Biography Projects Biographical References Related Architects Images printer-friendly version  
Kahn in Kathmandu, 1972
Kahn in Kathmandu, 1972
> View more images [62 total]

Born: 2/20/1901, Died: 3/17/1974

One of the most influential architects of the second half of the twentieth century throughout the world, Louis I. Kahn's life was firmly rooted in Philadelphia, just as his enduring legacy as a teacher and practitioner has continued to affect the architectural community in the region into the twenty-first century.

Louis Isadore Kahn was born Leiser-Itze Schmuilowsky in Pärnu, Estonia, the son of Beila-Rebecka Mendelowitsch and Leib Schmuilowsky. In his adult life, Kahn mistakenly recalled his birthplace as the island of Ösel (now called Saarema), perhaps because the young family lived there for a time in the town of Kuressaare (then called Kingisepp). Kahn's father emigrated to Philadelphia in 1904, followed by the rest of the young family in 1906. "Schmuilowsky" was exchanged for "Kahn" in 1912.

Like a number of his contemporaries, Kahn first studied architecture at Philadelphia's Central High School, where he was a classmate of his life-long friend Norman N. Rice, and went on to the architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania. Kahn earned a B. Arch. in 1924, winning a bronze medal in the Arthur Spayd Brooke Memorial Prize his senior year, with Paul P. Cret as his studio critic. While still a student, Kahn was employed in offices in the city as a draftsman during the summer, including Hoffman-Henon Co., for whom he worked in 1921, and Hewitt & Ash, where he was employed the following year.

After graduation, Kahn entered the office of City Architect John Molitor as a senior draftsman (among these was also Rice) working on the design of the 1926 Sesquicentennial buildings. Kahn held the title of "chief of design" for the project, supervising a team of draftsmen. W. J. Sutphen was the chief designer for the firm. Kahn left Molitor's office not long after the completion of the exposition buildings, joining the practice of theater designer William H. Lee in 1927. In 1928, Kahn left for Europe to see the architecture he had studied from afar and to hone his skills as a renderer. He traveled through northern Europe and Italy, visiting Norman Rice in Paris, but did not express particular interest at the time in the work of Rice's employer Le Corbusier.

Kahn returned to Philadelphia in April 1929. His widow Esther, née Israeli, later recalled that he had made plans before his departure to establish a partnership with another architect who died before Kahn's return to the city. She remembered this architect to be Sydney C. Jelinek, another Central High School, University of Pennsylvania, and William H. Lee office alumnus, who did not die, however, until 1979. For whatever reason, Kahn did not establish a partnership upon his return, and instead found work in Cret's office as a designer, participating in the Folger Shakespeare Library project, among others. Seemingly gainfully employed, Kahn married in 1930. Cret was unable to continue to keep Kahn in his office, but helped him to find a position as a designer with Zantzinger, Borie & Medary at the end of that year. He remained in that office until early 1932, participating in the U. S. Department of Justice Building project in Washington, D.C.

In early 1932, Kahn and Dominique Berninger formed an important incubator for modern architecture in Philadelphia, the Architectural Research Group. The members of this loose association of progressive-minded young architects were interested in both the populist social preoccupations and new style details of contemporary European designers. Among their projects were unbuilt schemes for public housing presented to the Public Works Administration. One of the other ARG members may have been Solis Kopelan, with whom Kahn formed what was probably his first true partnership by 1933. Esther Kahn later recounted to historian David B. Brownlee that Kahn & Kopelan was established to pursue commercial work, and that it endured into the late 1930s with a modest amount of success.

While the ARG dissolved at the end of 1933, progressive "group housing" would remain at the core of Kahn's work into the 1950s. These projects were accomplished in association with a number of other Philadelphia architects, including Kenneth M. Day. After the dissolution of the ARG, Kahn found work with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission as a squad head working on housing studies; he then was employed in the federal government's Resettlement Administration, and was a consultant to the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Among the most important of Kahn's alliances was with George Howe. Kahn probably first worked directly with Howe in connection with projects for the Philadelphia Housing Authority in the late 1930s; in 1940 Howe invited Kahn to form a partnership to pursue projects. This association was short-lived, but Howe would remain a key figure in Kahn's career at several later points. Kahn's 1940s working partnership with Oskar Stonorov survived longer. In 1945, Kahn began his working collaboration and personal relationship with Anne G. Tyng, with whom he would design several projects.

Kahn's influential teaching career began with an appointment at Yale in 1947. In 1950, he was named architect in residence at the American Academy in Rome, and spent a pivotal nine months traveling in Europe, gleaning essential lessons about monumentality, light, and form from ancient buildings and sites. Upon his return, he received a crucial commission for the Yale Art Gallery, in part through the influence of Howe, who had accepted a position as dean there in 1950. In 1955, Kahn returned to the University of Pennsylvania as a teacher and as the designer of the Alfred Newtown Richards Medical Laboratories, which was soon recognized by contemporaries as a landmark modern statement that broke from International Style notions of universal space and prismatic steel and glass volumes. This "other modernism" would soon be heralded as the Philadelphia School with Kahn declared its leader.

Kahn was named the Paul Cret Professor of Architecture in 1966, and would teach a master's studio at Penn with Norman Rice and G. Robert Le Ricolais (and, early on, August E. Komendant as well), until his death. Engineers Le Ricolais and Komendant were also collaborators in Kahn's work. At Penn, Kahn became more than an influential teacher. He was something like a philosopher in residence, a charismatic thinker who inculcated the core elements of his mature work -- a reverence for materials, light, and humanistic values, and an almost religious belief in elemental geometric solids.

The 1960s saw Kahn's practice expand dramatically, with projects in the United States and abroad, including the Indian Institute of Management and the national capital of Bangladesh, completed after his death. In the period between the Richards Labs project and the end of his life, Kahn's well-known projects in the United States included the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, CA, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, TX, and the Library at the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH, and the Yale Center for British Art. Landscape design was a key aspect of his mature work, and his collaborator was often Harriett Pattison. After Kahn's sudden death in 1974, his projects were completed by David Wisdom & Associates and by the firm of Pellechia & Meyers. David Wisdom had worked with Kahn since the days of the Architectural Research Group, and both Anthony Pellechia and Marshall D. Meyers had been project architects for works by Kahn's office.

Kahn joined the national AIA in 1935, and was made a fellow of the Institute in 1951. He was a member of the Philadelphia Chapter and served as a director in 1950 and 1952. Kahn was the recipient of numerous awards and honors. Among these, he was named a fellow of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1962, and made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964, having been awarded the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize in 1960. In 1973, this organization awarded Kahn its Gold Medal for Architecture. He was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Science in 1968. He was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London in 1970, and awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Arts in 1972. In addition to his teaching at Yale and Penn, Kahn was the Albert F. Bemis Professor of Architecture and Planning at M.I.T. in 1962, and the Class of 1913 Visiting Lecturer at Princeton University from 1961 to 1967. Many educational institutions bestowed honorary degrees upon him as well, including the University of North Carolina, Bard College, the Maryland Institute College of Art, Yale University, and Columbia University (posthumous).

Written by Emily T. Cooperman.

Clubs and Membership Organizations

  • American Institute of Architects (AIA)
  • Philadelphia Chapter, AIA
  • Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)
  • Royal Society of Arts

School Affiliations

  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Columbia University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Princeton University
  • Central High School
  • Yale University


Philadelphia Architects and Buildings | About | Participating Institutions | Feedback | Search | Login
Website and System: Copyright © 2024 by The Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
Data and Images: Copyright © 2024 by various contributing institutions. Used by permission.
All rights reserved.