Louis Kahn and Midcentury Modern Philadelphia
Richards Medical Research Laboratories (1957-65), Kahn's first significant institutional commission in Philadelphia. MARSHALL MEYERS COLLECTION, THE ARCHITECTURAL ARCHIVES, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA/PHOTO BY MARSHALL MEYERS

By Andrea W. Lowery
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XLI, Number 1 - Winter 2015

"A city should be a place where a little boy walking through its streets can sense what he would someday like to be." For Louis I. Kahn, arguably the most influential American architect of the late 20th century, that city was Philadelphia. Kahn spent nearly his entire life in Philadelphia, attending grade school through college, teaching, practicing and designing a number of buildings there. Although ultimately his work would be constructed from California to India, Philadelphia and southeast Pennsylvania became Kahn's laboratory for developing his approach to architecture and the site of most of his creations. Of the 70-odd Kahn-designed structures built during the architect's lifetime, 52 were in Pennsylvania.

Louis Isadore Kahn was born Leiser-Itze Schmuilowsky to Latvian parents in Estonia in 1901. His father, Leib Schmuilowsky (later Leopold Kahn) was a scribe, sign painter and translator with the Russian army, and his mother, Beila-Rebecka Mendelowitsch (later Bertha Kahn), was a gifted harpist.

At the age of three, Leiser had an accident that left him disfigured. Drawn to a glowing coal fire, he scooped the embers into his apron, which then burst into flames. His face and hands were severely burned, leaving permanent scars. Following the accident, Leiser's father reportedly thought his son would be better off dead. His mother, however, felt he was destined for greatness.

In 1906 Leiser, his mother and his younger brother and sister moved to Philadelphia to join his father who had emigrated two years earlier. The family lived in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia, where many other Jewish families had settled. It was here that the family adopted the surname Kahn, and Leiser became Louis.

Although shy as a boy, Louis became recognized by classmates and teachers for his drawing skill and was admitted to Philadelphia's Public Industrial Art School, where he enrolled in studio art classes. He later attended Central High School and continued his art studies through the Graphic Sketch Club, regularly winning prizes for painting and drawing.

Kahn planned to attend the Academy of Fine Arts on a scholarship, but in his last year at Central, he took an architectural history class that "touched the very core of [his] expressive desires." Those history lectures remained a lifelong touchstone for Kahn. At the age of 72 he recalled, "I can still see those examples after so many years as the most resounding influence . . . of powerful commonality." Kahn soon dropped his plans to pursue art and decided to study architecture. In fall 1920 he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania.

Louis Kahn in his office at 1501 Walnut Street in Philadelphia in the early 1970s. LOUIS I. KAHN COLLECTION, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA AND PENNSYLVANIA HISTORICAL AND MUSEUM COMMISSION/PHOTO BY JOAN RUGGLES

The program at Penn had roots in the Beaux-Arts tradition, and its faculty included noted architect Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945). Kahn studied with Cret, and their interaction would shape Kahn's approach to architecture for the rest of his life. Cret emphasized the tangible, believing in the importance of geometry and the relevance of history to contemporary design, both fundamental attitudes that Kahn incorporated in his work. Kahn's exposure to the intangible at Penn was equally important, however. He absorbed the idea that design must always be driven by the timeless quality or essence of a space, which would resonate with its occupants.

When Kahn graduated from Penn in 1924, the world of American architecture was dominated by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and Louis Sullivan (1856-1924); however, modern European voices like Le Corbusier (1887-1965), who advocated creating an architecture based on industry and machine, were gaining influence, and modernist architects who had emigrated from Europe like Rudolph Schindler (1887-1953) and Richard Neutra (1892-1970) were designing spare geometric buildings of concrete, stucco and glass. Kahn's first jobs, though, were not ones that embraced the modern movement. Instead, Kahn went to work first in the office of John Molitor (1872-1928), the City Architect of Philadelphia, and later for local architect William H. Lee (1884-1971), who was designing traditionally inspired buildings for Temple University. In April 1929 Kahn was hired by Cret to work in his office. After marrying Esther Israeli, a research assistant at the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Pennsylvania, Kahn went to work for Clarence Zantzinger (1872-1954), partner in a successful architecture firm with large public works projects such as the Treasury Building in Washington, D.C.

In February 1932 Kahn found himself, like many of his architect friends in Philadelphia, unemployed. He used this opportunity to become thoroughly engaged with other professionals in discussions about the direction of architecture. He was an active member of the T-Square Club of Philadelphia, which explored the new modernism that was taking hold, and Kahn himself cofounded the Architectural Research Group (ARG). Established in the throes of the Great Depression, ARG explored the architect's social responsibility, taking on mass housing as its main concern.

Although Kahn became registered in 1935 and began to independently design small projects, most of his work continued to focus on public housing, a subject in which he quickly became an expert. Over the next 10 years, Kahn worked for various federal and local housing programs, including the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, the U.S. Housing Authority and the Philadelphia Housing Authority. In 1940 he moved from advocate to activist, ultimately organizing a protest meeting to campaign for the use of federal funding toward the construction of communities. With his partners George Howe (1886-1955) and Oscar Stonorov (1905-70), Kahn designed several of these housing communities in Pennsylvania: Pennypack Woods in Philadelphia, Carver Court in Caln Township, Chester County, and Pine Ford Acres in Middletown, Dauphin County.

Kahn never stopped believing that it was the architect's responsibility to design in a way that promoted human interaction, even as he moved away from public housing and began to explore the individual house form. Beginning in the mid-1940s and continuing throughout the rest of his career, Kahn designed private residences in the expanding Philadelphia suburbs. Initially these houses were designed for friends or connections through his wife, but Kahn soon became sought-after, with admirers who discovered him through publicity or publications, petitioning him to design their houses. Prospective clients like Alice Seiver pursued Kahn, writing to no avail, "We'll wait for you."

For those clients he did take on, Kahn invested great energy in designing their houses, collaborating with them to understand their desires and frequently preparing multiple schemes, sometimes over a period as long as three years. Although many of the houses he designed remained unbuilt, Kahn used these opportunities to explore larger ideas related to his design philosophy. Between 1940 and 1973 he designed 24 houses, all but three sited in Pennsylvania. Of the nine he completed, eight were built in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Jessie and Ruth Oser House, Elkins Park (1940-42). LOUIS I. KAHN COLLECTION, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA AND PENNSYLVANIA HISTORICAL AND MUSEUM COMMISSION/ PHOTO BY GOTTSCHO-SCHLEISNER

Kahn's first love was always architecture, and everything else came second, including his personal life. Although he remained married to Esther until his death and had a daughter with her, he would have relationships with other women, ultimately fathering children by two women with whom he worked. Kahn's devotion to his work and his fractured personal life made the concept of home extremely complicated. Sue Ann Kahn, his daughter by Esther, once asked her father why he never built a house for them. She summed up their conversation saying, "He had the feeling that his personal life at home never lived up to his romantic ideal of what a home was."

The first house that Kahn designed was for his friends Jesse and Ruth Oser in Elkins Park, Montgomery County, in 1940-42. With this small residence, Kahn moved from the International Style toward a more vernacular one, an approach embraced by contemporary Philadelphia architects. "Pennsylvania has a long tradition in domestic architecture," Kahn reasoned. "Fine 18th century farm stone houses, 19th century colonial brick manors and the informally eclectic English suburban houses of the early years of this century attest to this fact." He concluded, "A contemporary approach to living is decidedly within this tradition not outside of it." In his houses, Kahn reconciled this idea of modern living with local building traditions.

The Oser House took advantage of its sloping site, providing a garage, utility space and workroom below the living areas. Details from the modern movement - projecting roof planes, corner steel casement windows and asymmetry - were combined with native building materials - Wissahickon schist and oiled cedar clapboards on the exterior and Mercer tiles and oak furniture designed by Kahn on the interior. At the Oser House, Kahn began using the expression of materials and construction methods to provide detail. Although Kahn was still far from a household name, he was gaining a foothold in the general public's awareness. The Oser House was featured in House and Garden in 1944 and in Architectural Forum in 1945.

In 1945 Kahn's approach to architecture was heavily influenced by an employee, Anne Griswold Tyng (1920-2011). Tyng had joined the Kahn-Stonorov practice in September 1945 after graduating from Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

One of the first women to emerge from the program, Tyng had studied under Bauhaus leaders Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and Marcel Breuer (1902-81). She brought to Kahn's work a rigorous use of geometry and Breuer's idea of a binuclear plan, which provided a clear division between daytime and nighttime areas of a house. "We were able to bring out each other's creativity, building on one another's ideas," Tyng later recalled.

In his next houses, Kahn continued to move toward vernacular building traditions. He derived details from the expression of construction and separations between building materials. For the Weiss House (1947-50) in East Norriton, Montgomery County, Kahn worked extensively with a local quarry, personally selecting weathered stones from the top of the quarry and overseeing the laying of the masonry to ensure that the deeply raked joints achieved the appearance of dry-laid stone. He felt this continuation of tradition was important and remarked, "The general compatibility of one material to another was well understood and well handled in Colonial days. We are still carrying out the same spirit if not in the same exact forms today." The Weiss House garnered further attention for Kahn, winning the Gold Medal from the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Esther and Louis Kahn on their wedding trip, 1930. ESTHER KAHN COLLECTION, THE ARCHITECTURAL ARCHIVES, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA

During the 1940s the expression of the modern style continued to be the subject of debate within the architectural community. The question was how the modern style could achieve monumentality, a transcendental, spiritual quality that was timeless. The general public still perceived monumentality to be associated with styles derived from classicism. Kahn's own view, expressed in an essay published in 1944, advocated a return to studying the history of architecture. He wrote that monumental structures of the past "have the common characteristics of greatness upon which the buildings of our future must in one sense or another rely." He believed that history provides the point of beginning for monumental architecture, but that its expression using new technology results in a modern form.

In 1947 Kahn ended his partnership with Stonorov and established his own office. His work continued to be strongly residential, although he began to be awarded commissions for institutional buildings. From 1948 to 1952 Kahn designed and constructed two buildings for the Philadelphia Psychiatric Hospital, which despite being institutional in name were residential in function. There he experimented with the control of natural light and privacy using sunshades and a double-hung shutter system he had developed for the Weiss House.

In February 1950 the American Academy in Rome invited Kahn to be the architect in residence. He took the opportunity to see both ancient architecture in Italy, Greece and Egypt and modern European works, such as Le Corbusier's housing block, the Unité d'Habitation. Kahn's drawings from this period show his growing appreciation for the mass, timelessness and elemental nature of ancient architecture and for how changing light gave those buildings their character. Kahn felt that light was a key element in the making of spaces, providing a balance to mass and structure. "No space is really an architectural space unless it has natural light," he noted.

While in Rome, Kahn received his first major commission as the architect for Yale University's new art gallery. The building, constructed of brick, concrete, glass and steel, was a strong departure from the Gothic Revival structures that made up the campus. Reflecting Kahn's appreciation for mass and the expression of construction, the masonry walls and thickened floor slabs clearly articulate the physics of the building and celebrate the nature of the materials used. Kahn concentrated the bathrooms, stairs and elevator at the center of the building with gallery and teaching space surrounding the core. This strengthened the geometric order of the building and underscored the distinction between served (galleries) and servant (the stair core) spaces, a hallmark of Kahn's work. Tyng's influence is seen not only in the building's geometry but in her vision for the innovative sculptural floor slabs that express construction techniques and provide interstitial spaces to thread the exposed mechanical and electrical systems. The building opened in 1953 to wide press coverage and significant acclaim.

Following his return from Rome, Kahn continued to experiment with geometry, creating structures using an idealized form - the cube - arranged in groupings of pavilions. Kahn experimented with this form in the Trenton Bathhouse (1952-57) in Ewing Township, New Jersey, and two houses that were never built, the DeVore House and the Adler House. At the bathhouse, Kahn used five interlocking cubes arranged with Palladian bisymmetry, while in the houses, the pavilions were asymmetrically grouped. In all three designs, Kahn used the distinct pavilions to further develop his ideas of servant and served spaces.

In 1959 and 1960 Kahn made two more trips that transformed the way he thought about light and its interaction with architecture. First he visited Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp and the monastery at La Tourette. These well-known French buildings, with their massive walls, light scoops and changing natural light, deeply impressed Kahn. Several months later he travelled to Japan. There he saw how light was modulated in traditional architecture using shoji screens, wooden shutters and blinds. Kahn absorbed these ideas, eventually incorporating his own versions within his designs.

Living room window seat at Norman and Doris Fisher House, Hatboro (1960-67). PHOTOS BY KYLE R. WEAVER

During the 1960s and 1970s Kahn designed an increasing number of institutional buildings. Like his residential projects, most of these were situated in his adopted home state. The first, and among the most prominent, was the Richards Medical Research Laboratories (1957-65) at the University of Pennsylvania. Kahn, who had taken a teaching position in the architecture department at the university in 1955, wanted to design large-scale work in Philadelphia and found a champion in the dean of fine arts, G. Holmes Perkins (1904-2004), who recommended Kahn be given the commission.

In the laboratories, Kahn continued to explore many of the motifs he had been experimenting with previously. He looked to the function, a research building for scientists, to guide the design. The served spaces, three towers that housed scientific laboratories and a fourth devoted to animals, were arranged in a pinwheel. At the center of the pinwheel was the primary servant space, the stair and elevator core, with secondary servant spaces, the exhaust shafts, located on the outside of the pinwheel. Kahn's structural engineer, August Komendant, took the slab innovation at Yale University Art Gallery another step forward in that project, developing a perforated structural frame through which mechanical and electrical systems could be woven. Kahn used precast, posttensioned reinforced concrete, clearly articulating the construction of the building through the expression of joints and interlocking members.

The Richards Medical Research Laboratories was considered groundbreaking within the elite architecture world. With critics referencing Italian hill towns and Scottish castles, Kahn had achieved what modern architecture had previously been unable to do - reference the history of architecture in a thoroughly modern way.

Kahn's other Pennsylvania commercial works included the Tribune Review Publishing Company Building (1958-62) in Greensburg, Westmoreland County, and the Olivetti-Underwood Factory (1966-70) in Harrisburg, Dauphin County. Both reveal Kahn's fascination with light and its relationship to structure and space. In Greensburg, Kahn developed the keyhole window, with a lower narrow section that offers a view at the occupant level and an upper, wider portion that distributes light without glare. In Harrisburg, Kahn used skylight monitors with prismatic shells to bring daylight into the vast factory space.

Perhaps Kahn's most unusual projects of this period were two barges, Point Counterpoint and Point Counterpoint II, commissioned by Robert Boudreau (1927- ), a well-known Pennsylvania orchestra conductor. The first barge, planned for water music performances on the Thames River in Great Britain, was designed by Kahn in 1961. The second barge, designed in 1964-67 to play music on the American waterways during the Bicentennial, was constructed after Kahn's death. The later barge, anchored in the Pittsburgh area, continues to travel the United States with concerts performed by the American Wind Symphony Orchestra.

Although Kahn's residential work slowed as this other work increased, he continued to design private houses. Between 1959 and 1962 he planned and oversaw the construction of the Margaret Esherick House in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. Intended for a single occupant, it is compact but still features Kahn's servant and served spaces. The separation between public and private, reflected in plan, is also articulated on the exterior: a massive stucco wall faces the street while the rear elevation features large windows that open to Pastorius Park.

Rear view of Margaret Esherick House, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia (1959-62). THE ARCHITECTURAL ARCHIVES, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA/PHOTO BY WILLIAM WHITAKER

In the Esherick House, Kahn experimented with modulating light using techniques based on his observations in France and Japan. The layered exterior walls provide varying levels of privacy and natural light. Wood features include cypress shutters inspired by his 1959 trip to France, teak built-in bookcases, an oak wall in the living room and a rough oak beam that supports the balcony above the living room. The interplay of light and rich natural wood used throughout the house enlivens the building. The Esherick House was immediately noted in both popular and professional journals of the day from House and Garden to Architecture d'Aujourd'hui.

Kahn spent much of the 1960s working on a house for Norman and Doris Fisher in Hatboro, Montgomery County. In the Fisher House (1960-67), he continued to investigate geometry and the separation of private and living areas, but altered the relationship of the zones, allowing the clear expression of distinct public and private areas by setting the two cubes at an angle, an idea he was simultaneously exploring in Erdman Hall at Bryn Mawr College.

In the Fisher House, Kahn again turned to native natural materials. The lower walls are constructed of a local limestone known as Montgomeryville stone and the upper walls are clad in vertical cypress siding. The living room features a large free-standing stone fireplace, an oak window seat and rough plaster walls. The different textures allow the light to give rich expression to the space. Throughout the house, deeply recessed windows provide varied surfaces for light and shadow as well as opportunities to incorporate built-in furniture. As in Kahn's other houses, the use of wood brought warmth and tradition to the modern form.

The final residence Kahn designed, the Korman House (1971-73), was built in Whitemarsh Township, Montgomery County. The Kormans wanted a house that would be hospitable, cheerful and easy to manage, where they could raise their three sons. Kahn gave the Kormans a light-filled structure that promoted family interaction. Constructed on a scale far larger than Kahn's previous commissions, the Korman House, while thoroughly modern in expression, is strongly tied to the country house tradition of suburban Philadelphia. It features large brick chimneys that flank the public portion of the house, a wall of windows that overlook the garden and timber posts and beams that clearly express the structure, continuing the custom of local architects like Wilson Eyre (1858-1944).

For Kahn, the decades of the 1960s and 1970s were the busiest of his career. A series of large commissions took him far from Pennsylvania and allowed him to put his ideas of monumentality into practice. These included the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (1959-65) in La Jolla, California; the Indian Institute of Management (1962-74) in Ahmedabad, India; the Bangladesh National Capital (1962-74) in Dhaka; the Kimbell Art Museum (1966-72) in Fort Worth, Texas; the Phillips Exeter Library (1965-72) in Exeter, New Hampshire; and the Yale Center for British Art (1969-74) in New Haven, Connecticut. Interestingly, this work would become better known than the many buildings he designed across Pennsylvania.

Each project allowed Kahn to explore the idea of creating spaces that promoted human interaction on a grand scale. To achieve this, he designed layered spaces, often using a double exterior shell that provided both modulated light and ambulatories that allowed varying levels of engagement with the building and other occupants. Kahn continued to explore geometry, structure, mass and light in the search for transcendent and timeless buildings. There is an elemental quality to these designs, each of which features striking pure forms, monumental massing and a spiritual quality of light.

Kahn working on the design of the Fisher House, 1961. THE ARCHITECTURAL ARCHIVES, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA/PHOTO BY GEORGE POHL

On March 17, 1974, Kahn returned from inspecting the work at the Indian Institute of Management. He flew into New York, where he planned to catch a train to Philadelphia. While in the men's room at Pennsylvania Station, he had a heart attack and died. Upon his death, the New York Times hailed him as "America's foremost living architect." Although internationally renowned, Kahn died with his office $464,423.83 in debt. He was buried in Montefiore Cemetery in Jenkintown, Montgomery County, on March 22, 1974.

In 1976 Kahn's debt was cleared when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania purchased the entire archive of his office, including nearly 6,500 sketches, 40,000 office drawings, notebooks and sketchbooks, more than 15,000 photographs, 100 models, 150 boxes of correspondence and project files, and Kahn's personal library, on behalf of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for $450,000. Today, the collection is maintained by The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, where it is on loan.


Hallmarks of Kahn's Architecture

Material: Kahn moved away from steel and glass toward materials with more mass. His buildings often feature brick, concrete and stone. His houses employ local stone and wood elements, including siding, built-ins and flooring.

Construction: Kahn used the expression of construction - joints and the marks of building materials and construction techniques - to provide detail. He often set contrasting materials side by side, fully expressing the separation of materials with a shadow joint.

Natural light: Kahn felt that light was what gave buildings their form, and he used its changing nature to enliven his designs. He layered walls, using massive planes with penetrations, keyhole windows and movable shutters to modulate light. He provided contrasting textures and rich materials to allow the light to express the space with a modulated and spiritual quality.

Plan: Kahn employed geometry, often using the square as his module. In plan he separated servant and served spaces of a building.


More on Kahn

The Houses of Louis Kahn by George H. Marcus and William Whitaker (Yale University Press, 2013) is the first book to focus on Kahn's domestic architecture. It explores Kahn's personal life and his ideas of home, his relationships with his clients and the maturation of his architectural thinking as expressed in his houses, built and unbuilt.

Louis I. Kahn: Writings, Lectures, Interviews, edited by Alessandra LaTour (Rizzoli, 1991), is an essential collection of Kahn's papers.

The 2003 documentary My Architect: A Son's Journey (New Yorker Video, 2006) features powerful images of Kahn's buildings, family interviews and the compelling personal narrative of Nathaniel Kahn, who was 11 when his father died. In the film, Nathaniel searches to understand his father and the legacy he left behind.

Steve and Toby Korman House, Whitemarsh Township (1971-73). PHOTO BY KYLE R. WEAVER


The author would like to thank Curt Miner, Senior Curator, The State Museum of Pennsylvania, for reviewing this article. The editor gratefully acknowledges Nancy Thorne, Archivist/Cataloguer at The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, for her assistance in providing images to illustrate this feature.


Andrea W. Lowery, R.A., is an architect and architectural historian. She specializes in historic preservation and works with PHMC's Division of Architecture and Preservation, which maintains the agency's statewide collection of historic buildings.