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Louis Kahn’s life and work on fascinating display in Philly exhibition

The five-year-long exhibition of the starchitect’s career ends fittingly in his hometown

An exhibition of Louis Kahn’s short-lived, but illustrious life and career makes it final stop in Philly.
Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

As the story goes, the late founder of the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Marion “Kippy” Boulton Stroud, was just one of the many admirers of 20th-century architect Louis Isadore Kahn.

The two likely met while Stroud was working at a bookshop in Chestnut Hill for Margaret Esherick. At the same time, Kahn was designing Esherick’s soon-to-become iconic residence in the same neighborhood.

“Kippy was a Kahn groupie,” said Susan Lubowsky Talbott, the museum’s current executive director. “She wanted to have an exhibition of Kahn’s work here for long a time.”

Louis Kahn in front of a model of the City Tower Project, which was proposed for next to Philadelphia’s City Hall.
Courtesy of the Fabric Workshop and Museum/Sue Ann Kahn

Stroud’s admiration for Kahn meant that she spent some of her last years vying to highlight Kahn’s work at the eight-story workshop and museum. She died in 2015, and ultimately Talbott made the final decision to bring Kahn to home to Philly.

Friday, August 11 is the opening day of “Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture”, a three-month exhibition that highlights the architect’s short-lived, yet ever-enduring career through everything from sketches to photos to video to many, many models.

“Kahn’s process was very much about experience, and trial and error,” said Talbott. “The Fabric Workshop and Museum’s work often goes outside of normal comfort zones, so I realized that this was a very good fit for us.”

Philadelphia also happens to be the final stop and only East Coast venue of the exhibition, which has been on a five-year stint throughout Europe and the U.S. It debuted at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany in 2012 and was last on display at the Kahn-designed Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

Born in 1901 as Leiser-Itze Schmuilowsky, Kahn immigrated to Philadelphia with his family from what is today known as Estonia. His took first steps on U.S. soil at the immigration port at Washington Avenue.

His rise from an awkward kid to acclaimed architect started with his discovery of art in high school, which ultimately served as the foundation for his groundbreaking career as a modern architect.

These early details of Kahn’s life serve as a starting point of the exhibition, which is broken into six sections: City, House, Science, Landscape, Eternal Present, and Community. The exhibition is chopped up, located on multiple levels of the museum.

Some of Kahn’s famous quotes line the walls, accompanied by relevant sketches or renderings detailing his notable work. His line, “A city is a place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life,” sits above his early sketches of unbuilt projects proposed for Philadelphia.

Photo by Melissa Romero

Meanwhile, scenes from his son Nathaniel’s films are projected onto blank walls, and smaller, but still significant artifacts like one of Kahn’s calendars and a passport reveal minute details of the architect’s personal life. (In his passport, on the line asking of distinguishable features, Kahn scribbled, “Scars on face,” a reference to burns he suffered as a child.)

But perhaps one of the exhibit’s most impressive features are the dozens of handmade models that are on display in the center of nearly every section. William Whitaker, the curator and collections manager at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, oversees thousands of Kahn materials. Of the models, he says, “This exhibit really gives you the opportunity to stand in front of these original materials all in one place,” says Whitaker.

Photo by Melissa Romero

The exhibit ends on the first floor of the museum, with the sixth and final section titled Eternal Present. Here, one finds a collection of Kahn’s work that he never saw come to life as the result of his untimely and fatal heart attack in Penn Station in 1974.

After a five-year-long exhibition showcased in 10 venues, Whitaker said, “It has run its course.” But despite all of the iterations of “Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture,” Whitaker managed to find at least one way to end the show on a different note than the rest.

A reproduction of the mural on display in the Morton Weiss house.
A reproduction of the mural on display at Kahn’s Jewish Community Center in New Jersey.
Photos by Melissa Romero

A floor-to-ceiling, black and white mural stands near the exit of the exhibition. It’s a reproduction of an abstract mural by Kahn and his long-time partner Anne Tyng that depicts the landscape of Pennsylvania. The original currently sits in the Morton Weiss House in East Norriton Township.

Though typically displayed in the House section of the exhibition, Whitaker says he made the decision at the eleventh hour to display the mural in the Eternal Present section. Of the nine homes that Louis Kahn designed in the Philadelphia region, the Morton Weiss House is the only one falling into disrepair and whose future remains uncertain in the hands of a developer.

Maybe, suggests Whitaker, placing Kahn’s work so prominently will not only highlight the enduring impact Kahn had on the field of architecture, but also remind people why his work is worth keeping around.

Says Whitaker, “With Kahn’s built legacy here in Philadelphia, we’re responsible for it. This exhibit gives us the opportunity to highlight that.”