Bradford F. HerzogLouis I. Kahn was born in 1901 on the Isle of Osel in Estonia. Immigrating with his family to the United States in 1905, he lived in extreme poverty in Philadelphia and attended public schools. As a high school student he won first prize every year in the drawing and painting contests sponsored by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1924. After travel in Europe, he organized and directed in 1932 and 1933 the Architectural Research Group. His private practice began in 1935.
Between 1948 and 1957, he was professor of architecture at Yale, following which he became professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, a position he held until his death in 1974. In 1964 he was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He received two honorary degrees, one (Doctor of Architecture) from the Polytechnic Institute of Milan, Italy, the other (Doctor of Humanities) from the North Carolina School of Design, University of North Carolina. In 1965, Mr. Kahn received an honorary doctorate of Fine Arts from Yale University.
Although he struggled for several decades to define his architectural style and obtain commissions, Kahn began to have success after a trip to Egypt, Greece, and Rome, which energized him with the idea of instilling modern buildings with the monumental majesty and spiritual force found in ancient ruins. He obtained his first major commissions in the early 1950s, developing his style and approach with the Yale Art Gallery (1951-53), the Trenton Bathhouse (1954-59), the Richards Medical Towers in Philadelphia (1957-62), and the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York (1959-69). His first masterpiece, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California (1959-67) laid the groundwork for the buildings he would construct for the rest of his life.
Bradford F. HerzogWhile he favored simple materials such as brick and concrete, he used them in new ways. One of his favorite sayings was, “I asked the brick, ‘What do you like, brick?’ And brick said, ‘I like an arch.’" In addition to his use of these materials, Kahn is known for his use of natural light. The new library at Exeter, like his other later works, is suffused with light, which changes the character of its spaces depending on time of day, season, and weather.
Besides the Salk Institute, major works include the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy (1967-72), the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (1967-72), and the Yale Center for British Art (1969-74). His two largest projects were the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India (1962-74) and the Capital Complex at Dhaka, Bangladesh, begun in 1962 and completed after his death in 1974.
He was the author of two books written in collaboration with Oscar Stonorov, Why City Planning Is Your Responsibility and You and Your Neighborhood.
Mr. Kahn’s office was in Philadelphia, where he lived until his death. In 1930, he married Esther Israeli, with whom he had a daughter, Sue Ann. Kahn also had two other children by women with whom he had long-running extramarital affairs: Alexandra Tyng, daughter of Anne Tyng, another architect, and Nathaniel Kahn, son of Harriet Pattison, a landscape architect who worked in Kahn’s office.
Numerous books on his work are available. For a selected list, see the guide to sources of information.
For more on Louis Kahn and the Academy Library, see "Our Architect," in the Spring 2004 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.
Armstrong, Rodney. "The New Library." The Phillips Exeter Bulletin 63, Summer 1967:4.
"Louis I. Kahn: Biography." My Architect Presskit. 2003.
http://www.myarchitectfilm.com/presskit/MyArchitectPressKit.pdf (11 May 2004).