Louis Kahn’s built works are monuments to the architect himself, testaments of his ability to mesh materials, let in the light, and create astounding structures, all while taking in each site’s natural surroundings, whether they were a leafy Philadelphia neighborhood or the deserts of Ahmedabad, India.
Here, we whittled down the architect’s long list of works to pull out the best of Kahn, from the last house he ever designed to what his son Nathaniel Kahn once described as his father’s greatest building, the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh—one that Kahn never lived to see. With help from illustrator Ben Leech, Kahn’s greatest, most monumental hits are shown here, divided between the four elements the architect was so known for: structure, material, light, and nature.
Note: In honor of Kahn’s birthday on Wednesday, February 20, we’ve updating this guide to remind readers of the architect’s most spectacular works.
In what is now one of his most famous speeches, Kahn once told a group of students in 1971, “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ And brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ And you say to brick, ‘Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel.’ And then you say: ‘What do you think of that, brick?’ Brick says: ‘I like an arch.’ And it’s important, you see, that you honor the material that you use.”
By that point, Kahn had mastered the use of materials in a variety of his built projects, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Richards Medical Laboratories, which was one of the rare modern buildings of the time to use brick, to the concrete and sensitive teak wood of the Salk Institute in California.
The current owners of the Esherick House in Chestnut Hill, one of Kahn’s most notable residential projects, say that after years of living in their home, they constantly see the house in a new light—literally. That was Kahn’s intention with not only the Esherick House, but all of his designs.
“No space, architecturally,” Kahn once said, “is a space unless it has natural light.” Kahn’s talents as a master choreographer of natural light is evident in all of his projects, but is especially on display at the Esherick House in Philadelphia, the Trenton Bath House in New Jersey, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the First Unitarian Church of Rochester with its light towers.
Kahn was not a landscape architect, unlike his professional and romantic partner and mother of his son Nathaniel, Harriet Pattison. Still, his built projects show his sensitivity to nature, whether it’s at Four Freedoms Park in New York, which was built many decades after his death, or the grounds at the Kahn Korman House in Pennsylvania.
Perhaps the most blunt example, though, is Kahn’s floating performance barge designed for conductor Robert Austin Boudreau in 1964. Though last year, the barge—called the Point Counterpoint II—was at risk of demolition, it has since found a permanent home in Florida. The mobile performance venue has been heralded as having helped the American Wind Symphony Orchestra “make cultural waves on the waterfront,” just as Kahn would have hoped.
At the heart of any architect’s work is structure, or what kind of shape a building will take. For Kahn, his projects always started with one idea: the room. “The room is the beginning of architecture,” he said in a 1971 speech. “It is the place of the mind. You in the room with its dimensions, its structure, its light respond to its character, its spiritual aura, recognizing that whatever the human proposes and makes becomes a life.”
At the Class of 1945 Phillips Academy Exeter Library in New Hampshire, Kahn created a dramatic, 70-foot-tall first floor that is bathed in natural light and features massive circular cut-outs on every level. The innovative structure is meant to make visitors immediately understand the function of the spaces upon entering the library.
- Scenes from “My Architect” [Ted Talk]
- Solving Salk’s mystery [Curbed]
- A tour of Louis Kahn’s Esherick House [Curbed Philly]
- Pioneering landscape architect Harriet Pattison finally gets her due [Curbed]
- Louis Kahn-designed floating concert hall in danger of demolition [Curbed]
- Louis Kahn’s floating concert hall finds a permanent home in Palm Beach County [Architects’ Newspaper]