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 and 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…

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