“Every building must have its own soul”

-Louis Kahn

Popularly remembered as the American architect whose buildings were characterized by powerful, massive forms, Louis Isadore Kahn was born in a poor Jewish family in Pamu (presently in Estonia) on February 20, 1901. In the words of Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn is one of the ‘most influential and beloved architects of all time.’ He had a long list of projects to his credit but the infamous projects include Yale University Art Gallery at Connecticut, Richards Medical Research Laboratories at University of Philadelphia, Salk Institute at California, First Unitarian Church at New York, Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College and Hospital at Dhaka, IIM at Ahmedabad, etc.

LOUIS KAHN: Commemorating Architects on their Birthdays

His family immigrated to the United States when Kahn was a child. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 1924 and later toured Europe. His family didn’t have the money to buy pencils, which is why they made their own charcoal sticks from burnt twigs. Kahn used these to make drawings and also played piano to accompany silent movies in theatres to earn money. He favored the quality of the charcoal line so much that even after he had become a celebrated architect he continued at times to draw with burnt matches.

His obvious intelligence and early talent for art prompted his teachers to enroll him in competitions for gifted students throughout his public schooling. Despite winning a full art scholarship from the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, a required course in architectural history during his final year in high school led him to study architecture. Kahn’s work, like that of Eero Saarinen, Frei Otto, and others who broke with the International Style, was controversial during his lifetime. However, his work was reviewed more favorably by a new generation of critics, who declared him one of the most original and important architects of the 20th century.

An AIA gold medalist and a RIBA gold medalist, Louis Kahn founded his own practice in 1935. Along with his practice, he also served as a design critic and professor at Yale School of architecture from 1947 to 1957. From 1957 he was a professor at the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania until his death.

His Richards Medical Research Building (1960–65) at the university is outstanding for its expression of the distinction between “servant” and “served” spaces. The servant spaces (stairwells, elevators, exhaust and intake vents, and pipes) are isolated in four towers, distinct from the served spaces (laboratories and offices). Kahn elevated this practical feature into an architectural principle.

His mature style, best exemplified by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California (1959–65), and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (1977), combined the servant-served typology with inspiration from classical and medieval architecture, basic geometric forms, and an elegant, expressive use of such familiar materials as concrete and brick.

Louis Khan’s four most important projects are as follows :

1.Yale University Art Gallery at New Haven, Connecticut (1951-53)

LOUIS KAHN: Commemorating Architects on their Birthdays - Yale University Art Gallery at New Haven, Connecticut (1951-53)

2. Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, Capital of Bangladesh at Dhaka, Bangladesh (1962-83)

LOUIS KAHN: Commemorating Architects on their Birthdays - Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, Capital of Bangladesh at Dhaka, Bangladesh (1962-83)

3. Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth, Texas (1966-72)

LOUIS KAHN: Commemorating Architects on their Birthdays - Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth, Texas (1966-72)

4.  Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park at Roosevelt Island, New York (1973-2012)

LOUIS KAHN: Commemorating Architects on their Birthdays - Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park at Roosevelt Island, New York (1973-2012)

“An architect is part of the treasury of architecture in which the Parthenon belongs, the Pantheon belongs, in which the great lyceums during the Renaissance belong. All these things belong to architecture and make it richer.”

– Louis Kahn

Kahn did not live to see the completion of the Yale Center for British Art, nor his projects in India and Bangladesh (although the Indian Institute for Management was essentially complete when he died). In 1974, on his return home from the subcontinent, Kahn was overcome by a heart attack in the men’s bathroom of Penn Station in New York City, where he died tragically alone at the age of seventy-three. After his death, five Kahn buildings “of enduring significance” received the impressive Twenty-Five Year Award from the American Institute of Architects: the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale Center for British Art, Exeter Academy Library, Jonas Salk Institute, and Kimbell Art Museum. His oeuvre may be small compared to other architects of his stature, but it is all the more impressive for the influence it has and continues to have on contemporary architecture.


Mathesh Janarth

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