AN EXHIBITION at Rotterdam’s National Architecture Institute (NAI) and the recent completion of Four Freedoms Park in New York – a plan conceived four decades ago – have turned the spotlight on the life and works of influential US architect Louis Kahn. But who was this enigmatic visionary?
No one knows why Kahn crossed out his address on his passport. It took police several days to identify the body after it was found on March 17, 1974. Kahn was at Penn Station on the way home to Philadelphia, having just returned to America from India where he had been working on the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. He had suffered a heart-attack and his body was found slumped in a men’s rest room. It was a sad and mysterious end to the life of one of the 20th century’s most celebrated architects. He was, it also transpired, heavily in debt due to the fact he had built so few buildings. But, as Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei once said of Kahn (who incidentally lost out on a significant commission to Pei): “Three or four masterpieces are better than 50 or 60 buildings. Quality is better than quantity.”
Today his works – including the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California; Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad; Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Capital Complex in Bangladesh – are celebrated as monumental and spiritually inspiring works of architecture. These designs show his deep attachment to the ancient structures of Greece and Egypt with elements reflected in his buildings: simple, epic, fortress-like shapes renowned for their ingenious use of space and light and built from an arsenal of concrete, bricks, travertine and wood. A trip to Rome, Greece and Egypt in 1950 was a turning point in his perception of architecture. Kahn produced vivid pastels of the Temple of Apollo at Corinth and the pillars at Karnak which captured his imagination. “Our stuff looks tiny compared to it,” wrote Kahn to colleagues in Philadelphia.
Of course it wasn’t just size that interested Kahn. “He truly believed that architecture could make a difference in people’s lives. He was a true architect; he dealt with materials, structure, site, and people – all the parts and pieces of a building as an artist to show it had been made and Gehry believes Kahn had an “almost mystical relationship” with materials. “He personalised them. He thought of brick as having a conscience and a life, as if it knew what it wanted to be and where it wanted to go.”
Kahn’s story glides along the American dream of impoverished immigrant done good. The son of poverty- stricken Estonian parents, Kahn was born in 1901 on the island of Saaremaa.
He arrived in America when he was five, badly scarred on his face by a coal fire. The story goes that his father, Leopold, said Kahn would be better off dead but his mother, Bertha, believed the scars would make him a great man. Somewhat of a savant in art and music, a shy Kahn went from strength to strength winning an architecture scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1924, Kahn worked for Philadelphia architect John Molitor.
Yet throughout the 1930s, Kahn found it difficult to secure commissions. It was at the height of the depression and as a Jew, waspish cliques of American architecture weren’t opening doors for him. Some Jewish friends gave him humble commissions. However, it was only in 1951, when Kahn was in his mid ‘40s and teaching at Yale University, that he won his first significant commission – the Yale Art Gallery’s extension. The commissions began to flow (Trenton Boathouse in New Jersey, the Richards Medical Towers in Philadelphia) but Kahn’s inability to meet deadlines discouraged new commissions. As architect Robert M. Stern explains in the catalogue: “He was always changing his mind. Always. When I was teaching at Columbia, we would come by with students. He would stop everything and talk for an hour or more with them. And there were all these people going crazy in the background, saying: ‘Lou, you have to get on a plane’, ‘Lou, they need these drawings’.”
A film about Kahn’s colourful private life – My Architect by his son Nathaniel – reveals how Kahn secretly juggled his wife, mistresses and his three children. Kahn built a reputation as an icon of American architecture; for example, the Kimbell Art Museum, a series of inspiring modules which characteristically work with light, won a prize from the American Institute of Architects. In his final years, he built some of his most stunning buildings: the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (1962-74) and the floating fortress that is the Capital Complex in Dhaka – widely considered his magnum opus.
It’s ironic, that Kahn’s crowning glory – the sum of his theories and practices that won him few friends and commissions – was only completed after his death. An enduring legacy that has left his mark on the world.
Parliament House, Dhaka, Bangladesh
In 1962, Louis Kahn was commissioned to design the 81-hectare complex - one of the largest legislative complexes in the world - and construction began in 1964, but due to disruptions in government and war, it wasn't completed until 1982. The concrete structure has monumental presence. Cut-throughs of circles, triangles and squares in the outer shell represent the clarity of democracy, and provide light and cool air in the column-free building which is surrounded by the artificial Crescent Lake symbolising the connection of Bangladesh to its watery heritage. Initially criticised for the cost, the building has become a symbol of the country's democracy and in 1989 was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
Salk Institute for Biological Studies, San Diego, California, US
Consistently ranked among the top American institutes in terms of research output and quality in life sciences, the 11-hectare campus was designed to promote collaboration - the symmetry of the buildings and plaza represents scientific precision, while the laboratories have no separating walls in tune with the institute's open philosophy. Khan's design was influenced by monasteries and sanctuaries with the Salk campus being a reinterpretation of the monastic intellectual retreat.
Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth, Texas, US
In 1966, Kahn was hired to design an art museum to house the collections of the Kimbell Art Foundation. Established by Kay and Velma Kimbell, the foundation holds what is considered to be one of the best selection of old masters in America. Construction began in 1969 and founding director Richard Brown wanted the new building to be "a work of art" in which "natural light should play a vital part". Khan answered the call with a concrete vaulted building. The length of the vaulted ceilings feature interspersed skylights with reflectors to catch the rays, creating an ethereal feel to the light while protecting the artwork from direct sunlight. The museum opens into three glass-walled courtyards allowing natural light to fill the gallery spaces.
IN THE NEWS
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Four Freedoms Park, New York City
While this memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt was officially opened last month, its plans were conceived 40 years ago by Louis Kahn. When Kahn died suddenly in 1974 it looked as if the project would die with him, its site - a landfill along the waterfront in New York City - was left in a heap of rubble. Now the 1.6-hectare park, Kahn's only work in New York, is testament to the city's love for the arts and public spaces, having survived various calls to be privatised and used for other commercial proposals. fdrfourfreedomspark.org 
The Power of Architecture, Netherlands Architecture Institute, Rotterdam (pictured above)
The first retrospective of the American master in Europe since 1969, it shows the diversity of Kahn's projects including original sketches, large-scale models, publications written on or by Kahn, as well as information about architectural projects that influenced his work. The exhibition, part of a series of shows on the great master builders of the 20th century, will also head to Germany, Norway and America. Until January 6, 2013. nai.nl/kahn