Louis Isadore Kahn (born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky) (February 20, 1901 or 1902 – March 17, 1974) was a world-renowned American architect of Estonian Jewish origin, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. After working in various capacities for several firms in Philadelphia, he founded his own atelier in 1935. While continuing his private practice, he served as a design critic and professor of architecture at Yale School of Architecture from 1947 to 1957. From 1957 until his death, he was a professor of architecture at the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. Influenced by ancient ruins, Kahn’s style tends to the monumental and monolithic; his heavy buildings do not hide their weight, their materials, or the way they are assembled. Louis Kahn’s works are considered as monumental beyond modernism.
Louis Kahn’s work infused the International style with a fastidious, highly personal taste, a poetry of light. His few projects reflect his deep personal involvement with each. Isamu Noguchi called him “a philosopher among architects.” He was known for his ability to create monumental architecture that responded to the human scale. He was also concerned with creating strong formal distinctions between served spaces and servant spaces. What he meant by servant spaces was not spaces for servants, but rather spaces that serve other spaces, such as stairwells, corridors, restrooms, or any other back-of-house function like storage space or mechanical rooms. His palette of materials tended toward heavily textured brick and bare concrete, the textures often reinforced by juxtaposition to highly refined surfaces such as travertine marble. While widely known for his spaces’ poetic sensibilities, Kahn also worked closely with engineers and contractors on his buildings. The results were often technically innovative and highly refined. In addition to the influence Kahn’s more well-known work has on contemporary architects (such as Muzharul Islam, Tadao Ando), some of his work (especially the unbuilt City Tower Project) became very influential among the high-tech architects of the late 20th century (such as Renzo Piano, who worked in Kahn’s office, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster). His prominent apprentices include Muzharul Islam, Moshe Safdie, Robert Venturi, Jack Diamond.
Many years after his death, Kahn continues to inspire controversy. Interest is growing in a plan to build a Kahn-designed Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. A New York Times editorial opined:
There’s a magic to the project. That the task is daunting makes it worthy of the man it honors, who guided the nation through the Depression, the New Deal and a world war. As for Mr. Kahn, he died in 1974, as he passed alone through New York’s Penn Station. In his briefcase were renderings of the memorial, his last completed plan.
The editorial describes Kahn’s plan as: …simple and elegant. Drawing inspiration from Roosevelt’s defense of the Four Freedoms – of speech and religion, and from want and fear – he designed an open ‘room and a garden’ at the bottom of the island. Trees on either side form a ‘V’ defining a green space, and leading to a two-walled stone room at the water’s edge that frames the United Nations and the rest of the skyline.
Critics note that the panoramic view of Manhattan and the UN are actually blocked by the walls of that room and by the trees. Other as-yet-unanswered critics have argued more broadly that not enough thought has been given to what visitors to the memorial would actually be able to do at the site. The proposed project is opposed by a majority of island residents who were surveyed by the Trust for Public Land, a national land conservation group currently working extensively on the island.
The movement for the memorial, which was conceived by Kahn’s firm almost 35 years ago, needed to raise $40 million by the end of 2007; as of July 20, it had collected $5.1 million. There is a merest hint in Architectural Record about the often-heard argument that it must be built because it was literally Kahn’s last project; and this is rebutted by those who’ve said the plans aren’t enough like Kahn’s other work for it to be touted as a memorial to Kahn as well as FDR.
My Architect: A Son’s Journey is a 2003 documentary film about the American architect Louis Kahn. Kahn led an extraordinary career and left three families behind when he died of a heart attack in a Penn Station bathroom. One of his most memorable quotes is “When I went to high school, I had a teacher in the arts, who was head of the department of Central High, William Grey, and he gave me a course in Architecture, the only course in the high school I am sure, in Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Egyptian, and Gothic Architecture, and at that point two of my colleagues and I realized that only Architecture was to be my life, and how accidental our existences are, really, and how full of influence by circumstance.” Louis I. Kahn, quote from the documentary film “My Architect, A Son’s Journey” a film by his son Nathaniel Kahn. Louis Kahn’s illegitimate son Nathaniel Kahn, and features interviews made the film with many giants of modern architecture, including Muzharul Islam, I.M. Pei, Anne Tyng and Philip Johnson. Throughout the film, Kahn visits all of his father’s buildings including Yale Center for British Art, Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban and the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad.