Louis Kahn (b. 1944)

Louis Kahn: Silence and Light (1995), dir. Michael Blackwood

Louis Kahn, in full Louis Isadore Kahn, also called Louis I. Kahn, (born February 20, 1901, Osel, Estonia, Russian Empire [now Saaremaa, Estonia]—died March 17, 1974, New York, New York, U.S.), American architect whose buildings, characterized by powerful, massive forms, made him one of the most discussed architects to emerge after World War II.

Kahn’s parents immigrated to the United States when he was a child. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 1924 and later toured Europe, studying and sketching architectural monuments. In 1941 he was in partnership with George Howe and from 1942 to 1944 with Howe and Oscar Stonorov.

Kahn designed private residences and worker housing in the 1930s and ’40s. He became a professor of architecture at Yale University in 1947. After a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome (1950), which deepened his appreciation of Mediterranean architecture, Kahn carried out his first important work: the Yale University Art Gallery (1952–54) at New Haven, Connecticut, which marked a notable departure from his International Style buildings of the previous decade.

In 1957 Kahn was named professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. His Richards Medical Research Building (1960–65) at the university is outstanding for its expression of the distinction between “servant” and “served” spaces. The servant spaces (stairwells, elevators, exhaust and intake vents, and pipes) are isolated in four towers, distinct from the served spaces (laboratories and offices). Laboratory buildings had been designed this way for decades; Kahn elevated this practical feature into an architectural principle. His mature style, best exemplified by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California (1959–65), and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (1977), combined the servant-served typology with inspiration from classical and medieval architecture, basic geometric forms, and an elegant, expressive use of such familiar materials as concrete and brick.

Kahn’s work, like that of Eero Saarinen, Frei Otto, and others who broke with the International Style, was controversial during his lifetime. However, his work was reviewed more favourably by a new generation of critics, who declared him one of the most original and important architects of the 20th century.