Influential architect Louis Isadore Kahn had a unique style of modern architecture that emphasized simple geometic forms in modern buildings of brick and poured-in-place concrete. He was an artist and visionary with a strong philosophy of reverence for materials, light, geometric solids, and humanism. He overcame physical imperfections - he was short with a thin reedy voice and a face badly scarred from a childhood accident - through sheer force of personality and became a major force in twentieth century architecture as a designer and a teacher.
Kahn was born in Estonia in 1901, son of Leopold, an Estonian paymaster in the Russian army, and Bertha, a native of Latvia. Louis, eldest of three children, badly burned his hands and face while very young, and he retained visible scars for the rest of his life. Leopold left the army and, fearful of being drafted back, emigrated to the United States in 1904. His wife and children followed in 1906, and the family settled near relatives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They became naturalized Americans in 1914, and Louis would live in Philadelphia for most of his life.
Louis showed promise as an artist while still a child, but during high school took a course in architecture, after which he turned down a four-year merit scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Art so that he could attend the University of Pennsylvania to study his chosen vocation. The family was very poor, and Louis accompanied silent films on the piano and worked as a draftsmen for the city during the summer in order to finance his education. He graduated with a bachelor's in 1924.
He was employed in several design firms as a draftsman over the next several years, never staying long with any one company. He travelled to Europe in 1928, returning the next year, whereupon he again worked for several different firms. He married Esther Israeli in 1930 and the two had one daughter. In 1932 he helped form the Architectural Research Group, an association of progressive, populist, modernist (and unemployed) young architects; they designed several public housing schemes which were never built. When ARG dissolved in 1934, Louis formed a partnership with Solis Kopelan to pursue commercial work, but retained his interest in social housing and worked with a number of like-minded architects on various group housing projects. In 1945 he began a collaboration with the only woman in his office, architect Anne Tyng, that quickly became personal as well, and Tyng bore his second child.
In 1947 Louis was appointed to Yale, and became a popular teacher. In 1950 he was named architect in residence at the American Academy in Rome, and travelled widely in Europe, reconciling his modernism with his admiration for classical architecture and learning formative lessons about light and form from ancient monuments. While abroad he received his first important commission, for the Yale Art Gallery. The building was innovative and successful, and in 1953, the year of its completion, he was made a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. In 1955 his reputation was cemented with the completion of the Alfred Newton Richards Medical Laboratories in Pennsylvania; that year he was appointed professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
In the 1960s, Kahn's reputation was well-established, and his practice expanded dramatically. Of particular note are the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California; the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (the last completed under his personal supervision); the library at the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire; the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India; Dhaka, the capitol of Bangladesh, which he designed in its entirety, including the monumental parliament buildings, completed in 1983; and the Wolfson Centre for Mechanical and Transportation Engineering in Tel Aviv, Israel, built posthumously according to his design. His mature work often incorporated landscape design, many times in collaboration with landscape architect Harriet Pattison, with whom he had a son. Louis was found dead in the washroom of Penn Station in New York in 1974; he was returning from a trip to Asia and had crossed out the address in his passport, so his body went unidentified for three days. His obituary in the New York Times said he was survived by a wife and daughter; no mention was made of the other two children he had sired.
In 2003 Nathaniel Kahn released the documentary "My Architect", about his search for understanding of a father who had never lived with him and had died when he was only eleven. The documentary is an excellent introduction to Louis Kahn, visiting most of his major buildings and two of the three women who had born his children, and includes interviews with many of his surviving contemporaries and disciples, including I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Moshe Safdie, and Frank Gehry, who hold this great architect in high regard. This film was nominated for an Academy Award, and is well worth watching.
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