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Louis Kahn, 1901-1974: He Helped Define Modern Architecture

A southwest view of the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas
A southwest view of the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas

STEVE EMBER: I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein with the VOA Special English program PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Today, we tell about Louis Kahn. He is considered one of the most important American building designers of the twentieth century.


STEVE EMBER: Louis Kahn helped define modern architecture. Architecture is the art and science of designing and building structures such as houses, museums, and office buildings. Kahn’s architecture has several defining qualities.

For example, Kahn was very interested in the look and feel of the materials he used. He used brick and concrete in new and special ways. Kahn also paid careful attention to the use of sunlight. He liked natural light to enter his buildings through interesting kinds of windows and openings. Kahn’s work can also be identified by his creative use of geometric shapes. Many of his buildings use squares, circles and three sided shapes called triangles.

Louis Kahn is famous for his modern architecture
Louis Kahn is famous for his modern architecture

BARBARA KLEIN: Louis Kahn was born in Estonia in nineteen-oh-one. When he was five years old his family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Even as a child, Louis Kahn showed excellence as an artist. When he was in school his pictures won several competitions organized by the city. In high school, Kahn studied architecture briefly. He later went to the University of Pennsylvania and studied architecture full time. He graduated in nineteen twenty-four.

Louis Kahn’s buildings have many influences. Some experts say his trip to Rome, Italy in nineteen fifty-one influenced him the most. Kahn spent a few months as an architect with the American Academy in Rome. He also traveled through other parts of Italy, Greece and Egypt. There, he saw the ancient Greek and Roman ruins that also would influence his works. He was very affected by the size and design of these ruins. They helped influence him to develop an architecture that combines both modern and ancient designs.

Other experts believe Kahn was also influenced by the part of Philadelphia where he grew up. There were many factory buildings with large windows. These brick structures were very solid. This industrial design is apparent in several of Kahn’s early works.

STEVE EMBER: Kahn’s first projects involved building housing in Philadelphia. He later received government jobs to design housing during World War Two. In nineteen forty-two, he became a head architect of the Public Building Administration. Kahn’s first important project was the Yale Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut in the early nineteen fifties. The outside of the building is very simple. The surface is made of brick and limestone.

The inside of the gallery shows Kahn’s great artistic sense. For example, he created a triangle-shaped walkway of steps that sits inside a rounded concrete shell. This building was very popular. Its completion represented an important step in Kahn’s professional life. He was now a famous architect.


BARBARA KLEIN: One of Kahn’s other important buildings is the Salk Institute, a research center in La Jolla, California. It was built in the nineteen sixties. This structure further shows how Kahn was able to unite form and function. This means his buildings were beautiful and also useful.

The Salk Institute has two structures that surround a marble garden area or courtyard. This outdoor marble area is almost completely bare. The only detail is a small stream of water running through the middle of the square towards the Pacific Ocean. This simple design is very striking. Inside the building are many rooms for laboratories. Kahn was very careful to make sure they all received natural light and a view of the ocean. He linked the indoor and outdoor spaces in a very beautiful way.

Inside the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas
Inside the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas

STEVE EMBER: The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas is another famous building by Louis Kahn. Some say it is his best. Kahn built this museum in the early nineteen seventies. This large museum has long rooms with curved or vaulted ceilings. Inside, all of the walls can be moved to best fit the art collection. Kahn was able to make the concrete material of the building look both solid and airy. He used sunlight and bodies of water to create a truly special building.

Kahn once said this about the Kimbell Art Museum: “The building feels…that I had nothing to do with it…that some other hand did it.” The architect seems to say that he was helped by some higher influence. Many people feel that his architecture has a very spiritual and timeless quality.

Kahn mostly created public buildings such as museums and libraries. However, he also designed a few houses. His most famous home is the Fisher house near Philadelphia. It is made of several box-shaped buildings. The house is made out of glass, wood and stone. Many windows provide a view of the nearby trees.


BARBARA KLEIN: Louis Kahn also designed buildings in other countries, including India and Bangladesh. His largest project was a series of buildings that would become the government center of Dhaka, Bangladesh. This structure includes the parliament, meeting rooms, offices, eating places and even a religious center.

This series of buildings looks like an ancient home for kings. Huge rounded and box-like buildings have windows in the shape of circles and triangles. The structure is surrounded by water. From a distance, it appears to float on a lake. Kahn spent the last twelve years of his life on the project. It was completed in nineteen eighty-three, nine years after his death. Because of Kahn, experts say, one of the poorest countries in the world has one of the most beautiful public buildings on Earth.

All of Kahn’s buildings share a common solidity and heaviness. Experts say they are very different from the works of other famous architects of the period. These architects preferred light and airy buildings. Their weightless-looking structures were mostly made of glass and metal. Kahn used stone and concrete to make monumental buildings. Many of his structures look more ancient than modern.


STEVE EMBER: Louis Kahn was an artist who created beautiful works. But he was not a very good businessman. He would change his designs many times. This would make each project take a great deal of time and cost more money. The majority of the projects he designed were never built. Also, he did not like to compromise his design ideas to satisfy a buyer’s wishes. For this reason and others, Kahn did not make many buildings. His design company did not always have many jobs or much money. In fact, when Kahn died, he was in great debt. This is especially unusual since he was considered one of the most important architects in the world.

Filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn at the 2003 premier of his film "My Architect, "about his father
Filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn at the 2003 premier of his film "My Architect, "about his father

BARBARA KLEIN: In two thousand four, Mister Kahn’s son, Nathaniel Kahn, made a film about his father’s life. The film is called “My Architect.” It is interesting for many reasons. “My Architect” gives a history of Kahn’s life. The film presents the architect and his buildings. You can see Kahn working at his desk and talking with his builders. You can also see him teaching university students. You can tell that he had great energy.

The film also shows a great deal about Kahn’s private life. Kahn had a wife and daughter. But he also had two other families. Kahn had a child with each of two other women that he was not married to. In the film, Nathaniel Kahn describes visits from his father.

He says that as a child he did not understand why his father did not live with him and his mother all of the time.

NATHANIEL KAHN IN “MY ARCHITECT”: “I didn’t know my father very well. He never married my mother and he never lived with us. I needed to know him. I needed to find out who he really was. So I set out on a journey to see his buildings and to find whatever was left of him out there.”

STEVE EMBER: Many questions are left unanswered about Kahn. Yet, the film helps tell a very interesting story about a very important man. Louis Kahn died in nineteen seventy-four. Yet his influence lives on. While teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, he trained many future builders. Some students have become important architects. And Kahn’s architecture has remained fresh and timeless.


BARBARA KLEIN: This program was written by Dana Demange. It was produced by Dana Demange and Lawan Davis. I’m Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.