Louis Kahn established himself as a prolific architect even during his relatively short career. The University of Pennsylvania’s architectural archives holds more than 6,000 drawings by Kahn, who designed everything from monumental buildings to master plans to public housing developments. Though many of them were unbuilt, those that did come to fruition cemented his role as one of the most influential modern architects the world has ever known.
Although his built projects are scattered far and wide across the globe, Kahn, who lived in Philadelphia, designed a long list of projects in the Northeast region. Here are 10 of his projects, big and small, that have withstood the test of time in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.
Kahn also designed nine homes throughout the Philadelphia region, which are privately owned and not open to the public. Take a tour of all of them here.
Note: In honor of what would be Kahn’s 118th birthday last week, we are updating some of our most well-read pieces on the prolific architect. Find more here.
Richards Medical Research Laboratories
Revered by architects and reviled by the scientists they were designed for, this collection of medical labs at the University of Pennsylvania was built in 1962 and designed by Kahn, who at the time was an architecture professor at the School of Design.
The labs, now considered a National Historic Landmark, were groundbreaking: They were Kahn’s tallest project at the time, as well as the first ever to use precast concrete. Though heralded by architecture critics, Kahn’s decision to use open floor plans was met with great hostility from folks who actually had to work there: the lab scientists.
Penn recently completed a restoration and renovation of two of the four towers, transforming Richards Medical Research Laboratories “into the building Kahn always wanted it to be,” as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic Inga Saffron put it.
Erdman Hall at Bryn Mawr University
Located on the edge of Bryn Mawr College’s bucolic campus is Erdman Hall, a female-only dormitory designed by Kahn and built in 1965. Designed as a modern Scottish castle, the dorm consists of three diamond-shaped concrete boxes whose facades are clad in slate.
Notably, it was the last project that Kahn worked on with partner Anne Tyng, and their dueling visions for the dormitory resulted in what biographer Wendy Lesser called “at best a partial failure” in You Say to Brick. Ultimately, Kahn’s vision for Erdman Hall took precedent over Tyng’s, who then refused to continue working on the project.
Wharton Esherick was one of the most notable sculptors and furniture designers of his time—and a close friend of Kahn’s. While Esherick designed his own studio and home in the woods of Malvern, he turned to Kahn to co-design his workshop. Their competing visions for the space are on display in the final result, with Esherick’s trademark curved details matched by Kahn’s straight and angular walls.
This wasn’t the only time the two worked together: Kahn also designed Esherick’s niece’s home in Chestnut Hill, while the uncle was responsible for her kitchen. Today, the museum is a National Historic Landmark that’s open to visitors. The workshop, while on the grounds, is now closed and used as a private residence for Wharton’s daughter and her husband.
In 1952, the Jewish Community Center in Trenton hired Kahn to design their new community center. Ultimately, the only two buildings that ever came of that were the Trenton Bath House and a pavilion. Kahn designed the bath house with his partner Anne Tyng, creating four rooms that all connect to the central, open-air atrium in the shape of a cross. A black, white, and orange geometric mural, also created by Kahn and Tyng, adorns one of the exterior walls of the bath house.
Though aspects of Tyng’s symmetrical geometries are on full display here, the Trenton Bath House is considered Kahn’s first step toward the monumental projects he would go on to design, including the Richards Medical Laboratories three years later. In fact, it’s been said that while the Richards Medical Laboratories is when the world discovered Lou, the Trenton Bath House is when Lou discovered himself, according to the documentary My Architect.
Today, Roosevelt, New Jersey, is a quiet town full of modernist homes that have drawn a steady stream of artists to the area. But Roosevelt originally started out as the Jersey Homesteads, a community of simple, modern homes built during the New Deal era to resettle Jewish garment workers living in tenements in New York and Philadelphia and provide a community with affordable housing, a farm, a factory, and retail.
Though architect Alfred Kastner took the lead on the project, he hired Kahn as his assistant. Kastner and Kahn designed 200 cinder-block homes, originally painted white, with flat Bauhaus roofs. Today, some of the homes have been altered, but the community is now the only town in New Jersey that is on the state and national registers of historic places.
Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island has the distinction of being the last-built work of Kahn and his only New York City project. Although Kahn was hired as the architect in 1973, he would never see it come to fruition, as the triangular park didn’t make its debut until 2012, nearly four decades after his death.
Kahn partnered with landscape architect Harriet Pattison, and as with Tyng, the two had contrasting ideas about FDR Park. Kahn wanted a more enclosed space while Pattison argued for a long, open approach. Ultimately, Pattison’s idea of including a long alley of trees was picked by the clients.
One of Kahn’s most significant works was also one of his first: The architect designed the Yale University Art Gallery and Design Center, which opened its doors in 1953. Located next to a series of neo-Gothic structures, Kahn’s building stands out as the first modernist building on Yale’s campus in New Canaan, Connecticut.
The box of a building is made of glass, masonry, steel, and concrete. Kahn’s building was heralded for its geometry and use of light, a trend that would continue in the architect’s design of the Kimball Art Museum in Texas. The Yale University Art Gallery is largely considered the building that kicked off Kahn’s career.
Just across the street from the Yale University Art Gallery sits the Yale Center for British Art, the final building that Kahn designed before his untimely death in 1974. The four-story museum was designed to house the art collection of Paul Mellon. The exterior features matte steel and reflective glass, but the interiors are awash in light and natural materials.
When it opened in 1977, it became the first museum in the U.S. to include retail shops in the design. A 2005 recipient of the AIA Twenty-Five Year Award, the Yale Center for British Art opened its doors again after undergoing a 16-month-long restoration in 2016.
When the iconic library in Exeter, New Hampshire, opened in 1971, it was to great relief for the academy, which had spent nearly 15 years working with a number architects before finally hiring Kahn. The library, built for the class of 1945, was famously designed by Kahn with an emphasis “on housing readers using books.”
The result is a building whose function is immediately understood upon entering the library. The main entrance provides a clear view of the library’s spaces, from the circulation desk to the book stacks.
When it came to designing for religious institutions, Kahn had some big heartbreaks, like the failure of the proposed Mikveh Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia. But whatever loss Kahn experienced from those let-downs he put toward designing the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, which today is a National Landmark.
Kahn was hired by First Unitarian to design its new church in 1959, just a few years after completing the Yale University Art Gallery. Interestingly, he wasn’t the only architect considered for the job: Frank Lloyd Wright was an obvious candidate, though his fees were too expensive for the congregation. Eero Saarinen didn’t have time to take on another project. The congregation chose to work with Kahn, whose philosophical and Unitarian beliefs seemed to jibe well with theirs.
He ultimately designed what is considered one of the most significant religious structures in America, a church whose brick exterior is characterized by multiple light towers. Inside, the sanctuary is the highlight, with indirect light flowing in via the towers and a complex, vaulted ceiling highlighting the space.