History Buff: Louis I. Kahn

Louis Isadore Kahn (1901-1974) was a world famous American architect of the twentieth century who is known for having revitalized the modernist approach with a monumental style. Kahn moved to Philadelphia in 1905, from the Baltic Island of Osel, and lived most of the rest of his life in the city. He graduated from UPenn’s School of Fine Arts in 1924 and shortly afterward began to study under the tutelage of some of Philadelphia’s finest architects of the time, including Paul Cret, a French-American architect and industrial designer. For Kahn however, his primary focus evolved to modern architecture with high interest in public housing.

In addition to being an honored architect, Louis Kahn was also a renowned professor, first working as a professor of architecture at Yale University (1947-1957) and afterwards at the University of Pennsylvania (1957-1974). It was during his teaching years that Kahn’s most pure architectural ideas began to take form. These ideas became practice by way of his own architectural firm which he started in 1947. He was in search of “beginnings”, a timeless source of energy from which modern man could draw inspiration. For Kahn, this source was that of ancient civilizations in Italy, Greece and Egypt. Knowing this, it seems odd that the most famous of Kahn’s buildings in Philadelphia do not seem to appeal to this ancient style. However, Kahn had the ability to revisit ancient architecture and express it in a modernist form.

Richard's Medical Center. Image from Wikipedia


One prime example of Kahn’s transformative approach is the Richards Medical Research Laboratories. Built in 1960, when Kahn was about 60 years old, the towers are a clear demonstration of modern style. The structure is not supported by a steel frame, instead utilizing towers built of reinforced concrete to give the structure a unique look that is also practical in its ability to bear weight. Kahn based this modern structure off San Gimignano in Italy, a centuries-old civilization famous for its protruding tower structures. Another example of Kahn’s genius is the Norman Fisher House in Hatboro, PA. He utilized geometrical shapes, namely cubes, to create a natural living space completely distinct from the average house. Much of Kahn’s architecture was deeply rooted in design, and revolved around the use of geometry to create original abstract forms. His work can be seen all around the world, in such countries as India and Bangladesh and throughout the United States.

Norman Fisher House. Image from Marvelbuilding.com

— Alex Graziano