Louis I. Kahn: The Making of a Room

Early Work

“The Plan – A society of rooms is a place good to live work learn”

“The Room is the place of the mind”

“In a small room one does not say what one would in a large room”

Louis Kahn often spoke of his notion that the first school “probably began with a man under a tree, and around him the listeners to the words of his mind.” He designed his rooms around such imagined conversations embodying the desires of the individuals who would gather within them.

Kahn’s drawings encouraged his clients to envision the conversations taking place in his buildings as a slice of real life. Here, a mother scolds a playful child in their living room, a nun gazes upward in the privacy of her cell, a family group stands at the entrance of a shopping arcade, and an assembly of worshippers pray in a synagogue. Even in his
depictions of entire buildings, Kahn peopled his drawings with anecdotal illustrations that reveal an understanding that the size and character of a room must be expressive of the conversations that take place there.


Click on the thumbnail images below for a larger view.

the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

Mr. and Mrs. H. Leonard Fruchter House
1951-54, unbuilt
Perspectives of Living Room
Pencil and colored pencil on paper
Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

Kansas City Office Building
Kansas City, Missouri
1966-73, unbuilt
Perspective of Plaza Level Entrance to Shopping Arcade
Charcoal on tracing paper
Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

Mikveh Israel Synagogue
1961-72, unbuilt
Perspective of Chapel
Pencil and Negro pencil on tracing paper
Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

Dominican Mother House
Media, Pennsylvania
1965-69, unbuilt
Partial Plan, Section, and Perspective of Dormitory Cell
Pencil and Negro pencil on tracing paper
Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical Museums Commission

the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

Hurva Synagogue
1967-74, unbuilt
Section Studies
Graphite and Negro pencil on tracing paper
Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

“A room with only one other person could be generative. The vectors of each meet”


“A room is not a room without natural light”

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Louis Kahn: The Making of a Room



Louis Isadore Kahn  (March 5 [O.S. February 20] 1901 – March 17, 1974) was an American architect,  based in Philadelphia. After working in various capacities for several firms in Philadelphia, he founded his own atelier in 1935. While continuing his private practice, he served as a design critic and professor of architecture at Yale School of Architecture from 1947 to 1957.


From 1957 until his death, he was a professor of architecture at the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. Kahn created a style that was monumental and monolithic; his heavy buildings do not hide their weight, their materials, or the way they are assembled. Louis Kahn’s works are considered as monumental beyond modernism. Famous for his meticulously built works, his provocative proposals that remained unbuilt, and his teaching, Kahn was one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. He was awarded the AIA Gold Medal and the RIBA Gold Medal. At the time of his death he was considered by some as “America’s foremost living architect





Early life

Jesse Oser House, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (1940)

Louis Kahn, whose orig­i­nal name was Itze-Leib (Leiser-Itze) Schmuilowsky (Schmalowski), was born into a poor Jew­ish fam­ily in Pärnu,[4] for­merly in czarist Russia, but now in Estonia. He spent his early child­hood in Kuressaare on the is­land of Saaremaa, then part of the Russian Empire’s Livonian Governorate.[1] At the age of three, he saw coals in the stove and was cap­ti­vated by the light of the coal. He put the coal in his apron, which caught on fire and seared his face.[5] He car­ried these scars for the rest of his life.[6]

In 1906, his fam­ily em­i­grated to the United States, as they feared that his fa­ther would be re­called into the mil­i­tary dur­ing the Russo-Japanese War. His birth year may have been in­ac­cu­rately recorded in the process of im­mi­gra­tion. Ac­cord­ing to his son’s 2003 doc­u­men­tary film, the fam­ily could not af­ford pen­cils. They made their own char­coal sticks from burnt twigs so that Louis could earn a lit­tle money from draw­ings.   Later he earned money by play­ing piano to ac­com­pany silent movies in the­aters. He be­came a naturalized citizen on May 15, 1914. His fa­ther changed their name to Kahn in 1915. 


Kahn trained at the University of Pennsylvania in a rig­or­ous Beaux-Arts tradition, with its em­pha­sis on draw­ing. After com­plet­ing his Bachelor of Architecture in 1924, Kahn worked as se­nior drafts­man in the of­fice of the city ar­chi­tect, John Molitor. He worked on the de­signs for the 1926 Sesqui­cen­ten­nial Exposition. 

In 1928, Kahn made a Eu­ro­pean tour. He was in­ter­ested par­tic­u­larly in the me­dieval walled city of Carcassonne, France, and the cas­tles of Scotland, rather than any of the strong­holds of classicism or modernism.[9] After re­turn­ing to the United States in 1929, Kahn worked in the of­fices of Paul Philippe Cret, his for­mer stu­dio critic at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, and then with Zantzinger, Borie and Medary in Philadel­phia. 

In 1932, Kahn and Dominique Berninger founded the Architectural Re­search Group, whose mem­bers were in­ter­ested in the populist social agenda and new aesthetics of the Eu­ro­pean avant-gardes. Among the pro­jects Kahn worked on dur­ing this col­lab­o­ra­tion are schemes for pub­lic hous­ing that he had pre­sented to the Public Works Administration, which sup­ported some sim­i­lar pro­jects dur­ing the Great Depression.   They re­mained un­built.

the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute

Among the more im­por­tant of Kahn’s early col­lab­o­ra­tions was one withGeorge Howe.[10] Kahn worked with Howe in the late 1930s on pro­jects for the Philadelphia Hous­ing Authority and again in 1940, along with German-born ar­chi­tect Oscar Stonorov, for the de­sign of hous­ing de­vel­op­ments in other parts of Pennsylvania.[11] A for­mal ar­chi­tec­tural of­fice part­ner­ship be­tween Kahn and Oscar Stonorov began in Feb­ru­ary 1942 and ended in March 1947, which pro­duced fifty-four doc­u­mented pro­jects and build­ings.[12][13]

Kahn did not ar­rive at his dis­tinc­tive ar­chi­tec­tural style until he was in his fifties. Ini­tially work­ing in a fairly or­tho­dox ver­sion of the In­ter­na­tional Style, he was in­flu­enced vi­tally by a stay as Ar­chi­tect in Res­i­dence at the American Acad­emy in Rome dur­ing 1950, which marked a turn­ing point in his ca­reer. After vis­it­ing the ruins of an­cient build­ings in Italy, Greece, and Egypt, he adopted a back-to-the-basics ap­proach. He de­vel­oped his own style as in­flu­enced by ear­lier mod­ern move­ments, but not lim­ited by their sometimes-dogmatic ide­olo­gies.

In 1961 he re­ceived a grant from the Graham Foun­da­tion for Ad­vanced Stud­ies in the Fine Arts to study traffic movement in Philadelphia and to cre­ate a pro­posal for a viaduct sys­tem

He de­scribed this pro­posal at a lec­ture given in 1962 at the In­ter­na­tional De­sign Con­fer­ence in Aspen, Col­orado:

In the cen­ter of town the streets should be­come build­ings. This should be in­ter­played with a sense of move­ment which does not tax local streets for non-local traf­fic. There should be a sys­tem of viaducts which en­case an area which can re­claim the local streets for their own use, and it should be made so this viaduct has a ground floor of shops and us­able area. A model which I did for the Gra­ham Foun­da­tion re­cently, and which I pre­sented to Mr. En­tenza, showed the scheme.

Kahn’s teach­ing ca­reer began at Yale University in 1947. He even­tu­ally was named as the Albert F. Bemis Professor of Architecture and Planning at Massachusetts In­sti­tute of Technology in 1956. Kahn then re­turned to Philadel­phia to teach at the University of Pennsylvania from 1957 until his death, be­com­ing the Paul Philippe Cret Pro­fes­sor of Architecture. He also was a vis­it­ing lec­turer at Princeton University from 1961 to 1967.

Legacy and honors

Kahn was elected a Fellow in the American In­sti­tute of Architects (AIA) in 1953. He was made a mem­ber of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Arts and Let­ters in 1964. He was awarded the Frank P. Brown Medal in 1964. In 1965 he was elected into the National Acad­emy of Design as an As­so­ci­ate Aca­d­e­mi­cian. He was made a mem­ber of theAmerican Acad­emy of Arts and Sciences in 1968 and awarded the AIA Gold Medal, the high­est award given by the AIA, in 1971,[17] and the Royal Gold Medal by the RIBA, in 1972.

Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban

the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

Play of light inside Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban

Jatiyo Sang­shad Bhaban (Na­tional As­sem­bly Build­ing) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is per­haps the most im­por­tant build­ing de­signed by Kahn. Kahn got the de­sign con­tract with the help of Muzharul Islam, one of his stu­dents at Yale University, who worked with him on the pro­ject. It was Kahn’s last pro­ject, de­vel­oped dur­ing 1962 to 1974. The Par­lia­ment build­ing is the cen­ter­piece of the na­tional cap­i­tal com­plex de­signed by Kahn that in­cludes hos­tels, din­ing halls, and a hos­pi­tal. Ac­cord­ing to Robert Mc­Carter, au­thor of Louis I. Kahn, »it is one of the twen­ti­eth century’s great­est ar­chi­tec­tural mon­u­ments, and is with­out ques­tion Kahn’s mag­num opus.


In 1974, Kahn died of a heart at­tack in a re­stroom for men at Penn Station in Man­hat­tan.[3] He had just re­turned from a work trip to India. Owing to po­lice mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tions in both New York City and Philadel­phia, his wife and his of­fice were not no­ti­fied until two days after his death. After his long ca­reer, he was in debt when he died.

Personal life

Kahn had three chil­dren with three women. With his wife, Es­ther, whom he mar­ried in 1930, he had a daugh­ter, Sue Ann. With Anne Tyng, who began her work­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion and per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with Kahn in 1945, he also had a daugh­ter, Alexandra Tyng. When Tyng be­came preg­nant in 1953, to mit­i­gate the scan­dal, she went to Rome, Italy, for the birth of their daugh­ter.  With Harriet Pattison, he had a son, Nathaniel Kahn.

Kahn’s obit­u­ary in the New York Times, writ­ten by Paul Goldberger, men­tions only Es­ther and his daugh­ter by her as sur­vivors. All of his chil­dren and their moth­ers at­tended the fu­neral. In 2003 his son with Pat­ti­son, Nathaniel Kahn, re­leased a doc­u­men­tary about his fa­ther, en­ti­tled, My Ar­chi­tect: A Son’s Journey. The Oscar-nominated film pro­vides views and in­sights into the ar­chi­tec­ture of Kahn while ex­plor­ing him per­son­ally through peo­ple who knew him: fam­ily, friends, and col­leagues. It in­cludes in­ter­views with such renowned ar­chi­tec­tural con­tem­po­raries as Muzharul Islam, B. V. Doshi, Frank Gehry, Ed Bacon, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Vincent J. Scully, and Robert A. M. Stern. It also pro­vides in­sights into Kahn’s un­usual and com­pli­cated fam­ily arrange­ments.


the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (1966–72)
  • Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut (1951–1953), the first significant commission of Louis Kahn and his first masterpiece, replete with technical innovations. For example, he designed a hollow concrete tetrahedral space-frame that did away with the need for ductwork and reduced the floor-to-floor height by channeling air through the structure itself. Like many of Kahn’s buildings, the Art Gallery makes subtle references to its context while overtly rejecting any historical style.
  • Richards Medical Research Laboratories, University of Pennsylvania,Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1957–1965), a breakthrough in Kahn’s career that helped set new directions for modern architecture with its clear expression of served and servant spaces and its evocation of the architecture of the past.
  • The Salk Institute, La Jolla, California (1959–1965) was to be a campus composed of three main clusters: meeting and conference areas, living quarters, and laboratories. Only the laboratory cluster, consisting of two parallel blocks enclosing a water garden, was built. The two laboratory blocks frame a long view of the Pacific Ocean, accentuated by a thin linear fountain that seems to reach for the horizon.
  • First Unitarian Church, Rochester, New York (1959–1969), named as one of the greatest religious structures of the twentieth century by Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic.[20] Tall, narrow window recesses create an irregular rhythm of shadows on the exterior while four light towers flood the sanctuary walls with indirect, natural light.
  • Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban (National Assembly Building) in Dhaka, Bangladesh (1962–1974)
  • Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College and Hospital, Dhaka, Bangladesh
  • Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, in Ahmedabad, India (1962)
  • National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases (NICVD), Dhaka, Bangladesh (1963)
  • Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter, New Hampshire (1965–1972), awarded the Twenty-five Year Award by the American Institute of Architects in 1997. It is famous for its dramatic atrium with enormous circular openings into the book stacks.
  • Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (1967–1972), features repeated bays of cycloid-shaped barrel vaults with light slits along the apex, which bathe the artwork on display in an ever-changing diffuse light.
  • Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem, Israel, (1968–1974), unbuilt
  • Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (1969–1974)
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, New York (1972–1974), construction completed 2012

Timeline of works

the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, Dhaka; considered as Kahn’s magnum opus
the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

Interior of Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter, New Hampshire (1965–72)

All dates refer to the year pro­ject commenced

  • 1935 – Jersey Homesteads Cooperative Development, Hightstown, New Jersey
  • 1940 – Jesse Oser House, 628 Stetson Road, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
  • 1947 – Phillip Q. Roche House, 2101 Harts Lane, Conshohocken, Pennsylvania
  • 1951 – Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut
  • 1952 – City Tower Project, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (unbuilt)
  • 1954 – Jewish Community Center (aka Trenton Bath House), 999 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing, New Jersey
  • 1956 – Wharton Esherick Studio, 1520 Horseshoe Trail, Malvern, Pennsylvania (designed with Wharton Esherick)
  • 1957 – Richards Medical Research Laboratories, University of Pennsylvania, 3700 Hamilton Walk, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • 1957 – Fred E. and Elaine Cox Clever House, 417 Sherry Way, Cherry Hill, New Jersey
  • 1959 – Margaret Esherick House, 204 Sunrise Lane, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania[21]
  • 1958 – Tribune Review Publishing Company Building, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, Pennsylvania
  • 1959 – Salk Institute for Biological Studies, 10 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, California
  • 1959 – First Unitarian Church, 220 South Winton Road, Rochester, New York
  • 1960 – Erdman Hall Dormitories, Bryn Mawr College, Morris Avenue, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
  • 1960 – Norman Fisher House, 197 East Mill Road, Hatboro, Pennsylvania
  • 1961 – Point Counterpoint II, barge used by the American Wind Symphony Orchestra
  • 1961 – Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (unbuilt)
  • 1962 – Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, India
  • 1962 – Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh
  • 1963 – President’s Estate, Islamabad, Pakistan (unbuilt)
  • 1965 – Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Front Street, Exeter, New Hampshire
  • 1966 – Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Boulevard, Fort Worth, Texas
  • 1966 – Olivetti-Underwood Factory, Valley Road, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
  • 1966 – Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, Chappaqua, New York
  • 1968 – Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem, Israel (unbuilt)
  • 1969 – Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut
  • 1971 – Steven Korman House, Sheaff Lane, Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
  • 1973 – The Arts United Center (Formerly known as the Fine Arts Foundation Civic Center), Fort Wayne, Indiana
  • 1974 – Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, New York City, New York, completed 2012.
  • 1979 – Flora Lamson Hewlett Library of the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California


the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

360° panorama in the courtyard of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California (1959–65)
the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

Panorama of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India
the making of a room louis kahn

the making of a room louis kahn

Louis Kahn Memorial Park, Eleventh & Pine Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Louis Kahn’s work in­fused theInternational style with a fas­tid­i­ous, highly per­sonal taste, a po­etry of light. His few pro­jects re­flect his deep per­sonal in­volve­ment with each. Isamu Noguchicalled him »a philoso­pher among ar­chi­tects.« He was known for his abil­ity to cre­ate mon­u­men­tal ar­chi­tec­ture that re­sponded to the human scale. He also was con­cerned with cre­at­ing strong for­mal dis­tinc­tions be­tween served spaces and servant spaces. What he meant by servant spaces was not spaces for ser­vants, but rather spaces that serve other spaces, such as stair­wells, cor­ri­dors, re­strooms, or any other back-of-house func­tion such as stor­age space or me­chan­i­cal rooms. His palette of ma­te­ri­als tended to­ward heav­ily tex­tured brick and bare con­crete, the tex­tures often re­in­forced by jux­ta­po­si­tion to highly re­fined sur­faces such as traver­tine mar­ble.

While widely known for his the po­etic sen­si­bil­i­ties of his spaces, Kahn also worked closely with en­gi­neers and con­trac­tors on his build­ings. The re­sults often were tech­ni­cally in­no­v­a­tive and highly re­fined. In ad­di­tion to the in­flu­ence Kahn’s more well-known work has on con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tects (such asMuzharul Islam, Tadao Ando), some of his work (es­pe­cially the un­built City Tower Pro­ject) be­came very in­flu­en­tial among the high-tech ar­chi­tects of the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury (such as Renzo Piano, who worked in Kahn’s of­fice,Richard Rogers, and Norman Foster). His promi­nent ap­pren­tices in­cludeMuzharul Islam, Moshe Safdie, Robert Venturi, Jack Diamond, and Charles Dagit.

Many years after his death, Kahn con­tin­ues to pro­voke con­tro­versy. Be­fore his Franklin D. Roo­sevelt Four Free­doms Park at the south­ern tip of Roosevelt Island was built    a New York Times ed­i­to­r­ial opined:

There’s a magic to the pro­ject. That the task is daunt­ing makes it wor­thy of the man it hon­ors, who guided the na­tion through the De­pres­sion, the New Deal and a world war. As for Mr. Kahn, he died in 1974, as he passed alone through New York City’s Penn Sta­tion. In his brief­case were ren­der­ings of the memo­r­ial, his last com­pleted plan. 

The ed­i­to­r­ial de­scribes Kahn’s plan as:

…simple and el­e­gant. Draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from Roosevelt’s de­fense of the Four Freedoms – of speech and re­li­gion, and from want and fear – he de­signed an open ‘room and a garden’ at the bot­tom of the is­land. Trees on ei­ther side form a ‘V’ defin­ing a green space, and lead­ing to a two-walled stone room at the water’s edge that frames the United Na­tions and the rest of the sky­line.

Critics note that the panoramic view of Man­hat­tan and the United Na­tions build­ing are blocked by the walls of that room and by the trees.   Other as-yet-unanswered crit­ics have ar­gued more broadly that not enough thought has been given to what vis­i­tors to the memo­r­ial would be able to do at the site.   The pro­posed pro­ject was op­posed by a ma­jor­ity of is­land res­i­dents who were sur­veyed by the Trust for Pub­lic Land, a na­tional land con­ser­va­tion group cur­rently work­ing ex­ten­sively on the is­land. 

The move­ment for the memo­r­ial, which was con­ceived by Kahn’s firm al­most 35 years ago, needed to raise $40 mil­lion by the end of 2007; as of July 20, it had col­lected $5.1 mil­lion.   There is a mer­est hint in Architectural Record about the oft-heard ar­gu­ment that the pro­ject must be built be­cause it lit­er­ally, was Kahn’s last;   this is re­butted by those who say the plans are not enough like Kahn’s other work to be touted as a memo­r­ial to Kahn as well as FDR. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning com­poser Lewis Spratlan, with col­lab­o­ra­tors Jenny Kallick and John Downey (Amherst College class of 2003), com­posed the cham­ber opera Architect as a char­ac­ter study of Kahn. The pre­miere record­ing was due to be re­leased in 2012 by Navona Records.

Kahn was the sub­ject of the Oscar-nominated doc­u­men­tary film My Ar­chi­tect: A Son’s Journey, pre­sented by Nathaniel Kahn, his son.  Kahn’s com­pli­cated fam­ily life in­spired the »Undaunted Mettle« episode of Law & Order: Crim­i­nal Intent.

In the film Indecent Proposal, char­ac­ter David Mur­phy (played by Woody Harrelson), ref­er­enced Kahn dur­ing a lec­ture to ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dents, at­tribut­ing the quote »Even a brick wants to be some­thing« to Kahn.

Architecturally-inspired ice cream sandwich maker Coolhaus, based in Los An­ge­les, Cal­i­for­nia, named a cookie and ice cream com­bi­na­tion after Kahn. Dubbed »Louis Ba-kahn«, the sand­wich con­sists of choco­late chip cook­ies and Brown But­ter Can­died Bacon ice cream




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