World-famous and with Estonian roots: the architect Louis Kahn would turn 120 this year

Source: Louis I. Kahn in front of the Kimbell Art Museum’s portico, August 3, 1972. Photograph: Robert Wharton © 2013 Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

World-famous and with Estonian roots: the architect Louis Kahn would turn 120 this year

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

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. 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.

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. 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.

The world is celebrating Kahn in 2021

  • Already on February 20th, on Kahn's official date of birth, online celebrations kick off in NYC. The celebratory program in NYC's 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, University of Pennsylvania Stewart Weitzman School of Design), a discussion about Harriet Pattison's book Our Days Are Like Full Years (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.

  • On Saturday, October 16, Maria Faust – a hot name in the world of Nordic jazz and Saaremaa's cultural ambassador to the world – will perform at a Hommage à Louis Kahn / Homage to Kahn concert in NYC's Four Freedom Parks. With this concert, a living (cultural) bridge will be built between Saaremaa and NYC to symbolically connect both ends of Louis Kahn's earthly journey. When Kahn collapsed 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, 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. He also believed that 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 for Kahn's 120th birthday

Kahn died in 1974 and would have celebrated his 120th birthday this year. There has already been one commemorative event in Saaremaa 15 years ago, an event that was also attended by Kahn's children.

  • All celebratory events for 2021, apart from the online celebrations at NYC's Scandinavian House, have been initiated and brought to life with the voluntary help from the Louis Kahn Estonia Foundation. This year, the Kahn Festival is planned for October 14-17. The full program is currently being drafted. The Louis Kahn Estonia foundation is one of the main organizers of Kahn's 120th anniversary in Saaremaa and the author of the anniversary year's script.
  • The festival kicks off with the opening of Abelardo Morell's exhibition "Camera obscura" on October 14. 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. Abelardo Morell has named Louis Kahn as one of his favourite architects. Morell himself has also come into direct contact with Louis Kahn's architecture while studying at Yale University, home to the 1974 Yale Center for British Art. Abelardo Morell will 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 Riigikogu Committee of Cultural Affairs to add the establishment of the Louis Kahn Center in Kuressaare to the list of important cultural buildings. International architectural competition is planned for the end of the year.

What a way to celebrate a great life and great art!

Louis Kahn in 1972 at the zenith of his success

Photo by: Robert Wharton, © 2013 Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

Last updated : 16.02.2021

In category: Islands, History & culture