buildings are grouped with Classical formality around a central court, the west end of which is open to a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. In the world of modern architecture, then dominated by glass boxes, Kahn was searching for a meaningful monumentality. Walls and voids, rather than glass and transparency, dominate. The exposed concrete of the structure was cast with such refinement that it almost ascends to the level of a precious material. Kahn was attempting to rethink all aspects of his architecture, as if he was at the very beginning of architecture.

Kahn was a great maker of rooms. He felt that a room worthy of the name should clearly exhibit its structure and be animated by the presence of natural light. With spare and economical materials he was able to create a very special, naturally lit inner space for the meeting room of the First Unitarian Church (1959-1967) in Rochester, New York. His supreme expression of the importance of natural light within architecture was his museums, particularly the Kimbell Art Museum (1966-1972) in Fort Worth, Texas, with its skylights running the length of the building's vaults, and the Yale Center for British Art (1969-1977) in New Haven, Connecticut, with its sky-lit top floor and the two grand interior courts bringing natural light down into the building.

To Kahn a city was a place of "assembled institutions." He made several unexecuted proposals for modifying and rebuilding his own Philadelphia. His greatest opportunity to build on a large scale was the Capital Complex for Dacca, Bangladesh (originally planned as a second capital for Pakistan), begun in 1962. The central assembly hall of this problem-laden commission was completed in 1984, a decade after Kahn's death. In his monumental use of basic geometric forms for this complex he approached the character of the ancient ruins he so admired. In the Third World he had begun to build works that truly appeared to be emerging from the very "beginnings" of architecture.

At the peak of his creativity, yet overworked and financially troubled, Kahn died in his early seventies in a New York train station after a trip to India. It is possible to consider him the most significant American architect of the 20th century since Frank Lloyd Wright. Before his death in 1974 he received a gold medal from the American Institute of Architects in 1971 and a royal gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1972.


Further Reading on Louis I. Kahn

Two good introductions to the architecture and philosophy of Kahn are John Lobell, Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn (1979), and Romaldo Giurgola and Jaimini Mehta, Louis I. Kahn (1975). For more extensive coverage see Heinz Ronner, Sharad Jhaveri, and Alessandro Vasella, Louis I. Kahn: Complete Works, 1935-74 (1977), and Alexandra Tyng, Beginnings: Louis I. Kahn's Philosophy of Architecture (1984). An important early book on Kahn is Vincent Scully, Jr., Louis I. Kahn (1962). 18 years with Architect Louis I. Kahn (1975) by August E. Komendant was written by a structural engineer who often worked with Kahn. An extensive interview with Kahn can be found in John W. Cook and Heinrich Klotz, Conversations with Architects (1973).