Louis I. Kahn, Architect [1901-1974]
Louis Isadore Kahn [†] was born Leiser-Itze Schmuilowsky in Pernow, Russia (now Parnu, Estonia) on February 20, 1901. In June of that year, his father Leib Schmuilowsky (later Leopold Kahn) immigrated to America, and in 1906 the family joined him. Settling in Philadelphia's immigrant slum of Northern Liberties, they moved a dozen times during their first decade in America. His father was employed in a shirtwaist factory until a back injury limited his ability to work. His mother supported the family by making samples of knitted woolen clothing for local manufacturers. In 1915, the family became naturalized citizens and changed their surname from Schmuilowsky to Kahn.
Despite the fact that the family was poor, Louis was able to receive an exceptional education in Philadelphia's public school system. His education was strongly influenced by the Progressive Movement, a reform-minded community that championed public art education with special schools and programs in the fine and industrial arts. He enrolled in Central High School in 1916 and continued his art studies through free Saturday classes at the Graphic Sketch Club (later the Samuel Fleisher Art Memorial). In his senior year, Kahn was introduced to architecture by the school's professor of art history, William F. Gray. He described that he found himself "struck ... between the eye and the eyeball" by architecture and that it "combined my love and desire for artistic creation, painting, and being able to express and stand out. I was intensely dedicated."
In September 1920 Kahn entered the School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania, considered to be the finest architecture program in the country at the time. Here the curriculum was firmly rooted in classicism, which focused on design as a problem-solving art and not simply a matter of historical styles. He studied under the distinguished Ecole des Beaux-Arts trained architect Paul Phillipe Cret, obtaining his Bachelor of Architecture in 1924. Soon after graduating, he began work in the office of John Molitor, the City Architect of Philadelphia. As Chief of Design for the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition, he worked on designs for six buildings encompassing more than 1.5 million square feet. In 1927, Kahn worked for a year in the office of William H. Lee, a prolific cinema architect, and then in May 1928, departed Philadelphia on a year-long tour of Europe that allowed him to see and sketch what he saw, with special attention paid to the medieval and vernacular architecture of Rome. It was during this period of travel that he developed a special affection for Greek and Roman antiquity.
Upon his return to Philadelphia in 1929, Kahn secured employment in Cret's office, hired to work on The 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. While there he worked on the Folger Shakespeare library in Washington, D.C. as well as bridge designs for the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1930, he married Esther Isreali and in that same year was released from his job in Cret's office; the economic tumult of the Great Depression naturally affected the demand for new construction and architectural projects. Cret helped him secure a job at the office of Zantzinger, Borie & Medary, working on the design of the U.S. Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C. Upon completion of this project in 1932, Kahn was once again let go.
Kahn and Dominique Berninger formed the Architectural Research Group (ARG) in 1932 with a group of young, progressive-minded architects who would meet weekly and discuss current issues in modern architecture and design. This incubator for modern design was primarily focused on studying housing conditions in Philadelphia and making proposals for housing, slum clearance, and new construction methods. Kahn briefly returned to Cret's office in 1930 to work on the design for the 2601 Parkway Apartment building, his earliest known venture into housing design. From 1933-1935 he worked as the "Squad Head in Charge of Housing Studies" for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. In December 1935 he accepted a position under Alfred Kastner as assistant principal architect for the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C., to design the Jersey Homesteads project in Roosevelt, New Jersey. Completed in 1937, this project was included in the "Architecture in Government Housing" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York and was picked by influential architecture critic Lewis Mumford as "the most adventurous, the most stimulating" on exhibit. In 1939 his work was again exhibited at MOMA, this time his Rational City Plan was shown in the "Houses and Housing" section of the "Art in our Time" exhibition.
Kahn formed a partnership with George Howe in April 1941 to pursue war-related housing work, with Oskar Stonorov joining the partnership later that year. Carver Court Housing, a 100-unit housing project for steelworkers near Coatesville, Pennsylvania, was a significant work. This project gave Kahn public exposure as it was included in the "Built in the U.S.A., 1932-1944" exhibition at MOMA in 1944. Howe resigned in February 1943 and Kahn continued to work in a partnership with Stonorov on low-income housing projects, row houses, renovations, and camp dormitories. Together they designed seven workers' communities, with five of them being built, totaling two thousand units. In 1947 their partnership formally dissolved, and in 1951 Kahn continued working with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission through a series of Redevelopment Area Studies. Philadelphia's Mill Creek Public Housing was built in stages from 1950-1962 and allowed Kahn to showcase his ability as an architect of large projects.
Kahn's entry into academia came in 1947, with an appointment at the Yale School of Fine Arts. In 1949, his continuing alliance with George Howe led Kahn to recommend him for the position of chairman of the architecture department at Yale, a position Howe accepted in 1950. In this same year, Kahn was named Architect in Residence at the American Academy in Rome, through the recommendation of Howe. The three months that Kahn spent in Rome marked a turning point in his career, after which the direction of his work began to fundamentally change. He traveled to many buildings and sites in Italy, Greece and Egypt, drawing and sketching much of what he saw and taking away crucial lessons about light, form, mass, and monumentality that would influence all of his future work.
Upon his return to the U.S. in 1951, Kahn received the consequential commission for the Yale University Art Gallery. His design had the same Modernist elements of his previous work, but it was clear that his time in Rome had been influential, namely through the introduction of mass into the design in the form of a three-foot-thick system of concrete floor slabs. The exposed structure and hard lines of the Gallery marked a transitional period for Kahn and were a clear departure from the smooth volumes of orthodox Modernism. This building's monumentality not only represented a change in Kahn's design aesthetic, it also signaled a sea change in modern architecture.
In May 1955, he completed construction drawings for his pivotal Jewish Community Center (often referred to as the "Trenton Bath House") in Ewing Township, New Jersey. Kahn's first realization of his new order of conjoining room and structure are fully expressed in this design. The plan is in the form of a Greek cross and in the design he orders and differentiates the spaces, the functions of the structural elements, and the composition based on simple geometric volumes. These elements are first introduced here, and are employed in each subsequent building he designed. He stated, "The world discovered me after I designed the Richards Medical Building, but I discovered myself after designing that little concrete block bath house in Trenton."
Kahn resigned from his teaching position at Yale in 1955, following Howe's retirement, and returned to the University of Pennsylvania to teach in the School of Fine Arts. Here he became a central figure in a faculty that came to be known as the "Philadelphia School." This group of close colleagues included Robert Venturi, Romaldo Giurgola, Robert Geddes, Ian McHarg, and Robert LeRicolais. He taught the "Master's Studio," a one-year post-professional master's degree program which allowed students two semesters with Kahn. In addition to teaching at Yale and Penn, Kahn also taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University. In 1956, he was named the Alfred F. Bemis Professor of Architecture and Planning at M.I.T., and from 1961-1967, he was the Class of 1913 Visiting Lecturer at Princeton University. In addition to his academic positions, from 1960 until his death he lectured extensively through the North America, South America, Europe, and Japan.
In 1957, Kahn received the commission for the Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania, due in large part to the efforts of G. Holmes Perkins, Dean of the Architecture School. This project was a major turning point for Kahn, in that it defined his emergence on the international stage and was viewed as a directional shift in modern architecture through his articulation of "servant and served spaces." The building is laid out as a group of concrete laboratory towers and a central service tower, with peripheral brick shafts containing stairwells and air ducts. The building was a clear rejection of International Modernism and a 1959 Philadelphia Inquirer article stated, "that massive, raw-boned structure on University Avenue ... will suit the architecture of the campus in a way that no shimmering tube of glass and steel could." Progressive Architecture published an article on the building in June 1960 proclaiming "what may well prove to be one of the most significant buildings of the 20th Century has been dedicated at the University of Pennsylvania." In June 1961, MOMA put on a single-building exhibition of the Richards Medical Building, with curator Wilder Green pronouncing it, "probably the single most consequential building constructed in the United States since the [Second World] war." Influential art historian and professor Vincent Scully called it "one of the greatest buildings of modern times" while fellow architect Paul Rudolph labeled it "the most significant building of the decade."
† Kimber VanSant, University of Pennsylvania School of Design, Dr. Norman and Doris Fisher House, Hatboro, Montgomery County, PA, 2013, nomination document, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.