Louis Kahn is an architect’s architect. At the time of his death in 1974, he was “America’s foremost living architect,” according to his New York Times obituary, a master builder whose relatively small body of work nonetheless proved influential to the work of architects like Renzo Piano and Frank Gehry.
A new exhibition at the Design Museum in London is designed to expose a broader audience to Kahn’s architectural genius. “We talk about Louis Kahn as someone who isn’t as heralded within the general public as he should be,” curator Alex Newson says in an interview.
The exhibit explores his career and legacy through a handful of themes, like “city,” “landscape,” and “community.” The “city” theme encompasses his work as an urban designer and his role in developing Philadelphia, where he lived most of his life. Kahn tussled with a Philadelphia city planner named Edmund Bacon (father to Kevin) over ideas like prohibiting cars from entering the city center. His grand plans for redeveloping the city included completely reconfiguring traffic patterns and creating an expansive pedestrian zone flanked by enormous parking towers, designs that were “quite at odds with the rest of ideas of city planning throughout the world at the time,” Newson tells Co.Design. Many of his visions for Philadelphia were never implemented.
In his architecture, Kahn deviated from some of the modernist trends of his day. “His contemporaries were trying to create ever lighter buildings,” Newson says. “Kahn showed that you can build modern buildings in an incredibly different way–they were heavy, they were monumental, they were built from brick and concrete.” His most well-regarded designs, like the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, are dramatic, imposing institutions.
He was also a master of context. “His buildings are very much rooted in the landscape,” Newson says, a particularly resonant trait in an era of bland glass buildings. “There’s a lot of talk about new large architectural commissions lacking a sense of space. Sometimes you can take a project and not understand why it’s in one city or another,” Newson explains. “Kahn’s buildings were very much about the place they were in.”
Many of Kahn’s buildings–as large-scale and monumental as they were–were completed posthumously, and it may yet be too soon to evaluate his full legacy. His last project, Four Freedoms Park in New York City, opened only two years ago, four decades after it was designed, to much acclaim.
Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture is on display at the Design Museum London until October 12.