In 1974, a silver haired gentleman suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away in a small, dimly lit bathroom stall deep within New York City’s Penn Station. A recently used passport was found alongside a weathered briefcase, but the home address was missing and an office address was found to be closed at the time. Despite efforts to identify the man, it would be a few days before anyone stepped forth to claim the deceased. This unknown man, who was reportedly heavily in debt at the time of his death, is considered by many to be one of the greatest and most influential American architects of the twentieth century. The riddle of how this preeminent architect could meet such an anticlimactic end can be best surmised by one of his own quotes, “How accidental our existences are, really, and how full of influence by circumstance.”
Louis Isadore Kahn had three separate families: a wife with whom he shared a daughter and two other long-term relationships with colleagues, one of which produced a daughter, the other a son. Despite this uncommonly complicated family life, the architectural historian who penned the first book about Louis Kahn, Vincent Scully said, “For a while, I didn’t know he had even one family … that was part of his mystery.” He was a workaholic nomad and a man passionate about architecture. As with many visionaries, Kahn’s weaknesses and virtues were inseparable and it is worth acknowledging both when contemplating his body of work. It consisted of fewer then one hundred designs and only a handful came to fruition.
Experts say, one of the poorest countries in the world has one of the most beautiful public buildings on Earth.The structure is surrounded by water and from a distance, it appears to float on a lake. Khan spent the last twelve years of his life on the project. It was completed in nineteen eighty-three, nine years after his death.
Louis Kahn completed his study of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and went on to become a professor at the Yale School of Architecture before returning to teach at his alma mater. In Kahn’s obituary it is written ‘that his sombre, poetic buildings of stone and concrete led a generation of younger architects away from glass boxes’ (George Goldberger, New Yorker). He is well known for his mythic use of large open spaces and dramatic light in his buildings, which results in a bountiful feast for the eyes. Kahn refused to veer from his firm belief that the materials an architect uses have their own divine decree. In his words, “Design is not making beauty, beauty emerges from selection, affinities, integration, love.” Louis Kahn was unyielding in the purity of his architectural landscapes. Despite a brilliant but mixed record of success in the United States, Louis Kahn did find an enthusiastic embrace for his work in India where he built his last great project, the government building at Dhaka.
“Late 20th century icon of American Architecture. Master of putting a square thing inside of a round thing, and a round thing inside a square thing. Also adept at adding triangular openings in the round thing or square thing, and sometimes he put a shallow arched opening in the square thing OR the round thing.” Jody Brown, Architect: A Talk with Louis Kahn Coffee With An Architect December 16,2010
The influence that Louis Kahn had over the industry is vast. Architect Frank Gehry credited Kahn as his original inspiration and said that without Louis Kahn, he would not be the same man. World renowned Architect I.M. Pei said, “He may only have completed a few buildings, but they are great masterpieces.” In his own words, “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.” Perhaps the full value of Kahn’s impact on American architecture has traveled along a similar winding road.