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Icons: Louis Kahn

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Step inside the mind of one of America’s most influential architects to understand what drove him to conceiving his greatest work and never giving up hope

Architect Louis Kahn saw all his projects as unique problem solving challenges. One of America’s most iconic architects, he manipulated materials to create something monumental each time. In order to create work that was new and innovative, he allowed himself time to play and experiment. Kahn’s failures led to his greatest achievements. His obsession with light, affection for symmetry and unusual use of geometric shapes are what defined him and his work best.

In 1935 Kahn realized he had the ability to craft and direct his own projects. What was great about making his own rules was that he now had the ability to break them. He was his own artist, free to create as he wished. He only became a renowned architect late in life but the key for him was never giving up. It was in his 50’s that he was commissioned his first major project, the Yale Art Gallery. It housed a triangle shaped walkway around a concrete shell with a striking triangular ceiling. The commission became a turning point for Kahn. Shortly after, he designed his next acclaimed project- the Salk Institute in California, masterfully linking indoor and outdoor spaces and ensuring all the laboratories received natural light and an ocean view.

Another iconic project was the Kimbell Art Museum. Kahn was able to design a highly functional yet spiritually uplifting landmark. He always built powerful universal symbolism through his work. 

In many ways, Kahn was an oddball, making brave yet risky moves. His most admired project is the National Assembly Building in Bangladesh. Kahn spent the last 12 years of his life building it and it was only completed nine years after his death. It is a stunning modernist achievement because of its simplicity. The facade beautifully captures traditional Bangladeshi geometric motifs. Closer home, the iconic Indian Institute of Management building in Ahmedabad was also designed by Kahn, but completed after his death.

Besides being an architect, artist and philosopher, Kahn was a professor at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania. He was constantly trying to help his students find deeper meaning in their work. He loved to study the ancient architecture of the Mediterranean and described his building sites as “ruins in reverse”. Kahn was a true visionary who was never willing to compromise on the purity of his vision. He will always be remembered as a legendary architect and a source of endless inspiration.

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