American Architect Louis Kahn: Enigma and Conflicted Genius

Photo of Helen Olley
13 January 2017

Once considered America’s ‘foremost living architect’, the reputation of Louis Kahn (1901-1974) has always hovered between celebrity and anonymity. Following in the tradition of Le Corbusier, Kahn’s architectural style emphasized the concerns of early 20th century modernism while reaching beyond them for something more timeless. But this hero of architecture was not always so appreciated. Here’s a look back on the life of Louis Kahn – architect, enigma and conflicted genius.

Image Courtesy of Design Museum London | Photographs by Luke Hayes

Born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky in what is now Estonia, his father took the family name Kahn after emigrating to the United States in 1906. Kahn was raised in Philadelphia where he received an excellent education, winning a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania to study architecture. Kahn’s childhood, however, was not without its problems. As a small boy he pulled a coal from the fire, setting his clothing on fire and causing lifelong facial scarring. Furthermore he developed scarlet fever, which only exacerbated the damage and meant that he began his education at home.

Image Courtesy of Design Museum London | Photographs by Luke Hayes

Even at this time Kahn showed remarkable artistic promise, producing charcoal drawings with burnt twigs that the family sold for small change. His poverty-stricken childhood would stay with him, however, both professionally and personally. He would later develop his convictions about the social responsibility of the artist while personally he accrued thousands of dollars’ worth of debt which meant that he died in penury, so that, despite an illustrious career, financially he never escaped from the poverty of his upbringing.

Image Courtesy of Design Museum London | Photographs by Luke Hayes

To separate the personal and the professional in this way, though, is perhaps misleading since his financial problems were entirely a result of his scattered and infrequent work. Kahn did not complete a building of major significance until he was already in his 50s, finding it difficult to secure work during the Depression years and feeling disadvantaged because of his Jewish background in an artistic field controlled by American Protestants. Kahn was also deeply convicted of his architectural philosophy; a building represented more than mere convenience, more even than aesthetic pleasure. Famously, Kahn would declare that bricks themselves demand to be something; they are in some sense destined, and the work of the architect is to discover that destiny, leading one reviewer in The Guardian to dub him ‘the brick whisperer’. Architecture, therefore, was expression through form. It was the opportunity to uncover the true shape of the object.

Image Courtesy of Design Museum London | Photographs by Luke Hayes

Kahn’s shapes are a return to simple geometrical figures, and as such extend far beyond the concerns of Modernist architecture. In addition to the influence of Le Corbusier, Kahn’s style was heavily directed by a tour on the Continent during which he visited the great sites of antiquity and found himself drawn to an architecture that would express a classical or timeless quality while continuing to use relatively modern materials. Interestingly, Kahn did not begin to use more industrial materials but remained true to the medium of brick and concrete. His buildings, therefore, become a coincidence of the past and the future, reaching backward to antiquity with the simple geometry of their shapes while the materials and structures have much in common with a bulky ‘futuristic’ style. Kahn aspired to the ruins of Greece and Rome while striving to create something recognizably modern and progressive. This curious contrast means that Kahn’s buildings have continued to influence future generations of architects because he is not limited to any single time period or style. Kahn’s own conception of his buildings is nowhere better illustrated than in his reference to them as ‘ruins in reverse’. He conceived of his work in the manner of a resurrection, raising from the ruins of antiquity an architectural form which would stretch both forward and backward in time, having elements of both the classical and the modern.

Image Courtesy of Design Museum London | Photographs by Luke Hayes.

His most ambitious projects came latest in his life. The National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh is perhaps the greatest example of Kahn’s architectural philosophy. Completed after his death, it is an imposing concrete structure with triangles and circles cut cleanly out of the masonry. The simplicity of Kahn’s lines is offset by the solidity of the structure, so that the building itself has an appealing classicism while appearing as a quintessentially modern, even futuristic, structure. Of course, Kahn aims not just for external effect. His architecture deliberately manipulates the light, causing it to fall in certain patterns at certain times through the windows, much like the Salk Institute in California, another of Kahn’s great unfinished projects, where two daunting concrete laboratory blocks rise either side of a linear fountain which runs directly toward the western horizon creating a window upon the Pacific Ocean and spectacularly framing the sunset. This has undoubtedly led to much focus upon the spiritual aspect of Kahn’s architecture; his manipulation of light and space aims at altering our aspect on things, causing us to see the more extraordinary in the ordinary materials of bricks and mortar.

Image Courtesy of Design Museum London | Photographs by Luke Hayes

While designing buildings of remarkable cohesion and simplicity, Kahn’s personal life seems to have been a series of fragments. In his professional life he strove to raise structures from the ruins, so that the distinct parts would cohere into a remarkable whole. Despite his visionary talent, however, Kahn was less able to unite the distinct pieces of his personal life. He supported three different families who all lived within a couple of miles of each other in Philadelphia. While this has been movingly explored by his son, Nathaniel Kahn, in the acclaimed 2003 documentary, My Architect, Kahn’s personal life had previously remained shrouded in mystery, a fact attested to by the many family members who are extremely surprised, even disbelieving, to discover that he even had a son. Nathaniel touchingly recalls the suddenness and infrequency of his father’s visits and his mother’s belief that on the day of his death Kahn had decided to leave his wife to come and live with them. The truth is that Kahn’s personal life was a tangled mess of intertwined lives that could not be resolved into the simple geometry of his buildings. There is nothing solid or foundational in his familial relationships to compare to the imposing architectural structures of his design.

After his death in 1974, despite being a much-lauded modern architect, Kahn’s body lay unclaimed in the city morgue for three days. His ignominious death in the men’s room at Penn Station, New York and the subsequent delay in informing his family is the unusual ending to an unusual talent. It is fitting that his influence should still be apparent all over the world, the handful of his completed buildings stretching from one continent to another. He died bankrupt, his abrasive and uncompromising reputation meaning that he lost some commissions to more affable but perhaps less talented architects. A new retrospective of his work, entitled The Power of Architecture, opened at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany last year and comes to the Design Museum in London this July. Kahn’s continuing relevance has been secured by an architectural style that aimed for monumentality in the manner of the Ancients. His legacy is one of contrasts, his professional perfectionism at odds with a personal life that was always fragmentary. This new exhibition finally attributes him the attention he deserves.

Image Courtesy of Design Museum London | Photographs by Luke Hayes

Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture is on display from 9 July to 12 October 2014 at Design Museum London

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