Louis Isadore Kahn (1901-1974), U.S. architect, educator, and philosopher, is one of the foremost twentieth-century architects. Louis I. Kahn evolved an original theoretical and formal language that revitalized modern architecture. His best known works, located in the United States, India, and Bangladesh, were produced in the last two decades of his life. They reveal an integration of structure, a reverence for materials and light, a devotion to archetypal geometry, and a profound concern for humanistic values.
Born in 1901 on the Baltic island of Osel, Louis Isadore Kahn’s family emigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1905, where Louis Isadore Kahn lived the rest of his life. Trained in the manner of the Ecole des Beaux Arts under Paul Philippe Cret, Louis Isadore Kahn graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts in 1924. Among his first professional experiences was the 1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exhibition. In the following years Louis Isadore Kahn worked in the offices of Philadelphia’s leading architects, Paul Cret (1929-1930) and Zantzinger, Borie and Medary (1930-1932). During the lean years of the 1930s, Louis Isadore Kahn was devoted to the study of modern architecture and housing in particular. Louis I. Kahn undertook housing studies for the Architectural Research Group (1932-1933), a short-lived organization Louis Isadore Kahn helped to establish, and for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.
In the later 1930s Louis I. Kahn served as a consultant to the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the United States Housing Authority. His familiarity with modern architecture was broadened when Kahn worked with European emigres Alfred Kastner and Oskar Stonorov. In the early 1940s Louis Isadore Kahn associated with Stonorov and George Howe, with whom Louis Isadore Kahn designed several wartime housing projects such as Carver Court in Coatesville, Pennsylvania (1941-1944) and Pennypack Woods in Philadelphia (1941-1943). His interest in public housing culminated in Philadelphia’s Mill Creek Housing project (1951-1963). From these experiences, Louis Isadore Kahn developed a deep sense of social responsibility reflected in his later philosophy of the “institutions” of man.
The year 1947 was a turning point in Louis Isadore Kahn ‘s career. Kahn established an independent practice and began a distinguished teaching career, first at Yale University as Chief Critic in Architectural Design and Professor of Architecture (1947-1957) and then at the University of Pennsylvania as Cret Professor of Architecture (1957-1974). During those years, his ideas about architecture and the city took shape. Eschewing the international style modernism that characterized his earlier work, Kahn sought to redefine the bases of architecture through a reexaminntion of structure, form, space, and light. Louis Isadore Kahn described his quest for meaningful form as a search for “beginnings,” a spiritual resource from which modern man could draw inspiration. The powerful and evocative forms of ancient brick and stone ruins in Italy, Greece, and Egypt where Louis I. Kahn traveled in 1950-1951 while serving as Resident Architect at the American Academy in Rome were an inspiration in his search for what is timeless and essential. The effects of this European odyssey, the honest display of structure, a desire to create a sense of place, and a vocabulary of abstract forms rooted in Platonic geometry resonate in his later masterpieces of brick and concrete, his preferred materials. Louis Isadore Kahn reintroduced geometric, axial plans, centralized spaces, and a sense of solid mural strength, reflective of his beaux-arts training and eschewed by modern architects.
Louis Isadore Kahn ‘s first mature work, the addition to the Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven. Connecticut. 1951-1953). indicates his interest in experimental structural systems. The floor slabs of poured-in-place concrete were inspired by tetrahedral space frames. The raw texture of the concrete reveals his belief that the method of construction should not be concealed. The hollow, pyramidal spaces in the ceiling, which accommodate lighting and mechanical systems, anticipate his later idea of “served and servant spaces” the hierarchical definition of a buildings functions. The expression of served and servant spaces is clearly enunciated in two later works, the Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania (1957-1965) and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (LaJolla, California, 1959-1965). In the design of the Richards Building. Louis Isadore Kahn gave form to a brilliant structural system devised with the engineer August E. Komendant, with whom Louis Isadore Kahn collaborated on numerous projects. The laboratories were constructed of precast, post-tensioned reinforced concrete, a system that permitted large flexible laboratory spaces. The servant spaces containing stairs and exhaust chimneys become monumental brick towers attached to the perimeter of the cellular laboratory spaces The towers form a silhouette complementing the chimneys and towers of the neighboring collegiate Gothic dormitories, and in an abstract guise they suggest the towers of medieval Italian towns that Louis Isadore Kahn admired. In the design of the Salk Institute. Louis Isadore Kahn gives further expression to servant spaces with a 9-ft-high mechanical floor sandwiched between laboratory floors Much more than the demonstration of service spaces, the Salk Institute is an example of Louis Isadore Kahn ‘s desire to give form to the institutions of man. In a spectacular setting overlooking the Pacific Ocean, two long laboratory wings flank a stonepaved plaza bisected by a narrow rill. In accord with the wishes of the patron and founder, Dr. Jonas Salk, Louis Isadore Kahn created an environment where the interdependency of scientific and humanistic disciplines could be realized.
While Louis Isadore Kahn exhibited a compelling concern for structure, Louis Isadore Kahn sought to infuse his buildings with the symbolic meaning of the institutions they housed. Composed of austere geometries, his spaces are intended to evoke an emotional, empathetic response. “Architecture,” Kahn said, “is the thoughtful making of spaces” (1). Beyond its functional role, Louis Isadore Kahn believed architecture must also evoke the feeling and symbolism of timeless human values. Louis I. Kahn attempted to explain the relationship between the rational and romantic dichotomy in his “form-design” thesis, a theory of composition articulated in 1959. In his personal philosophy, form is conceived as formless and unmeasur-able, a spiritual power common to all mankind. It transcends individual thoughts, feelings, and conventions.
Form characterizes the conceptual essence of one project from another, and thus it is the initial step in the creative process. Design, however, is measurable and takes into consideration the specific circumstances of the program. Practical and functional concerns are contained in design. The union of form and design is realized in the final product, and the building’s symbolic meaning is once again unmeasurable.
In his search for a formal vocabulary symbolic of man’s institutions, Louis Isadore Kahn consistently based his compositions on a centralized enclosed space surrounded by secondary spaces. Kahn created a cloistered, contemplative atmosphere within the walls. This is seen most clearly in the design of the Jewish Community Center Bath House (Trenton, New Jersey, 1954-1959), the First Unitarian Church (Rochester, New York, 1959-1969), Erdman Hall (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, 1960-1965), Phillips Exeter Academy Library (Exeter, New Hampshire, 1965-1972), and in one of Louis Isadore Kahn ‘s most monumental works, the National Capital of Bangladesh (Dacca, 1962-1983).
Kahn’s preference for the enclosed core is pervasive in his work, appearing at various scales. As a “hollow stone,” it was the basic structural element in the City Tower project (1952-1957), a triangulated space frame structure designed with Anne G. Tyng. At Dacca, the concrete diamond-shaped Parliament Building rises from the head of the capital complex. Its center contains the assembly hall, which is surrounded by secondary rooms. Using universal abstract geometry, Louis Isadore Kahn evoked an archaic, awe-inspiring past to symbolize the unity inherent in his understanding of the institution of assembly. On a much larger scale, Louis Isadore Kahn envisioned Philadelphia’s center city surrounded by a wall of parking towers that serves to defend the symbolic institutions in the pedestrian core from the encroaching automobile. By means of the central enclosed core, often integrated with the idea of served and servant spaces, Louis Isadore Kahn established a sense of order that synthesizes differentiated and specific spaces.
Integral to Kahn’s notion of timeless form in the making of significant architectural spaces is the role of natural light. Louis Isadore Kahn described structure as the giver of light. For several projects located in hot sunny climates, such as the U.S. Consulate in Luanda, Angola (1959-1962). the meeting houses of the Salk institute, the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmadabad, India, 1962-1974), and the National Capital at Dacca, Louis Isadore Kahn developed visually dynamic sunscreens. Great walls with variously shaped openings shield inner rooms from the harsh light. The evocation of a wall in ruins suggests an ancient part Louis Isadore Kahn ‘s handling of light is a central theme in two unrealized synagogue projects, Mikveh Israel (Philadelphia Pennsylvania, 1961-1972) and Hurva (Jerusalem Israel, 1967-1974) as well as in one of his greatest works the Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, Texas. 1966-1972). In the art museum, light enters through narrow slits in the concrete cycloid vaults and is diffused through the gallery interiors, which are rich with travertine and oak.
Several open courtyards also provide light, each containing different reflective surfaces such as foliage or water to convey a different quality of light Light is the central theme as well in one of Louis Isadore Kahn ‘s last philosophical concepts, “silence and light.” Silence represents the darkness of the beginning, and light symbolizes the source of life, the inspiration of the creative act.
The greatest honors were bestowed on Louis Isadore Kahn for his achievements in architecture and education. Among them Louis Isadore Kahn received the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects in 1971. After Kahn’s death his drawings and papers were purchased by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and placed in the custody of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. They have been given a permanent home at the University of Pennsylvania.
1. Louis Isadore Kahn, “Architecture is the Thoughtful Making of Spaces,” Perspecta 4, 2 (1957).
J. P. Brown. Louis I. Kahn. A Bibliography. Garland Publishing Inc., New York, 1987. The most complete bibliography pub-lished to date with references to Kahn’s writings and hundreds of secondary articles and books.
C. Chang, ed., “Louis I. Kahn: Silence and Light,” A+U 3, 5-222 (973),
R. Giurgola and J. Mehta, Louis I. Kahn, Westview Press, Boulder, Colo., 1975.
W. Jordy, “What the Building ‘Wants to Be’: Louis I. Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Penn-sylvania.” in American Buildings and Their Architects, Vol. 4. Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York, 1972.
The Louis I. Kahn Archive: Personal Drawings, 7 Vols,. Garland Publishing, Inc., New York, 1987, The publication of over 6000 drawings by Kahn contained in the Louis I. Kahn Collection University of Pennsylvania.
“Louis I. Kahn: Conception and Meaning.” A+U 11, Extra ed., 4-240(1983).
A. E. Komendant, 18 Years with Architect Louis I. Kahn, Aloray Publisher, Englewood, N. J. 1975. Account by the structural engineer for many of Kahn’s most important works and projects.
A Latour, ed., Louis I. Kahn, l’uomo, il maestro, Edizioni Kappa Rome, 1986. Interviews with people who knew Kahn.
J. Lobell, Between Silence and Light, Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boulder, Colo., 1979,
H. Ronner, S. Jhaveri, and A. Vasella, eds., Louis I. Kahn Complete Works 1935-1974, Westview Press, Boulder, Colo., 1977, The most complete publication of drawings, models, and photographs of buildings illustrating the design development of each project.
M. Sabini, ed., “Louis I. Kahn 1901/1971.” Rassegna 21. 4-88 (1985).
V. Scully. Jr.. Louis 1. Kahn. George Braziller, Inc., New York. 1962.
The Travel Sketches of Louis I. Kahn, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1978. Contains an excellent introductory essay by V. Scully.
A. Tyng, Beginnings: Louis I. Kahn’s Philosophy of Architecture, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1984.
R. S. Wurman, What Will Be Has Always Been. The Words of Louis I. Kahn, Access Press Ltd. and Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.. New York, 1986. Contains nearly all of Kahn’s published writings, transcriptions of his speeches and interviews, excerpts from his notebooks, and interviews with people who knew him.
R. S. Wurman and E. Feldman, eds.. The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn. Falcon Press, Philadelphia, 1962