The following is a brief description of a powerful exhibition on Louis Kahn, the most unknown of famous architects.  It was commissioned by on World Radio Switzerland and broadcast on 5 March 2013.

Stanislaus von Moos, the renowned art historian who teaches in Zurich and at Yale, is one of the curators of the show.  He shares his thoughts in an interview that can be captured here in brief or in extenso. He was responding to question of whether the show was as much about the man as it was about his architecture:
Extract (2.3 minutes): Interview Stanislaus von Moos  (extract) – 22 February 2013
Full interview (12.5 minutes): Interview Stanislaus von Moos  (in extenso) – 22 February 2013


Louis Kahn, c. 1972 © Robert C. Lautman Photography Collection, National Building Museum

The story of an enigma

Rather than “The Power of Architecture”, I would call this exhibition “The story of an enigma”. Although considered on a par with Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn (1901-1974) never gained the same degree of notoriety. Unlike his counterparts, he was not a showman.

Furthermore, his work remains unclassified to this day. Neither Modernist, nor Post-Modernist – the prevailing movements of his time – his buildings are singular because they appear to grow out of the land on which they were built. They could never have existed anywhere else.

Notable achievements

His greatest achievements, for which he is universally admired are the Bengladesh Parliament in Dhaka, a massive fortress that appears to defy gravity as it lingers above the surface of water, the Salk Institute in La Jolla with its admirable lines of perspective that dive into the sky and the Kimbell Museum in Forth Worth that sits like a zen garden on a bed of gravel.


National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Louis Kahn, 1962–83 © Raymond Meier

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Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, Louis Kahn, 1959–65 © The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, photo: John Nicolais


Colonnade on the north side, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Louis Kahn, 1966–1972 © 2010 Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, photo: Robert LaPrelle

A beautiful exhibition

Unlike many exhibitions on architecture that can be dry, this one is actually very fresh, almost entertaining. That’s because the plans and scale models are surrounded by Kahn’s watercolors, by photographs made in Kahn’s time, but also of his buildings today. There is also footage by Nathaniel, Kahn’s son whose 2004 film “My Architect” was nominated for the Oscars.

Nathaniel Kahn said at the opening: “This show captures the spirit of Kahn’s work, but the man is there too. That’s enormously exciting.”

The contemporary influence of Kahn

Kahn’s architecture is timeless and several of the greatest architects today, Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Peter Zumthor and Mario Botta explain their fascination for Kahn in filmed interviews by Deidi von Schaewen that can also be seen at VItra. It’s a very complete show.

An American success story

Kahn was the product of the land of opportunity. The son of impoverished Estonian Jews, he made it to the top of his trade thanks to his uncommon commitment to the “Power of Architecture”. In fact, he is one of the rare architects, if not the only one, who designed a church, a synagogue and a mosque in his time.

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Louis Kahn working on Fisher House design, 1961 © Louis I Kahn Collection, Univesity of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

But his dedication came at a price. His three children present at the opening, were born from three different women who never obtained their rightful recognition from Kahn, even though they were also talented in their own right. Kahn was so possessed by his work that he often slept on the floor of his office and completely neglected his family life.


Louis Kahn in front of a model of the City Tower Project in an exhibition at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, February 1958 © Sue Ann Kahn.
The tetrahedral-framed project is widely acknowledged to have been designed by Ann Tyng, the mother of Kahn’s second daughter, Alexandra Tyng.   Kahn’s refusal, or inability, to recognize Tyng led to their separation

Art and architecture

There is a rare connection between art and architecture in this show. Kahn was an accomplished artist in many ways, a painter whose gentle watercolors take us beyond what he saw and a pianist with a remarkable ear. As a teenager, he accompanied Charlie Chaplin’s silent movies to earn pocket money. He admitted later that if he had not become an architect, he would have been a composer.

The exhibition at Vitra Design Museum is a journey that takes us through a great creative mind. It is on until 11 August 2013 in Weil am Rhein, just north of Basel in Switzerland.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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