Louis Kahn

With designs that combined timeless forms and modern techniques, Louis Kahn became known as one of the leading American architects of the 20th century.


Louis Kahn was born in Pärnu, Estonia, on February 20, 1901. His family emigrated to the United States when Kahn was a child; he later studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and opened his own firm in 1935. His major works include the Yale University Art Gallery, the Kimbell Art Museum and the capitol complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Kahn died in New York City on March 17, 1974.

Early Years and Education

Louis Kahn was born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky in Pärnu, Estonia, on February 20, 1901. His Jewish parents, Leib Schmuilowsky and Beila-Rebecka Mendelowitsch, soon decided to emigrate from Estonia. Leib traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1904; his family followed two years later.

As part of their assimilation, the family adopted the last name of Kahn in 1912. Leib and Beila-Rebecka took the names of Leopold and Bertha, and their son became Louis Isadore Kahn.

Kahn attended Philadephia’s Central High School and the Public Industrial Art School. He later studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was mentored by the French-born architect Paul Cret. Kahn received his degree in architecture in 1924.

Career Beginnings

After working as a chief of design for Philadelphia’s 1926 Sesquicentennial buildings, Kahn traveled throughout Europe in 1928-29. Returning home, he married Esther Israeli in 1930, and found work at various Philadelphia-based architectural firms.

Kahn opened his own architectural practice in 1935. From the start, he was interested in architecture’s role in social change. He created housing for factory workers during World War II, and later in the 1940s worked on buildings for labor unions. After the war, Kahn also designed several private homes in the Pennsylvania suburbs, working in a modernist style.

Kahn began teaching architecture at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1947. It was the start of an influential teaching career—he would remain at Yale for ten years before becoming a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

"An architect is part of the treasury of architecture in which the Parthenon belongs, the Pantheon belongs, in which the great lyceums during the Renaissance belong. All these things belong to architecture and make it richer."

In 1950-51, Kahn was the architect in residence at the American Academy in Rome. During this period, he also was able to visit Greece and Egypt. Inspired by the ancient ruins and Renaissance buildings he had seen, Kahn would use classical architecture’s solid forms and durable materials in his own work, combining these timeless forms with modern techniques.

Major Works and Projects

Kahn’s first major architectural project was the Yale University Art Gallery, completed in 1953. His other significant projects of the 1950s and '60s include the Richards Medical Research Building for the University of Pennsylvania (1957-65), the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California (1959-65), and a library for New Hampshire's Phillips Exeter Academy (1965-72).

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (1966-72) is considered one of Kahn's masterpieces. Many of its galleries are massive vaulted spaces with ceiling slits that let in natural light.

"Architecture is the thoughtful making of spaces. It is the creating of spaces that evoke a feeling of appropriate use."

Kahn also worked internationally, and was commissioned to design two major projects on the Indian subcontinent: the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad (1962-74) and the national capital of Bangladesh (1962-83). The National Assembly in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is one of Kahn's most admired works.

Personal Life

At the age of 73, Kahn died of a heart attack on March 17, 1974, in New York City’s Pennsylvania Station. He was on his way home from Ahmedabad, India.

Kahn's death revealed his complicated personal life: In addition to the daughter, Sue Ann, he shared with wife Esther, Kahn had a daughter, Alexandra, with his architectural associate Anne Tyng, as well as a son, Nathaniel, with landscape architect Harriet Pattison. The secrets and complexities of this situation were examined in the 2003 documentary film My Architect, directed by Nathaniel Kahn.

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