Louis Isadore Kahn was born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky in 1901 on Osel, an island off the coast of Estonia. His family immigrated to the United States when he was four, settling in Philadelphia, where they had relatives already living nearby. In 1915, upon becoming naturalized citizens, his parents “Americanized” the family’s names, taking the surname Kahn, which had been chosen by a relative who had immigrated earlier.

From an early age, Kahn displayed a gift for drawing, but his parents were too poor to buy art materials, so he improvised and sketched with burnt twigs and matches. He favored the quality of the charcoal line so much that even after he had become a celebrated architect he continued at times to draw with burnt matches. His obvious intelligence and early talent for art prompted his teachers to enroll him in competitions for gifted students throughout his public schooling. Despite winning a full art scholarship from the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, a required course in architectural history during his final year in high school led him to study architecture.

Kahn received Beaux-Arts training at the University of Pennsylvania, where one of his teachers was the French-born and French-educated Paul Philippe Cret, who practiced a brand of classical modernism noteworthy for its dignity and restraint. An inspiring teacher, Cret instilled in his students a reverence for the form-giving potential of Beaux-Arts principles and the harmonious power of proportion. Kahn became a devoted disciple, later working on one of Cret’s most famous buildings, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Coincidentally, Cret also designed the elegant United States Courthouse in Fort Worth in the “classical moderne” style in 1933, the Fine Arts Pavilion (later the Dallas Museum of Art) in 1936, and the master plan for the University of Texas at Austin in 1941.

Kahn came to hold the first Paul Philippe Cret chair at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught his own idiosyncratic modernism, which would engender the heterogeneous “Philadelphia school.”

Kahn’s architectural career was slow to take off. He was thirty-six years old when he established his own office during the Depression years and then focused mostly on low-cost public housing. While he was deeply interested in urban issues, particularly those of Philadelphia, he took these commissions largely because they were some of the few available to an unknown architect at the time.

His work during this period was very much in the International Style, influenced by LeCorbusier and public housing in Germany and Holland. It wasn’t until years later, in 1950–51, when he enjoyed a brief sojourn in Rome as an American Academy fellow and traveled in Italy, Greece, and Egypt, that he developed his own singular philosophy of architecture, provoked and shaped by his emotional response to the ancient ruins that he had studied in school and had previously visited in 1929. He had sketched them before, but this time he was especially affected by the way the Mediterranean light played upon the haunting, silent, and monumental forms. His emergent ideas about space, light, and structure would help shape his first major commission, an extension to the Yale University Art Gallery. He received the commission while in Rome in 1951 and designed it when he returned to Yale, where he had begun teaching in 1949. 

Completed in 1953, the building was revolutionary in terms of American museum architecture, and it gained him instant national recognition. Situated amidst collegiate Gothic structures, the museum—constructed out of brick, concrete, steel, and glass—presents a windowless facade to the street and features open interiors with flexibly partitioned galleries. A honeycomb-like tetrahedral concrete ceiling contains air ducts and light fixtures in an ingenious arrangement. Impassively modern as the building is, in its scale, materials, and solemnity it subtly references its historical neighbors.

Kahn went on to design in 1957–62 the Richards Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania, a building that would be bedeviled with functional problems. Nevertheless, it quickly became a mecca for architects, who came to study its austere and imposing duct towers; the abstract, rhythmic interplay of its glass, brick, and concrete facade; and the elegant articulation of its served and servant spaces. (“Servant spaces” is Kahn’s term for utilitarian realms like corridors, stairwells, restrooms, and mechanical rooms.) It was also the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that brought international attention to Kahn.

Kahn was more successful in his design for a scientific facility in 1959–67 with the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, which its namesake, Jonas Salk, hoped would be the most beautiful and stimulating research center in the world, attracting the most brilliant and creative minds. Kahn’s powerful sequence of twin structures is skillfully oriented to avoid the glare and winds of the hot coastal climate, while framing spectacular views of the distant ocean below. A small water feature running through the courtyard between the buildings speaks of the sharing of resources, including inspiration and ideas, which is promoted by the flexible laboratories within. The courtyard was originally to be a garden, but Kahn turned it into a communal space “open to the sky.”  

Kahn’s most ambitious projects, where he would most eloquently express his ideals regarding a transcendent architecture of universal forms, were realized primarily on the Indian subcontinent. In 1962, he received commissions to design the newly established Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India, and the capital building Sher-e-Bangla nagar in Dhaka, the first city of East Pakistan when the project was commissioned, but by the time it was completed, the capital of a recently independent Bangladesh. The Institute of Management is constructed out of exposed brick, while Sher-e-Bangla nagar is made of cast-in-place concrete. Both epically scaled works are marked by elemental geometric forms: circles, squares, and triangles. Each features huge open spaces that the architect, a true believer in civic democracy, thought would encourage freedom of thought, especially in Bangladesh, where the people proudly use the complex as a vast public park.

Kahn also built several masterworks in the U.S., including the 1972 Kimbell Art Museum and yet another museum for Yale, the 1974 Yale Center for British Art. Like the Kimbell, the four-story Yale Center is designed around courtyards and features diffused natural light via skylit rooms, so that museumgoers may, on most days, experience the art on the upper floors without artificial illumination. While the building’s exterior is an imposing surface of matte steel and reflective glass, its galleries are intimately scaled and comprised of a muted palette of natural materials—travertine, marble, white oak, and Belgian linen—a palette like that of the Kimbell.

Kahn did not live to see the completion of the Yale Center for British Art, nor his projects in India and Bangladesh (although the Indian Institute for Management was essentially complete when he died). In 1974, on his return home from the subcontinent, Kahn was overcome by a heart attack in the men’s bathroom of Penn Station in New York City, where he died tragically alone at the age of seventy-three. After his death, five Kahn buildings “of enduring significance” received the impressive Twenty-Five Year Award from the American Institute of Architects: the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale Center for British Art, Exeter Academy Library, Jonas Salk Institute, and Kimbell Art Museum. His oeuvre may be small compared to other architects of his stature, but it is all the more impressive for the influence it has had—and continues to have—on contemporary architecture.