‘Architecture is the thoughtful making of space- Louis I. Kahn’
Born in a poor Jewish family in Parnu, formerly in the Russian empire, Louis I. Kahn (Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky- birth name) is one of the most influential and foremost Architects of the 20th Century. His work was not shiny and appealing like his modernist counterparts but it made a statement, which others could not.
In 1906, the Schmuilowsky family migrated to the US. Kahn became a naturalized American citizen in 1914 and his father changed their surname to Kahn in 1915, as adopted by their relatives in the US. Kahn was very good with art and earned money initially by art, which he drew with charcoal sticks made out of burnt twigs. He also played the piano in silent movies in theatres for earning that extra buck.
Described as an undistinguished student in school in Philadelphia, Kahn was always inclined towards art, gave up a full scholarship to learn art, and instead worked various jobs to pay for his education in the Degree of Architecture. He graduated with a degree in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania School of fine arts in the year 1924, where he studied under Paul Phillippe Cret in a version of Beaux-Arts tradition. An inspiring teacher, Cret’s mentorship was a very big influence in Kahn’s future work. He instilled in his students a reverence for the form-giving potential of Beaux-Arts principles and the harmonious power of the proportion
American Architect based in Philadelphia since his migration, Kahn worked with several firms in various capacities to finally start his Atelier in 1935. Before that, immediately after graduation, Kahn started working as a Senior Draftsman, in 1926 in the City Architect’s office, John Mollitor. Post that, he traveled to Italy, Greece, and Egypt where he was highly influenced by medieval Architecture more than the strongholds of Modernism. Returning to The US Kahn worked under Cret, his former critic at Pennsylvania University, followed by working for a few more Architects. In the late 1930s, Kahn collaborated and worked with Ar. George Howe, on projects for Philadelphia Housing Authority, followed by a collaboration with German-born Ar. Oscar Stonorov, with whom he partnered a firm from 1942-1947.
The 1950s & 1960s were dedicated to working with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. In 1961, he received a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts to study Traffic movement in Philadelphia and to create a proposal for a viaduct system.
Putting a timeline to his teaching career,
- Started teaching at Yale University in 1947, as a faculty of Architecture.
- Professor of Architecture & Planning in 1956, at MIT.
- He started teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in 1957 until his death.
- A visiting faculty for Architecture from 1961-1967 at Princeton.
He was awarded the AIA (American Institute of Architects) and RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Gold medal.
‘Every building must have its soul- Louis I. Kahn’
It is said that Kahn did not establish his style of Architecture until his Fifties. He was highly influenced by the medieval style of Architecture and he adopted Intermingling it with the early Modernist concepts that evolved in the 1920’s – 1930’s, leaving out the dogmatic Idiosyncrasies.
‘In a small room, one would not say what one would in a large room- Louis I. Kahn’
He loved to work with a brick and that can be seen through his projects. A strong form of brick and concrete evolving into these Monumental structures that responded to human scale. His designs were of modern concepts but reflected a medieval vibe. The materials he used were one of the staunch proof of this. Kahn was very passionate about his work and meticulously worked out each small detail. The design was one part but he closely worked with the Engineers and Consultants of the structure, it ended up creating technically innovative and highly refined results. His work had this poetic free flow to it.
A concept of strong formal distinctions between served and servant spaces was something he conceptualized. Here servant spaces meant the extra spaces, which supported the served spaces. The Travertine marble was another material, which captured his eye.
Not many projects and structures to his name, this was only because Kahn dived and dwelled so deep into his work that at times it would not go ahead towards completion because some of his proposals were just too provocative for the Client. However, he was committed to his ideas and would not go ahead otherwise.
Kahn deeply respected the Architecture and writings of the Modern master Le Corbusier.
Speaking a little about his personal life, which was quite controversial. Kahn married Esther in 1930 and had a daughter Sue-Ann. Besides Esther, he had children with two other women. He collaborated with Anne Tyng for work in 1945 and had a daughter with her named Alexandra. Tyng went to Rome in 1953 to give birth to the daughter to mitigate the scandal. With Harriet Pattisson, he had a son, Nathaniel Kahn who went on to make the award-winning documentary ‘My Architect’, which spoke about his Father.
Kahn had a very sad demise. Returning after working on IIM, India he had a sudden heart attack at the Penn station where due to miscommunication by the police his family was not updated about his demise for two days. Not known to the world, Kahn’s work was also highly influenced by the women in his life.
‘The sun never realized how great it was until it hit the side of a building- Louis I. Kahn’
The light was another element that was very important to Kahn in his designs. He believed that any room should always and always have natural light. His works show little decoration other than the unfinished materials they are made of.
Four Freedoms Park was probably his most notable work. The briefcase he was carrying just before his death, had drawings for this park, which was a memorial to Franklin D Roosevelt. Almost four decades later those drawings led to Kahn’s last built work i.e. Four Freedoms Park.
Some of his other notable works are Yale University Art Gallery, the Salk Institute, the Kimbell Art Museum, and IIM Ahmedabad, India.