World-famous and with Estonian roots: the architect Louis Kahn was born on this day

Louis Kahn was an internationally known architect who designed striking public buildings that combined modernism with the monolithic majesty of ancient monuments; in 2021, celebrations in his honour are taking place around the world, from New York City to his childhood home of Saaremaa, Estonia.

This is an edited version of the article originally published on Visit Estonia web page.

Kahn made his breakthrough as an architect at a relatively late age, so the list of his completed buildings is not very long. He was in his 50s when he built the Yale University Art Museum in Connecticut, the US.

And it was this striking building that made him famous almost overnight – Kahn’s magnum opus is the parliamentary building of Bangladesh, the model of which, together with the photos of Arne Maasik, was highlighted in the UN main building when Estonia applied for non-permanent membership of the Security Council in 2019.

Kahn’s magnum opus is the parliamentary building of Bangladesh. Photo by Lykantrop, shared under the Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Although the list of Kahn’s works is not too long, all his buildings have gone down in architectural history. His famous landmarks include the Trenton Bath House, Yale University Art Gallery, the Salk Institute, Esherick House, Richards Medical Research Laboratories, the Kimbell Art Museum, Phillips Exeter Academy Library and more.

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, architect Louis Kahn, structural consultant August Komendant, 1966–1972. Photo Marshall D. Meyers © The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.

Kahn never became the architect of the masses and there are no buildings designed by Kahn in Europe, although he admitted to having been strongly influenced by the continent. The closest Kahn building to Estonia, the Wolfson School of Engineering, is located in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Celebrating Kahn in 2021

Already on 20 February, on Kahn’s official date of birth, online celebrations kick off in New York City.

The celebratory programme at the New York Scandinavian House includes a talk with people who were close to Kahn (distinguished landscape architect Harriet Pattison; her son, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn; and William Whitaker, curator, the Architectural Archives, the University of Pennsylvania Stewart Weitzman School of Design), a discussion about Harriet Pattison’s book Our Days Are Like Full Years (the Yale University Press) and the premiere of a film “Jersey Homesteads: Louis Kahn and Small Town Modernism” (2021) commissioned for the 120th birthday celebration of the architect. The event can be watched online.

In addition, a commemorative book, called “Louis I. Kahn―Architect: Remembering the Man and Those Who Surrounded Him”, will be published by Charles E. Dagit, Jr this year, shedding fascinating new light on one of the most prominent architects of the twentieth century.

Louis Kahn looking at his tedrahedral ceiling in the Yale University Art Gallery, 1953. Photo by Lionel Freedman, the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania.

On Saturday, 16 October, Maria Faust – an Estonian jazz artist – will perform at a Hommage à Louis Kahn / Homage to Kahn concert at New York’s Four Freedom Parks. With this concert, a cultural bridge will be built between Saaremaa and New York to symbolically connect both ends of Louis Kahn’s earthly journey.

When Kahn collapsed and died in New York in 1974 due to a heart attack, sketches and drawings of the Four Freedom Parks were found in his chest pocket. The park project was realized only in 2012.

Born in Estonia, shaped by Kuressaare

What is not widely known is that Louis Kahn was born on an Estonian island of Saaremaa, into a Jewish family in 1901. His family emigrated to the USA as early as 1906. Kahn’s grandparents still lived in Saaremaa for a while and then moved to Riga, Latvia.

Kahn visited Estonia again during his trip to Europe in 1928. He spent a month in Saaremaa and then travelled around the continent. During that trip, Kahn showed a lot of interest in Medieval architecture such as castles and walled cities.

Kuressaare Episcopal Castle in Kuressaare, Saaremaa. Photo by Sten Hankewitz.

He also believed his early childhood years had a strong influence on him and that growing up in the shadow of the Kuressaare Episcopal Castle ultimately moved him to study architecture.

Estonian celebrations of 120th anniversary of Kahn’s birth

To celebrate Kahn’s life and work, there has already been one commemorative event in Saaremaa 15 years ago, an event that was also attended by his children.

All celebratory events for 2021, apart from the online celebrations at the New York Scandinavian House, have been initiated and brought to life with the voluntary help from the Louis Kahn Estonia Foundation. The foundation is one of the main organisers of the Kahn Festival in Saaremaa, planned for 14-17 October 2021.

The festival kicks off with the opening of an American photographer Abelardo Morell’s exhibition “Camera obscura” on 14 October. The exhibition reveals the essence of space in a poetic way, showing the sensory dimension of our spatial perception, which can be encountered in a similar form in Louis Kahn’s architecture.

Trenton Jewish Community Center Bath House and Day Camp. Opened in 1955 and served as the entrance and changing area for patrons of an outdoor swimming pool. Ewing, New Jersey (1954), architect Louis Kahn. Photo by Smallbones, shared under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 licence.

Morell has named Louis Kahn as one of his favourite architects. Morell will also be present at the opening, making it one of the most exclusive art events ever to have taken place in Saaremaa.

Saaremaa Parish, in co-operation with the Louis Kahn Estonia Foundation, has also submitted a proposal to the Estonian parliament to add the establishment of the Louis Kahn Centre in Kuressaare to the list of important cultural buildings. An international architectural competition to build the centre is planned for the end of the year.

Cover: Louis Kahn (second left) planning the parliamentary building of Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania.

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