Spotlight: Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn Looking at His Tetrahedral Ceiling in the Yale University Art Gallery, 1953. Gelatin silver print. Image © Lionel Freedman. Yale University Art Gallery Archives Transfer.
Louis Kahn Looking at His Tetrahedral Ceiling in the Yale University Art Gallery, 1953. Gelatin silver print. Image © Lionel Freedman. Yale University Art Gallery Archives Transfer.

Louis Kahn (February 20th 1901 - March 17th 1974) was one of the United States' greatest 20th century architects, known for combining Modernism with the weight and dignity of ancient monuments. Though he did not arrive at his distinctive style until his early 50s, and despite his death at the age of just 73, in a span of just two decades came to be considered by many as part of the pantheon of modernist architects which included Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.

Spotlight: Louis Kahn, Salk Institute. Image © Flickr user dreamsjung licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Salk Institute. Image © Flickr user dreamsjung licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Kahn was born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky in Pärnu, in what is now Estonia. His family emigrated to Philadelphia when he was just a child, where Kahn would remain for the rest of his life, completing many of his later works there.

Exeter Library (Class of 1945 Library) . Image © Flickr user ryan_d_cole licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Exeter Library (Class of 1945 Library) . Image © Flickr user ryan_d_cole licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Kahn might be categorized as a late Modernist, and a hugely influential one at that. In a trip to Europe in 1928, he took more interest in Medieval architecture such as castles and walled cities than in the emerging modernist scene there. In later life this translated to a depth and solidity to his architecture which in many ways resonates with the brick edifices of Alvar Aalto and the brutalist late works of Le Corbusier, who by the 1950s had moved away from his early, machine-led influences. Kahn is perhaps best known for the Salk Institute, the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, the Exeter Library and Kimbell Art Museum. His last completed design, for the Four Freedoms Park in New York, was also finally finished posthumously in 2012.

Exeter Library (Class of 1945 Library) . Image via Wikimedia (Image from United States Library of Congress in public domain. Author Carol M Highsmith)
Exeter Library (Class of 1945 Library) . Image via Wikimedia (Image from United States Library of Congress in public domain. Author Carol M Highsmith)

The impression he left as an individual is equally as mythical. His sometimes esoteric but always insightful understanding of architecture led to him to being often described as a 'mystic' or a 'guru', and a complex private life inspired his son to film the Academy Award Nominated documentary "My Architect" in 2003. In the film, his contemporary Philip Johnson said of Kahn that "he was his own artist. He was free, compared to me."

National Assembly Building of Bangladesh. Image © Wikimedia Commons user Lykantrop licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
National Assembly Building of Bangladesh. Image © Wikimedia Commons user Lykantrop licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Even Kahn's death in 1974 has become a well-known piece of architectural lore. Arriving in New York after a site visit to his Indian Institute of Management, Kahn suffered a heart attack in the men's bathroom of Penn Station. Despite widespread acclaim his studio was deeply in debt at the time, and thanks to poor communication between the New York and Philadelphia police departments, his family was not notified of his death for two days. However there was a silver lining to Kahn's unceremonious end: the briefcase he was carrying at the time was found to contain designs for a memorial to Franklin D Roosevelt on New York's Roosevelt Island. Almost four decades later, those drawings led to Kahn's last built work, Four Freedoms Park.

Indian Institute of Management. Image © Students of IMMA via Wikimedia licensed under CC BY 3.0
Indian Institute of Management. Image © Students of IMMA via Wikimedia licensed under CC BY 3.0

See all of Kahn's works on ArchDaily via the thumbnails below, and check out the links below those for even more Kahn:

Salk Institute. Image © Flickr user dreamsjung licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Salk Institute. Image © Flickr user dreamsjung licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Kimbell Art Museum. Image © Flickr user grabadonut licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Kimbell Art Museum. Image © Zereshke Indian Institute of Management. Image © Students of IMMA via Wikimedia licensed under CC BY 3.0 Yale Center for British Art. Image © joevare First Unitarian Church of Rochester. Image © Bruce Coleman Four Freedoms Park. Image © Diane Bondareff / Four Freedoms Park Exeter Library (Class of 1945 Library) . Image © Flickr user ryan_d_cole licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 National Assembly Building of Bangladesh. Image © Wikimedia Commons user Lykantrop licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 Exeter Library (Class of 1945 Library) . Image via Wikimedia (Image from United States Library of Congress in public domain. Author Carol M Highsmith) Yale University Art Gallery. Image © Flickr user jacqueline_poggi licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 National Assembly Building of Bangladesh. Image © Flickr user justinstravels licensed under CC BY 2.0 +15

Films & Architecture: "My Architect"

Light Matters: Louis Kahn and the Power of Shadow

Seeming Inevitability: Reconsidering Renzo Piano's Addition To Louis Kahn's Kimbell

Video: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn

The Tranquility of Louis Kahn's Salk Institute

Louis Kahn's Notorious Richards Laboratory Restored

Cite: Rory Stott. "Spotlight: Louis Kahn" 20 Feb 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <http://www.archdaily.com/334095/happy-112th-birthday-louis-kahn/>