Last Friday, an exhibition on the late U.S. architect Louis Isadore Kahn opened in Philadelphia, the city where he practiced during the majority of his life. Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture details the architect’s career as well as his journey to the U.S. from the former U.S.S.R. and his early forays into the design world.

Kahn was born in 1901 in Pärnu, now in Estonia (formerly under the Governorate of Livonia in the Russian Empire) and left for the U.S. with his family in 1906. His family endured a tough start to life in America. Such was the state of the Schmuilowsky’s finances (the surname was later changed to Kahn by his father in 1915) that Kahn could only use charcoal sticks made from burnt sticks to draw; these drawings contributed to a meager income.

Louis Kahn at his office, c. 1960. (Courtesy Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia)

Kahn continued to use charcoal later in life and these drawings can be found in Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture, along with further artwork created using watercolors and pastels. The exhibition’s introduction provides in-depth biographical insight into Kahn’s early life, followed by six thematic sections.



One section, titled “City,” looks at Kahn’s time in Philadelphia, a place where he developed as an architect and where he taught architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. “Science,” meanwhile, shows examples of how Kahn used structural systems found in nature as a precedent for his work. “Landscape” touches on a similar note, demonstrating the importance Kahn placed on the site and context of his architecture. Likewise, “House” examines how the architect bridged nature and the built environment with the design of dwellings. “Community,” on the other hand, details how Kahn used and believed in architecture as a social device, especially for public buildings. Finally, “Eternal Present,” exhibits Kahn’s study of architectural history, showing this mostly through drawings from his travels to Greece, Italy, and Egypt.

National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Louis Kahn, 1962–83. (Raymond Meier)

Famous quotes from Kahn are interspersed throughout the exhibition’s multiple levels. Models also abound, one notable highlight being a twelve-foot-high model of the City Tower Project. Planned for Philly and designed in 1952, the tower was never realized. The exhibit also features interviews with the likes of Renzo Piano, Sou Fujimoto, Peter Zumthor, and Frank Gehry.

Louis Kahn at the auditorium of the Kimbell Art Museum, 1972. (Bob Wharton/Courtesy Kimbell Art Museum)

Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture will be on show at The Fabric Workshop and Museum for three months, closing on November 5, 2017. After previously being exhibited in Weil am Rhein, Germany and Fort Worth, Texas, this will be the only time it comes to the East Coast. More details on events such as lectures and family-orientated programs surrounding the exhibition can be found here.

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