A master of turning simple forms and classic motifs into extraordinary monuments, American architect and profesor Louis Kahn created a spartan body of work that’s become hallowed ground for his peers, influencing a generation. “It is important that you honor the material,” the perfectionist would tell his students, and for Kahn, that meant sculpting gorgeous curves and blocks of concrete and brick, massive structures large enough to inspire awe but still deft enough to play with light. His work, now the focus of an exhibition at the Design Museum in London, was inspired by a visit to Roman ruins when he was in his fifties, and still achieves the soaring spatial poetry of his peers without the advantage of more lightweight material.
An Estonian immigrant who settled into Philadelphia, Kahn took to drawing as a child, working with burnt twigs and matches when his family couldn't afford proper materials. He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania, where he later taught before moving to Yale. His first commission, the Yale Art Gallery, was a template of sorts for later work, eschewing the International style for a new monumentality that juxtaposed airiness and emotionality with heavy forms of brick and concrete. As later works would showcase—from the tranquil pathways of the Jonas Salk Institute to the resonant silhouette of the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh—Kahn’s obsessiveness was not just over buildings, but in creating experiences.