Louis I. Kahn, a Premier Modernist Architect

Black and white photo of architect Louis Kahn
Press image © Robert Lautman from the film My Architect: A Son's Journey (cropped)

Louis I. Kahn is widely considered one of the great architects of the twentieth century, yet he has few buildings to his name. Like any great artist, Kahn's influence has never been measured by the number of projects completed but by the value of his designs.


Born: February 20, 1901, in Kuressaare, in Estonia, on Saaremmaa Island

Died: March 17, 1974, in New York, N.Y.

Name at Birth:

Born Itze-Leib (or, Leiser-Itze) Schmuilowsky (or, Schmalowski). Kahn's Jewish parents immigrated to the United States in 1906. His name was changed to Louis Isadore Kahn in 1915.

Early Training:

  • University of Pennsylvania, Bachelor of Architecture, 1924
  • Worked as a senior draftsman in the office of Philadelphia City Architect John Molitor.
  • Traveled through Europe visiting castles and medieval strongholds, 1928

Important Buildings

Who Kahn Influenced

Major Awards

  • 1960: Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize, American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • 1971: AIA Gold Medal, American Institute of Architects
  • 1972: RIBA Gold Medal, Royal Institute of British Architects
  • 1973: Architecture Gold Medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters

Private Life

Louis I. Kahn grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of poor immigrant parents. As a young man, Kahn struggled to build his career during the height of America's Depression. He was married but often became involved with his professional associates. Kahn established three families that lived only a few miles apart in the Philadelphia area.

Louis I. Kahn's troubled life is explored in, a 2003 documentary film by his son, Nathaniel Kahn. Louis Kahn was the father of three children with three different women:

  • Sue Ann Kahn, daughter with his wife, Esther Israeli Kahn
  • Alexandra Tyng, daughter with Anne Griswold Tyng, associate architect at Kahn's firm
  • Nathaniel Kahn, son with Harriet Pattison, landscape architect

The influential architect died of a heart attack in a men's restroom in Pennsylvania Station in New York City. At the time, he was deep in debt and juggling a complicated personal life. His body was not identified for three days.

Quotes by Louis I. Kahn

  • "Architecture is the reaching out for the truth."
  • "Consider the momentous event in architecture when the wall parted and the column became."
  • "Design is not making beauty, beauty emerges from selection, affinities, integration, love."
  • "A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable."

Professional Life

During his training at the Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts, Louis I. Kahn was grounded in the Beaux-Arts approach to architectural design. As a young man, Kahn became fascinated with the heavy, massive architecture of medieval Europe and Great Britain. But, struggling to build his career during the Depression, Kahn became known as a champion of Functionalism.

Louis Kahn built on ideas from the Bauhaus Movement and the International Style to design low-income public housing. Using simple materials like brick and concrete, Kahn arranged building elements to maximize daylight. His concrete designs from the 1950s were studied at Tokyo University's Kenzo Tange Laboratory, influencing a generation of Japanese architects and stimulating the metabolism movement in the 1960s.

The commissions that Kahn received from Yale University gave him the chance to explore ideas he'd admired in ancient and medieval architecture. He used simple forms to create monumental shapes. Kahn was in his 50s before he designed the works that made him famous. Many critics praise Kahn for moving beyond the International Style to express original ideas.

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Craven, Jackie. "Louis I. Kahn, a Premier Modernist Architect." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/louis-i-kahn-premier-modernist-architect-177860. Craven, Jackie. (2021, July 29). Louis I. Kahn, a Premier Modernist Architect. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/louis-i-kahn-premier-modernist-architect-177860 Craven, Jackie. "Louis I. Kahn, a Premier Modernist Architect." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/louis-i-kahn-premier-modernist-architect-177860 (accessed March 26, 2023).