I’d never heard of Louis Kahn before but on first glimpse, his Warhol blond/grey hair, pointy face and round glasses made him a figure that you’d associate with the creative 1960s. Dark suit, bow tie, pacing around drawing boards and re-writing the course of architectural history, his influence on the world of architecture has been illuminating for design intent over commercialism.
According to his son, whose relationship with Kahn was fragmented split between stolen evenings and unexpected visits (Kahn was married to another woman), Khan never made any money. Architect Philip Johnson claims Kahn had “more of a free spirit” than he whilst Frank Gehry states Kahn’s profound influence on him as an architect. Those are some testimonials.
A Jewish Estonian, Kahn formerly named Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky, founded his own architecture practice in Philadelphia in 1935 and became a professor at the Yale School of Architecture from 1947 until his death in 1974. Facial scars resulting from his curiosity as a child for burning coal, gave him the characteristics of an unusual person who was both small in size with a voice to match. These physical qualities were superseded by his mental strength, working late hours and corralling his employees to do the same. Although married until his death, he appeared to have no roots, travelling the world and conducting affairs with his female architectural colleagues who worked with him closely.
His nomadic life took him to India where he designed the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad to his unbuilt Herva in Israel, a Jewish synagogue.
Indian Institute of Management
Design for Herva synagogue in Israel
His piece de resistance lies in his monumental building in Bangladesh Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban (National Assembly Building) that took 12 years to build and was completed in 1974, the year of Kahn’s death. He never got to visit the completed building. The circles and geometric shapes that let light into the building is the stuff of modernity and its affect on the people who work in the building is tantamount to its values of leadership and democracy. If buildings could give people voices, this would surely be the example. It’s the place where his son Nathanial feels that he had found his father.
Outside the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban
Inside the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban
Built after the film’s production, The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park designed by Kahn and built in 2012 is a four-acre memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Located in New York City at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, in the East River between Manhattan Island and Queens, it is missing from the film’s content but has particular resonance.
In a 1973 lecture at Pratt Institute, Kahn said:
“I had this thought that a memorial should be a room and a garden. That’s all I had. Why did I want a room and a garden? I just chose it to be the point of departure. The garden is somehow a personal nature, a personal kind of control of nature. And the room was the beginning of architecture. I had this sense, you see, and the room wasn’t just architecture, but was an extension of self.”
he Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park
A year later and in the same city, Kahn died of a heart attack in Penn Station. As his address was crossed out in his passport, he had just returned from India, his family members were only notified of his death two days later.
An exhibition of Kahn’s work is currently showing at the Design Museum in London until 12 October 2014.