This Day in Jewish History / A Visionary Architect Dies

Louis Kahn, whose buildings were known for their intellectual rigor and spirituality, was one of the 20th century's most influential architects.

March 17, 1974 is the day Louis I. Kahn, one of the great – if not sufficiently recognized -- architects of the 20th century, died at the age of 73.

Intellectual, spiritually inclined and uncompromising in his work, Kahn had relatively few commissions during his lifetime; when he died, he was several hundred thousand dollars in debt. Yet he was an influential teacher who trained a number of architects who went on to become far more successful commercially, including Israeli Moshe Safdie (responsible for the renovated Yad Vashem and Jerusalem's Mamilla complex), Robert Venturi and Renzo Piano. Critical regard for Kahn’s designs has increased exponentially in the nearly four decades since his death.

Kahn was born Leiser-Itze Schmuilowsky, in Parnu, Estonia, on February 20, 1901. When he was 5, the family, anticipating that his father might be drafted into the Russian army to fight in the Russo-Japanese War, moved to the United States, settling in Philadelphia. They changed their family name to Kahn in 1912. 

Kahn was first exposed to architecture in a high school course and continued with formal studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Early in his career, he worked for the city of Philadelphia, as well as privately, and was involved in a number of public projects for both the city and federal government. Additionally, Kahn taught at both Penn and at Yale.

A trip to Europe in the 1950s, including a stay at the American Academy in Rome, had a decisive influence on Kahn. He spent considerable time studying the ancient architecture of Italy, Greece and Egypt, and drawing the ruins of temples found in each place. In his subsequent designs, which he described once as “ruins in reverse,” he aimed to achieve both the monumental quality and the spiritual mystery embedded in these structures. He accomplished this with simple, often unburnished materials – in particular brick and concrete -- and through a subtle manipulation of light and space.

Kahn’s most acclaimed public buildings include the Indian Institute for Management in Ahmedabad (1962), the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (1965), the Kimbell Art Gallery in Fort Worth, Texas (1972), the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh (1974) and the Yale Center for British Art (1974).

His design for a park commemorating the “Four Freedoms” address of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was realized only recently and opened to the public in October 2012. Kahn had finished it shortly before his death but the project was put on hold when the City of New York went nearly bankrupt in 1975. Situated on the southern end of Roosevelt Island in the East River, it is Kahn’s only work in New York.

Kahn had a memorable visit to Israel shortly after the Six-Day War, when he was invited by Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek to rebuild the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City's Jewish Quarter. Kahn preceded his visit to the site with a sojourn in the Judean Desert and the design he later proposed seemed to embody some of quiet majesty he absorbed there.

Far from a reconstruction of the Ottoman-era building that had been destroyed by the Jordanians along with 47 other synagogues in the Old City during the Israel War of Independence, Kahn’s proposal was for a simple, temple-like structure covered in Jerusalem stone, and illuminated by natural light. It was to be linked to the Western Wall plaza by a route that he described as the “Street of the Prophets.”

Kahn died before the Hurva project could be realized, but the amount of opposition it elicited made it unlikely that it would have been built even if he had lived. In the end, after several more decades of debate, what did rise on the site was an exact reconstruction of the synagogue that had been blown up in 1948.

Although his architectural work often took him to such remote locations as India and Bangladesh, Louis Kahn lived nearly his entire life in Philadelphia, where he also taught and had a small office.

So it was something of a surprise when, a decade ago, filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn, in his documentary film “My Architect: A Son’s Journey,” revealed that he was the illegitimate son of Louis Kahn. It turned out that in addition to the daughter he raised with his wife, Kahn also had children with two other women, one of whom was Nathaniel’s mother, and that all three children grew up in Philadelphia unaware of the existence of the others.

Louis I. Kahn died of a heart attack after returning from a work trip to India. He was found in the men’s room at Penn Station, in New York, as he was preparing to board a train for Philadelphia. His body went unidentified for four days.

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