• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

He’s the Top

The Paintings and Sketches of Louis I. Kahn

by Jan Hochstim, Introduction by Vincent Scully
Rizzoli, 340 pp., $85.00

Louis I. Kahn: Writings, Lectures, Interviews

edited and with an introduction by Alessandra Latour
Rizzoli, 352 pp., $35.00 (paper)

Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture 1991–January 5, 1992), Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (March 5–May 4, 1992), the Museum of Modern Art, New York (June 14–August 18, 1992), the Museum of Modern Art, Gunma, Japan (September 26–November 3, 1992),

an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture

catalog of the exhibition by David B. Brownlee, by David G. De Long
Rizzoli, 448 pp., $40.00 (paper)

The Art Museums of Louis I. Kahn University Museum of Art by

catalog of an exhibition at the Duke Patricia Cummings Loud, foreword by Michael P. Mezzatesta
Duke University Press/Duke University Museum of Art, 303 pp., $30.00 (paper)


The great misfortune of Louis Kahn’s long-thwarted but ultimately triumphant career was in his being born in 1901, a poor year for modern architects. Too young during the first flood of modernism after World War I, Kahn was out of phase with cycles of economics and politics that largely determine when, what, how, and how much an architect builds. This leviathan was often marooned by circumstances that destroyed lesser figures, as poverty in the 1930s and war in the 1940s took their toll on his contemporaries. Thus one of the wonders of Louis Kahn’s professional life is that this most slowly developing of modern masters was able to persevere against immense odds and to be considered—after a mature phase of just twenty years, from the early Fifties to the early Seventies—by most historians as the leading mid-century American architect.

Only Frank Lloyd Wright made as great a challenge to business-as-usual in the twentieth-century architecture of this country. Philip Johnson, an acute judge of other architects’ talents, once cunningly called Wright “the greatest architect of the nineteenth century.” Similarly, Johnson has justified his friendships with much younger colleagues by claiming that the architects of his own generation—including the Rockefeller courtier Wallace Harrison and the corporate favorite Gordon Bunshaft—held little interest for him. But Johnson conveniently forgot his towering contemporary Louis Kahn, whose brave quest, amid the institutional platitudes of postwar American modernism, for an architecture that would have a deeper meaning served as a strong reproach to the clever careerism and accommodating strategies of Johnson and his peers.

Born in Estonia in the first year of this century, Kahn was a full generation younger than the International Style architects of the first wave, including the two greatest, Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Kahn possessed neither the inventiveness of Le Corbusier nor the elegance of Mies. Architecture—both its conception and its execution—always remained a struggle for Kahn. He lacked extensive practical experience until well into middle age and never mastered the appearance of effortlessness that many creators use to conceal their labors, just as his inability to mask his personal awkwardness made potential clients believe they were dealing with an unreliable eccentric.

For the two decades of his life before his death in 1974, Kahn was unusually dependent on the advice of his chief consultant, the structural engineer August E. Komendant, who helped to compensate for Kahn’s lack of technical expertise. Kahn himself made up for this deficiency with his extraordinary persistence (misinterpreted by impatient clients as dilatoriness). His tenacity can still be felt in the obdurate strength he gave to his best designs.

Kahn’s peak achievements include this century’s most successful art gallery, the Kimbell Art Museum of 1966–1972 in Fort Worth, as well as the most inspiring capitol building, the National Assembly Building of 1962–1983 in Dacca. They stand with Le Corbusier’s and Mies’s finest works as monuments to the belief that modern architecture could attain a presence commensurate with that of the noblest architecture of the past. Although those architects differed tremendously from one another in the ways in which they achieved that presence, they were alike in sharing an unshakable conviction that building meaningfully for one’s own time (and for posterity) could be done not by imitation, but only through transforming architecture to adapt to the needs—spiritual as much as functional—of the modern age.

In the Kimbell Museum, for example, Kahn takes the barrel-shaped roof of Roman architecture but plays with it in a way that would have been inconceivable to the ancients (see illustration on page 18). The Kimbell’s vaulted ceilings are not structurally functional: each vault is bisected longitudinally by a skylight slit, and the arching forms are actually composed of two noncontinuous segments (a structural method devised for Kahn by Komendant). Too innovative for traditional classicists and too mannerist for orthodox modernists, this unconventional solution epitomizes Kahn’s determination to use modern technology in the service of feeling as well as function, and of emotion as well as efficiency.

While Le Corbusier and Mies were bringing their first revolutionary schemes to fruition in the early 1920s, Kahn (whose parents had brought him from Estonia to Philadelphia at the age of five) was being taught the precepts of Beaux-Arts classicism in the University of Pennsylvania by the influential architect Paul Philippe Cret, designer of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Le Corbusier and Mies were likewise conversant with the language of classical architecture, but their schooling and apprenticeships put more emphasis on crafts than on the historical forms that were central to Kahn’s training. Yet Kahn eventually became enough of an individualist to see past the superficial characteristics of the classical style. He sought instead what he thought was the essence of the archaic spirit of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, which he felt was missing in both contemporary traditional and mainstream modern architecture.

Upon receiving his degree from Penn in 1924 (a year after Le Corbusier published his Vers une architecture), Kahn went to work for the architect of Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial International Exposition of 1926, a now-forgotten world’s fair that was a late (and rather poor) example of historical eclecticism. Kahn became chief of design for the Sesquicentennial, but only three years afterward the Great Depression brought an end to most construction. Few architectural commissions were available in America during most of the 1930s, and of those many were sponsored by the New Deal. Kahn was lucky to get some work through these government-subsidized programs (including houses and a factory for the Jersey Homesteads of 1935–1937 in Roosevelt, New Jersey, built by the Resettlement Administration), but for much of that decade he was unemployed.

World War II imposed another hiatus, during which building materials essential to the war effort were controlled and civilian commissions were scarce. By the time full-scale building activity resumed in the United States in 1947, Kahn had helped to design housing projects for defense workers but he still had not executed an important building. In the fall of that year he at last reached a turning point in his languishing fortunes.

On the basis of his well-publicized wartime housing schemes, imaginative postwar urban renewal proposals, and his new role as president of the American Society of Planners and Architects, Kahn became a visiting critic in advanced design at the Yale School of Architecture. There he met Vincent Scully, a perceptive young art history instructor who was to become Kahn’s most ardent advocate. Scully, with his romantic, even mythic, view of architectural history as an epic of Promethean architects who steal fire from the gods, yearned for a present-day hero to fit his ideal. He found it in the unlikely, unprepossessing Kahn.Together they formed one of the most mutually beneficial alliances of artist and critic in this century.

Like Scully, Kahn saw classical architecture, and especially archaic classicism, as the necessary starting point for a return to a contemporary architecture with a more authentic spiritual grounding. Thanks in part to Scully’s support, along with that of Kahn’s old Philadelphia friend the architect George Howe, then Yale’s dean of architecture, Kahn received his first important commission, an addition to the Yale University Art Gallery of 1951–1953. In it, Scully saw his confidence rewarded. With its perverse windowless street façade, its rude brick elevation broken only by four narrow horizontal bands of limestone, its deeply recessed triangular-coffered concrete ceilings, and its monumental stairwell with a triangular formation of flights within a concrete cylinder, Kahn’s inward-turning structure displayed a naked power quite different in tone and ambition from the sleek, transparent corporate version of the International Style that was becoming the official architectural mode of the American business establishment.


But where did this sudden surge of creative daring come from? It seems that Kahn’s stay at the American Academy in Rome, where he was in residence when he received word he was chosen for the Yale Art Gallery job, was decisive for the startling new direction his work took when he was fifty. Although Kahn had traveled in Europe during his late twenties, the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman architecture which he saw twenty years later at Saqqara, Mycenae, and Tivoli, as well as other archeological landmarks, had a far more immediate impact on him. “Our stuff looks tinny compared to it,” Kahn wrote back to his office colleagues in Philadelphia, and for the rest of his life he tried to give his own work the weightiness—in both senses of the word—that so impressed him when he visited the classical sites.

That change is evident in the intensely concentrated drawings Kahn produced during his travels in 1950 and 1951, strongest of the works in Jan Hochstim’s The Paintings and Sketches of Louis I. Kahn. A gifted draftsman since boyhood (when he took drawing classes at Philadelphia’s Graphic Sketch Club, whose members had included Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anshutz, and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), Kahn further developed his pictorial talents at Penn under the Beaux-Arts system’s emphasis on drawing as the primary means of conceiving architectural designs.

Long unable to build, Kahn channeled much of his creative energy into his drawings, which he did not confine to architectural subjects. He drew many landscapes and still lifes as well as observant portraits of his friends, his wife, and himself: in one arresting 1949 sketch, Kahn captured his own sharklike features with unsparing accuracy. Despite his conservative education, Kahn was receptive to new developments, and his watercolors of the Thirties reflect the influence of contemporary European painters from Henri Matisse to Raoul Dufy, as well as American artists of the 291 and American Scene groups, such as John Marin and Marsden Hartley.

But not until Kahn was confronted with the monumental architecture at Luxor and Karnak, Athens and Delphi, Ostia and Pompeii did his drawings begin to reflect the deep inner life that had been stirring within him for years. Especially in the stark charcoal and vivid pastel sketches revealing the impact of a hand bearing down at full pressure, Kahn’s records of what he saw took on a new urgency. As he drew the temples of the ancients, it was as though he was trying to store up their magical energy for later use back home.

For Kahn the architecture of Imperial Rome was the most important of all, and he incorporated the lessons he learned from it into his most significant work from the Fifties onward. The Rome of columns, pediments, and other traditional details did not interest him nearly so much as its vast geometric interiors, stripped of their marble cladding, with their bold structural masonry illuminated in natural overhead light. Kahn’s two late masterpieces, the Kimbell Art Museum and Sher-e-Bangla Nagar (“City of the Bengal Tiger,” the capitol of Bangladesh at Dacca), derive directly from the architect’s Roman reawakening.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print