Vol. 5 Num 29 Fri. June 25, 2004  

Our architect -- Louis Isadore Kahn
What the rest of the world says
Bangladesh got from Kahn one of the most distinctive and memorable, and architecturally creative capitols in the world. It's a work that was outside of the mainstream of fashion in its time and, perhaps for that reason, it not going to be dated but seems timeless. Its future as an architectural monument is secure." ­ wrote a Kahn buff Paul Malo.

The Bangladesh High Court was perhaps equally convinced in delivering its judgement 21 June to protect the national heritage building.

"It's the play of positive and negative, the negative not being mere absence of solid (as in Corb's (Le Corbusier) work, which is mostly concerned with composition of solids) but with the voids becoming figural (i.e. having shape quality)," says another.

"Louis Kahn's Complex at Sher-e- Bangla Nagar, with the buildings in a setting of lakes, gardens, orchards, and parks, is perhaps the most modern vision of a 'Bengali' city. While the Parliament Building poses a monumental architectural presence, Kahn gave extensive thought to how grouping the various buildings in a setting of water and vegetation could evoke imagery from the Bengali landscape. One preponderant reflection for him was 'how the buildings are to take their place on the land'. Kahn wanted to heighten the idea that buildings also come together in a particular way in the delta, and that the age-old deltaic practice of 'dig-and-mound' could generate a modern interpretation of hydrological architecture."

"In 1973, the Bangladesh government offered Kahn an additional 2000 acres of land to the north of the Capital Complex, asking him to think of 'a community of houses, bazaar, recreational facilities, and civic buildings'. Kahn was intrigued by the low-lying flood-prone areas that were vulnerable to the dynamics of water, and imagined ways of inhabiting them. Kahn expressed his idea 'to develop a water architecture of bridges and crossovers which contain housing units and shops'. He also spoke of canals and means of irrigation during the dry season as well as being part of the architecture of the land in conjunction with buildings. Some preliminary sketches showed bridge-like structures rising above the water-level that could also act as platforms for new buildings responding to the variations of dry and monsoon seasons. While much of Kahn's Capital Complex was eventually built, his ideas for a city of 'water architecture' were, unfortunately, interrupted by his sudden death in 1974."

"Architect Louis Kahn discovered late in life how to transform the ruins of ancient Rome into modern buildings. His pursuit of an ideal geometric order was informed by a keen sense of history. Based on platonic shapes, his buildings, at once monumental and human in scale, marked the end of the International Style and opened the way for a revival of vernacular and classical traditions."

"Louis Kahn was the creative mind behind some of the most important buildings of the 20th century, including the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California; The Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; and the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, in Dhaka.

Monumental and full of mystery, his buildings are intensely powerful and spiritual, using natural light as the controlling principle of the design, and the character of the building changes throughout the day depending on the time, weather and season.

Kahn preferred simple materials brick and concrete but worked with them with astonishingly facility, creating spaces that are both highly functional and spiritually uplifting. For Kahn, the architecture became the search for truth and the buildings were living things.

The Bangladesh project is a wonderful story in that a Jewish architect is brought to a Muslim country, building a 20,000-square-foot masjid for the National Assembly."

"Louis I. Kahn was born on February 20 in 1901 in Saarama, Estonia, Russian Empire. Leopold Kahn, father of Louis, was Estonian and served as a paymaster in the Russian army. Kahn's mother, Bertha Mendelsohn, was a native of Riga, Latvia, a major Hanseatic city in its day. After Leopold's discharge from the army, the couple made their home on Ösel but Leopold, fearing recall into the army during the Russo-Japanese War, immigrated to the United States in 1904. Mrs.

Kahn and their three children (Louis was the oldest) followed in 1906, and the family settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where there were relatives nearby. On May 15, 1914, all were naturalized as American citizens."

"A true son of Philadelphia, which was to remain his home for his entire life, Louis Kahn attended the city's public schools and distinguished himself as an artist from an early age. During his last year in high school, he took a required course in architecture and determined to become an architect instead of an artist. Although he had been awarded a four-year merit scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, he chose instead to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he could study architecture. To finance his education, Kahn worked in architectural offices and in movie theatres, where he improvised on the keyboard to accompany silent films."

"Graduating in 1924, Kahn found employment as a draftsman in the offices of the City Architect of Philadelphia. After three years in that office, including one as Chief of Design for the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition 1925-1926, and a fourth year spent working for yet another architect he travelled for a year throughout Europe to finish his Beaux-Arts education."

"Kahn went to, or through, a large number of countries: England, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and France. In later years he told friends and family of visiting relatives on Saaremaa and in Riga.

Returning to Philadelphia in April 1929, he exhibited in the Pennsylvania Academy of Art the sketches he had made in Europe; took a position with his former professor, Paul Philippe Cret; and, feeling himself professionally established, married in 1930 Esther Virginia Israeli. However, after working on Cret's Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., Kahn left his teacher. This he did with regret as there were insufficient commissions to keep the staff employed. He next served two years as a designer for the large Philadelphia architectural firm of Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary."

"From 1933 to 1934, Kahn organized and directed the Architectural Research Group, largely made up of architects who were unemployed in those depression years. Now a modernist, he was also head of a team making housing studies for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission for two years, until the end of 1935. That year saw the establishment of his independent practice and a call to Washington to serve as assistant to principal architect Alfred Kastner for the Resettlement Administration where they worked on the Jersey Homesteads program."

"Next, in 1937, Kahn opened an office on Walnut Street in downtown Philadelphia; but a few years later, in 1941, he joined architect George Howe, a prominent 'traditional' architect turned modernist, who built the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building in 1931-32 with his then partner William Lescase. The PSFS, recognized as the first International Style skyscraper in the USA, set a precedent. When Kahn joined Howe, he moved to the Philadelphia Bulletin Building, which Howe had modernized in 1936. With war approaching, these architects sought government commissions and concentrated on wartime housing…"

"After World War II, Kahn served as vice president and then president of the American Society of Planners and Architects. Once again he established a private practice of his own. In 1947, he participated in thesis juries in architecture at Princeton. He was invited to become a visiting critic for advanced design at Yale University, where he subsequently became chief critic in architectural design. In 1949, Kahn served in the then new country of Israel as a planning consultant for emergency housing.


"From December 1950 through February 1951 he held an appointment as resident architect at the American Academy in Rome. From there he travelled with companions from the Academy throughout Italy, Egypt, and Greece, recording historic architecture in on-site drawings and sketches that were later exhibited in the Pennsylvania Academy of Art. This was a significant period in Kahn's life, as he reconciled his belief in modernism with his admiration for enduring buildings of the past."

"It was during the months in Rome that Kahn received his first major public commission: a new, modern extension to the venerable Yale University Art Gallery. In 1941, the University had accepted the Societé Anonyme collection of paintings, sculpture, and prints that was originally formed by Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp with other artists. This had expanded the range of the Gallery's works into modern art and called for further exhibition space. The building was well received by architects and critics in 1953 when it opened, and it marked a change in his career. No longer was he just a respected theorist and teacher of architecture, one who was associated primarily with planning and housing. He had creatively designed a widely admired building that was both successful and innovative. That same year, 1953, Kahn was made a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and two years later became professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

Eventually he was to hold a chair there that is named for his professor, Paul Philippe Cret."

"From the mid-1950s Kahn's international reputation was firmly established. In 1959 he addressed the CIAM Conference in Otterlo, the Netherlands, and the following year he attended the World Design Conference in Tokyo. In 1961, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted an exhibition devoted to a single building of his, the Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research Building designed for the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Initiated in 1957, the Richards Building had been dedicated in 1960, although the second stage, the Biology Building, took until 1965 to complete."

"Kahn was nearly sixty when Richards Medical Laboratory, his first project to be internationally celebrated, was built. Over the next fifteen years he produced a solid body of work that met with almost uniform critical acclaim, something true of none of his contemporaries," comments Michael J. Lewis.

"Kahn's work fused Beaux Arts, something he owed to his education at the University of Pennsylvania, with International Style. His prominent apprentices include architects Moshe Safdie and Robert Venturi. Louis Kahn's work infused 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'."

"Honours and awards, plus important national and international commissions, distinguished Kahn's later years. The Kimbell Art Museum was the last work completed under his personal supervision before his death on March 17, 1974 in New York on his way home from Dhaka and Ahmedabad."

"One of the century's most original architects, Kahn turned from the International Style to a timeless, elegant Brutalism evocative of ancient ruins. His Richards Medical Research Building isolated 'servant' spaces (stairwells, elevators, vents, and pipes) in four towers distinct from 'served' spaces (laboratories and offices). His fortress-like National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh (1962­74), utilized geometric shapes to admit light to its inner space."

"Like R. Buckminster Fuller, Kahn was concerned about wasteful use of natural resources; his urban-planning schemes proposed geodesic skyscrapers and huge car 'silos'. He taught at Yale University (1947­57) and the University of Pennsylvania (1957­74), where appreciation for his intellect gained him a cult status."

Kahn's important works include: 1. Yale University Art Gallery. New Haven, Connecticut (1951-53); the first significant commission of Louis Kahn and his first masterpiece, replete with technical innovations, like a floor slab system giving access to mechanical systems, and a somewhat 'brutalist' shock to Yale's neo-Gothic context.

2. Richards Medical Research Laboratories, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, (1957-1965), regarding which Kahn said, "No space you can devise can satisfy these requirements. I thought what they should have was a corner for thought, in a word, a studio instead of slices of space"

3. Jonas Salk Institute, La Jolla, California, (1959-1965), divided into work and contemplative spaces suffused with light and the ocean.

4. Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter, New Hampshire, (1965-1972)

5. National Assembly in Dhaka, Bangladesh (1962-1974), considered his masterpiece and one of the great monuments of International Modernism.

6. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, (1967-1972) 7. Yale University Centre for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, (1969-1974) "Kahn's architecture is notable for its simple, platonic forms and compositions. Kahn design of buildings, characterized by powerful, massive forms, made him one of the most discussed architects to emerge after World War II. Through the use of brick and poured-in place concrete masonry, he developed a contemporary and monumental architecture that maintained sympathy for the site. While rooted in the International Style, Kahn's architecture was a blend of his Beaux Arts education and a personal aesthetic impulse to develop his own architectural forms" "In the last decade of his life, before a fatal heart attack suffered in the men's room of Penn Station in 1974, Kahn focused increasingly on the landscape of the sites, sharing this interest with Harriet Pattison, who worked in his office, with whom he had an extramarital affair, and who bore him a son, Nathanial, born in 1962. Nathaniel was eleven years old when his father passed away."

"Kahn had three different families with three different women: his wife, Esther, Anne Tyng, a co-worker, and Harriet Pattison. His son with Pattison, Nathaniel Kahn, made an Oscar-nominated biographical documentary about Louis Kahn, entitled 'My Architect', which gives glimpses of the architecture while it focuses on talking heads. It includes interviews with renowned architect contemporaries such as Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, and Robert Stern, but also an insider's view of Kahn's unusual family arrangements."

"In this (Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban) building he arrived at a new and dynamic integration of formal and functional elements, ingeniously relating mechanical services to the total architecture. Kahn eschewed the seemingly weightless International Style glass boxes of his time and created bold, dignified, and sometimes brooding or harsh structures of massed stone and concrete."

"It (Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban) is now generally regarded as Kahn's crown jewel. After his death, work continued on the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven. This museum opened in 1977, after Architects Pellecchia and Meyers, both of whom had worked for Kahn, completed it. Likewise, work continued on the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India, under Anant Raje and Balkrishna Doshi, although the original complex was largely finished before Kahn died. Doshi, who once worked with Le Corbusier, was instrumental in bringing Louis Kahn to work in India. On the capitol of Bangladesh in Dhaka, which Kahn had designed in its entirety, his associates continued work on the Parliament Building until 1983. Finally, in the years 1976-77 the Wolfson Centre for Mechanical and Transportation Engineering in Tel Aviv, Israel, was built posthumously according to Kahn's design."

Source:,,,,, and 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.