Widely regarded as one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, Louis Kahn was born in Estonia but immigrated to the United States with his family when he was just a child. Kahn displayed an early gift of drawing, which led him to pursue architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania. During school, Kahn received Beaux Arts architectural training from famed professors and architects, such as Paul Philippe Cret.
True to Beaux Arts tradition, Kahn’s architectural training discouraged the use of excessive ornamentation in favor of restraint and integrity of form. Kahn would apply this principle throughout his career, becoming known for his unique style that combined the organic feel of modernism with the imposing weight and pared-back style of ancient buildings.
Though it wasn’t until after his death that Kahn gained the immense recognition he receives today, the architect still had a thriving career, founding his own atelier in 1935 before serving as a design critic and architecture professor at Yale School of Architecture between 1947 and 1957. Kahn went on to work as a professor at the School of Design at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, until his death in 1974.
Kahn became known for his highly original architectural voice that resulted in epically large structures with reverence for basic geometric form. He also veered away from the unconventional materials common among modernist structures, instead opting for more familiar, traditional materials like concrete and brick, resonating in many ways with the brutalist works of Le Corbusier. His monolithic, monumental buildings eventually won him some of the highest architectural honors one can receive, including the RIBA Gold Medal and AIA Gold Medal.
We highlight a few of Kahn’s most influential buildings below.
Yale University Art Gallery
Considered by many to be Kahn’s most significant commission, the Yale University Art Gallery, comprised largely of matte steel and reflective glass, was designed with an innovative tetrahedral ceiling that eliminated the need for ductwork. The building also diffused natural light through a series of skylights, allowing the upper-floor artwork to be viewed without artificial lighting. The skylights have since been covered up, much to the dismay of architectural purists.
Richards Medical Research Laboratories
Located on the University of Pennsylvania campus, the Richards Medical Research Laboratories are comprised of reinforced concrete in addition to brick shafts that hold stairwells and air ducts, reminiscent of ancient Italian towers that Kahn painted several years before he designed the labs. This design is thought to have helped shape modern architecture, with Emily Cooperman, the historic preservation specialist who drafted the document nominating the building as a National Historic Landmark, stating, “observers immediately understood [the buildings] to be a profound statement of American architectural style that provided a potent design alternative to international Modernism.”
Four Freedoms Park
Among his final designs before he died, Kahn collaborated with landscape architect Harriet Pattison to design Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, which serves to commemorate President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The park was designed as a triangular plain that forces one's perspective toward a statue of the former president created by Jo Davidson. Kahn died before construction began on the park, but his designs, which featured massive concrete and granite structures, were built in 2010 before the park opened to the public in 2012.
Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, Capital of Bangladesh
This government complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, was Kahn’s largest commission and, according to Robert McCarter, author of Louis I. Kahn, “it is one of the 20th century’s greatest architectural monuments, and is without question Kahn’s magnum opus.” Kahn designed the entire complex, which includes a lake, lawns, and residences, with an intentionally simple exterior that features massive walls recessed by deep porticoes and large geometric openings.
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