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LOUIS I. KAHN
 
 
 
 
  Name   Louis Isadore Kahn (born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky)
       
  Born   March 5, [O.S. February 20] 1901
       
  Died   March 17, 1974
       
  Nationality   USA
       
  School   BRUTALISM; CLASSICISM
       
  Official website    
     
 
BIOGRAPHY        


 

The works of Louis I. Kahn were among the greatest influences
on world architecture during the second half of the 20th century.
Trained in the classical tradition of the Beaux-Arts by Paul Phi-
lipe Cret at the University of Pennsylvania, Kahn nevertheless
embraced the Modern movement in his early practice experience
with various housing authorities and in partnership with Oscar
Stonorov and George Howe. Kahn was slow in developing as
an architect, and the works of the first 50 years of his life, mostly
derived ftom International Style precedents, did not receive sig-
nificant notice.

Yet by World War II, Kahn had begun to question the capac-
ity of the International Style to embody contemporary cultural
meanings and social institutions. In 1944, Kahn published an
essay wherein he defined monumentality in architecture as a
spiritual quality conveying a sense of eternity, of timelessness,
and of unchanging perfection. He felt that modern society had
failed to give full architectural expression to the institutions of
human community, and he pointed to the great monuments
of the past, which, although not possible to literally duplicate,
embodied the qualities by which all new buildings should be
measured. Finally, he indicated the critically important part
played by structural perfection and material character in the
creation of historical monumental form, calling for a reexamina-
tion of contemporary norms of construction. Although he had
yet to find their appropriate expression in his architectural de-

signs, Kahn had established what would be the key themes of
His creer!

Kahn first gained notice not as an architect but as a professor
of design at Yale University, starting in 1947. His inspired teach-
ing led to his appointment in 1950 as the architect-in-residence
at the American Academy in Rome. Kahn spent much of this
time traveling in Italy, Greece, and Egypt, and this period of
historical rediscovery would prove to be pivotal in his develop-
ment as the most important modern architect of his time. The
eternal quality of heavy construction and the spaces shaped by
massive masonry made a lasting impression on Kahn, Although
the building he had completed just prior to leaving for Rome
was of steel construction, after this year abroad Kahn never again
made use of lightweight steel structures, building only with rein-
forced concrete and masonry.

On his return from Rome, Kahn was commissioned to design
the Yale University Art Gallery (1951-53) in New Haven, Con-
necticut. The first modern building on the Yale campus, its
primary street facade was a massive brick wall marked only by
concrete stringcourses at the floor lines. The plan was divided
into three primary spaces: two column-free galleries flanking a
central service zone where the main stairs, triangular in plan,
were housed in a reinforced-concrete cylinder that rose through
the four floors to a clerestory light at its top. Kahn’s floor struc-
ture was likely inspired by the geodesic domes of Buckminster
Fuller, yet the triangular grid of poured-in-place concrete, ex-
posed in the ceilings below, was a powerful and heavy presence
quite unlike the lightness idealized by Fuller. Incorporating the
mechanical and lighting services within their dark pyramidal
depths, Kahn’s floor structure was also the exact opposite of
the structurally and spatially neutral slab heretofore typical of
International Style buildings.

The Bath House for the Trenton Jewish Community Center
(1954-58) was the project where, as he said, Kahn found himself
as an architect. Four pavilions formed a cruciform plan with a
court in the center, open to the sky, each pavilion composed of
four concrete-block U-shaped hollow piers at the corners, on
which sat a pyramidal roof of wood that floated above the heavy
earthbound masonry walls enclosing the open-air spaces. For
contemporary architects, the Bath House was a revelation—at
‘once modern, built of the most typical of materials, and ancient,
a place where earth and sky meet, signified by the unfinished
stone circle in its central court.

Although the larger Community Center was never built, the
grid of individually roofed volumes was the first design in which

Kahn made each space within the complex program into a sepa-
rate building with its own structure and light. In direct opposi-
tion to the undifferentiated free-plan space-in-extension typical
of International Style modernism, Kahn now conceived of each
function as requiring its own room-as-place, and the plan was
now to be understood as “a society of rooms,” their spatial rela-
tionship articulating their collective purpose.

In 1957, Kahn was appointed to teach at the University of
Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and he began a long and produc-
tive association with two remarkable engineers at the university,
Robert Le Ricolais, a visionary poet of structure, and at the
office, August Komendant, an expert on concrete construction.
At this time, he also received the commission for the A. N.
Richards Medical Research Building (1955-64) at the Univer-
sity of Pennsylvania and was able to fully develop his concepts
of expressive construction and articulate function. Each of the
five laboratory towers, a square in plan, was constructed with
an elegant precast-concrete cantilevered structure, the columns
placed at third points and the structurally independent, load-
bearing masonry service shafts located at the midpoints of each
side. Exemplifying Kahn’s distinction between the “served
spaces” (primary function) and the “servant spaces” (services),
the floors of each tower were entirely free of structure or services.
In what Kahn held to be an ethical imperative, the materials of
construction were left exposed, showing how the building was
made and becoming the only ornament appropriate to modern
building.

The Tribune Review Publishing Company Building (1955—
61) in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, was Kahn’s first design to dem-
onstrate his emerging understanding of the relationship between

structure and light. The main space was spanned by precast-
concrete beams, bearing on brick piers, and on the east and west
elevations Kahn revealed the concrete-block walls between these
piers to be non—load-bearing by placing glazing between the
tops of the walls and the roof structure above, within the depth
of the beams. Under these horizontal windows, the in-fill walls
were split at their centers by tall, narrow windows, and together
these windows produced a T-shaped opening, large at the top
to bring in maximum light and narrow at eye level to allow
views but to minimize glare.

The First Unitarian Church (1959-69) in Rochester, New
York, is directly related to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple
of 1905, indicative of the important influence of Wright's early
work on Kahn. Like Wright’s design, Kahn’s sanctuary is a cen-
tral, top-lit space enclosed by solid walls, offering no eye-level
views out and accessed by a surrounding ambulatory. Yet in the
relation of the school to the sanctuary, Kahn took a different
approach, ringing the sanctuary with the classrooms. The walls
of the sanctuary are made of nonbearing concrete block, the
hollow spaces within allowing the return of ventilation air. The
roof of the sanctuary is a gently folded plane of cast concrete,
lifting to clerestory lights at the corners to form a huge cross
shape overhead, and is supported at its center points by columns
that stand in each of four doorways from the surrounding ambu-
latory. The classrooms, also entered from the ambulatory, form
a thick protective layer around the sanctuary, their brick exterior
walls folded to produce a deeply shadowed edge into which large
windows are recessed and small window seats projected.

This concept of surrounding primary spaces with shadow-
giving walls, which Kahn described as “wrapping ruins around

buildings,” emerged fully developed in his design for the Salk
Institute (1959-65) in La Jolla, California. This is unquestiona-
bly Kahn’s greatest design, yet its most important component,
the Meeting House, remained unbuilt. The Meeting House plan
was also Kahn’s first fully developed “society of spaces” plan, a
series of independent-room buildings, each with its own geome-
try and structure, surrounding a central cubic hall. The outer
range of rooms facing the ocean assumed the form of hollow
cylindrical concrete shells wrapped around and shading cubic
glazed rooms within (and vice versa), giving the whole an unpar-
alleled monumentality.

‘The Salk Institute Laboratories, which were realized, consist
of column-free laboratory floors alternating with service floors
containing the reinforced-concrete truss structure, the whole
constructed of meticulously detailed cast-in-place concrete. Be-
tween the two laboratory buildings, where the scientists’ wood-
clad studies were placed in towers, Kahn envisioned a garden
‘but was convinced by Luis Barragin to make instead a paved
plaza, open to the sky and the ocean. Today this plaza, without
any formal program of use, remains one of the most powerful
and deeply moving spaces ever built.

The Indian Institute of Management (1962-74) in
Ahmedabad, India, and the capital of Bangladesh (1962-74) in
Dhaka were Kahn's greatest built examples of his “plan as a
society of rooms” concept. In both buildings, the secondary
spaces, such as corridors, arcades, stair landings, and vestibules,
became as important to the overall experience of the building
as the primary spaces of program. Kahn understood that learning
and decision making happen not only in the classroom and
assembly hall but in the passageways, cafes, and courtyards as

well. As Kahn said, he acted as the philosopher for his clients,
interpreting their program of uses in ways both culturally reso-
nant and socially suggestive.

The Exeter Academy Library (1965-72) in Exeter, New
Hampshire, was Kahn’s most subtle and yet revolutionary work
in that he turned the traditional program of library (central
reading room surrounded by book stacks) inside out. The design
again involved a building-within-a-building, this time a brick
load-bearing outer shell, containing the reading spaces, sur-
rounding the inner reinforced-concrete book stacks. In this way,
as Kahn said, one could take the book from the protective dark-
ness of the inner stacks to the natural light of the outer reading
rooms. At the center of the building, Kahn placed the entry hall,
a space that went from ground to sky, with giant circular con-
crete openings revealing the books, celebrating the purpose of
the building.

The Kimbell Art Museum (1966-72) in Fort Worth, Texas,
is rightly considered Kahn’s greatest built work. The space was
composed of a series of concrete vaulted roof forms, each span-
ning 100 feet, split at their center to allow light to flow in,
bouncing off aluminum deflectors to spray the underside of the
vaults with an ethereal silver light. Without question Kahn’s
most beautiful space, the Kimbell was also the most rigorously
resolved example of Kahn’s concept of the relation between light

and structure, the interior spaces receiving natural light in ways
that precisely articulated the structural elements. Finally, the
Kimbell was Kahn’s most elegant built example of landscape
planning, its entry sequence taking us past sunken sculpture
gardens, under a vaulted loggia, past sheets of cascading water,
through a gravel-floored courtyard filled with a grid of trees,
and then quietly into the very heart of the gallery itself.

Many of Kahn’s greatest designs were never built, including
the Salk Institute Meeting House (1959), the U.S. Angolan Em-
bassy (1959), the Mikveh Israel Synagogue (1961), the Domini-
can Motherhouse (1965), the Memorial to the Six Million Jew-
ish Martyrs (1966), the Palazzo dei Congressi (1968), and the
sublime Hurva Synagogue (1967) in Jerusalem—a group of
works that, considered alone, would constitute one of the most
significant contributions to 20th-century architecture. Yet even
without realizing these astonishing designs, Kahn’s importance
to the development of modern architecture in the second half
of the 20th century cannot be overestimated.

Kahn’s work redefined modern architecture in two primary
ways. First, by reestablishing the relevance of historical architec-
ture for the design of contemporary buildings, Kahn’s work was
crucial to the emergence of both the American Postmodern and
the European neorational critiques of International Style mod-
ernism. Second, by reestablishing the primacy of the art of con-

struction in the design of contemporary buildings, Kahn was
critical to the emergence of a “tectonic” interpretation of archi-
tectural history and practice. By midcentury, Kahn was one of
many who felt that modern architecture had lost its direction
and sense of purpose. Yet Kahn stands virtually alone in having
opened a way out of this impasse, a way he achieved by recon-
necting construction to its ethical imperatives and space making
to its ancient origins.

Roserr McCarter

 
 
 
 
 
TIMELINE
    Born on Osel Island, Russia (now Saaremaa Island, Estonia), 20
February 1901; immigrated to the United States 1906; natural-
ized 1915, Educated at Central High School and the Pennsylva-
nia Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia 1912-20; member of
the Graphic Sketch Club, Fleisher Memorial Are School, and
student at the Public Industrial Art School, Philadelphia 1916—
20; Studied at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia,
under Paul Cret 1920-24; bachelor’s degree in architecture
1924; studied and traveled in Europe 1928-29. Married Esther
Virginia Isracli 1930: one child. Draftsman, the firm of Hofman
and Henan, Philadelphia 1921; draftsman, the office of Hewitt
and Ash, Philadelphia 1922; senior draftsman, City Architects’
Department, Philadelphia 1924-27; chief of design, Sesquicen-
tennial Exhibition, Philadelphia 1925-26; designer, office of
Paul Cret, Philadelphia 1929-30; designer, the firm of Zant-
ziger, Borie, and Medary, Philadelphia 1930-32; squad head in
charge of housing studies, City Planning Commission, WPA
(Works Progress Administration), Philadelphia 1933-35; associ-
ate principal architect, office of Alfred Kastner and Partner, Phil-
adelphia 1935-37. Private practice, Philadelphia from 19373
consultant architect, Philadelphia Housing Authority 1937;
consultant architect, United States Housing Authority 1938;
associated with George Howe 1941-42; associated with Howe
and Oscar Stonorov 1942-43; associated with Stonorov 1943~
48; consultant architect, Philadelphia City Planning Commis-
sion 1946-52 and 1961-62; consultant architect, Philadelphia
Redevelopment Authority 1951-54. Teaching assistant, Univer-
sity of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia 1923-24; critic in architec-
tural design and professor of architecture; Yale University, New
Haven, Connecticut 1947-50, chief critic in design, 1950-57;
resident architect, American Academy, Rome 1950-51; Albert
Farnwell Bemis Professor, School of Architecture and Planning,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge 1956; pro-
fessor of architecture, 1957—66, Paul Cret Professor, 1966-71,
emeritus professor, 1971-74, University of Pennsylvania, Phila-
delphia. Organizer and director, Architectural Research Group,
Philadelphia 1932-33; fellow, American Institute of Architects
1953; member, National Institute of Arts and Letters 1964;
honorary member, Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts 1966;
member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1968; fellow,
Royal Society of Arts, London 1970; member, American Acad-
emy of Arts and Letters 1973; honorary member, College of
Architects of Peru. Centennial Gold Medal, American Institute
of Architects, Philadelphia Chapter 1969; Gold Medal of
Honor, American Institute of Architects, New York Chapter
1970; Gold Medal, American Institute of Architects 1971; Royal
Gold Medal, Royal Institute of British Architects 1972. Died
in New York, 17 March 1974.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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