Louis I. Kahn was born in Russian Estonia in 1901; he grew up in Philadelphia, where he was based throughout his career. An award-winning graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Kahn struggled to find work early in his career. In 1935 he was hired by Bauhaus-influenced architect Alfred Kastner to assist at Jersey Homesteads (now called Roosevelt), a planned community built by the New Deal Resettlement Administration. Kahn’s work at Jersey Homesteads drew some notice, and afterwards he won a few modest commissions.
In 1947 Kahn took a teaching position at Yale University, where he remained for eight years, before assuming a professorship at his alma mater. During a year at the American Academy in Rome in 1950, Kahn was inspired by the majesty of the ancient ruins he saw on travels in Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Back in the United States, Kahn received his first major commission—an extension to the Yale Art Gallery—in which he demonstrated that a modern building could express the spiritual power of classical monuments.
After the Yale project, in short order Kahn designed the Trenton Bath House, the Richards Medical Center in Philadelphia, the Salk Institute, a scientific research facility in La Jolla, California, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth Texas. Each project in its own way featured Kahn’s signature style—dramatic natural light, visually compelling spaces, and simple, unadorned building materials.
Despite growing acclaim, Kahn struggled more than other architects of his caliber, although he did receive three important academic commissions—at Bryn Mawr College, Exeter Academy, and another project at Yale. Kahn had many significant commissions in the United States at the time of his death, among them a major museum for the De Menil Foundation in Texas, the Pocono Arts Center in Pennsylvania, to be the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra and other groups, and the FDR Four Freedoms Memorial Park at the southern end of Roosevelt Island in New York City’s East River. Construction of the FDR Memorial Park was completed in 2012.
His last major works, both overseas—the Institute of Public Administration in Ahmedabad, India, and the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh—were underway in 1974 when Kahn was felled by a heart attack in New York City’s Pennsylvania Station as he was returning to Philadelphia from a trip to his Ahmedabad project.