It was just a number of weeks ago that Kanye West made headlines by piling elite fashion editors into a minibus destined for Roosevelt Island, a narrow stretch of land nestled somewhere between the New York boroughs of Queens and Manhattan and the site of one of Louis Kahn's most celebrated works.
Their final stop was Kahn's Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, a cavernous stretch of greenery bordered by linden trees and bookended by a granite bust of the late President. Spanning a total of four acres, the park is stark yet beautiful; a simple yet iconic backdrop for what was soon to become one of the most controversial fashion shows in recent memory.
Whether you love West or hate him, his taste in art and architecture is both undeniable and undeniably influential – his Yeezy shows, for example, introduced the star’s gargantuan following to the work of Vanessa Beecroft, the performance artist responsible for the choreography of each show.
With that in mind, it’s worth shining a spotlight on Louis Kahn, the revered architect behind the 'gram-worthy surroundings of Season 4. Here’s everything you need to know about the Estonian-born architectural genius.
He Died Before He Completed Four Freedoms Park
It’s said that Kahn – then named Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky – was born to Jewish parents in Pärnu, Estonia in 1901, although it’s possible his birth date was recorded incorrectly when they emigrated to the U.S. in 1906.
Kahn spent his childhood sketching out drawings and soon became fascinated by architecture. He enrolled on a course at the University of Pennsylvania years later, honing his skills until he became a prolific architect in his own right.
He died four decades later in 1974 of an unexpected heart attack on his way home from a business trip to India – at the time, he was said to be carrying the finished designs for the monument that still stands in Four Freedoms Park.
He Was Literally Scarred by His Curiosity
Kahn was instantly recognizable by the intricate patchwork of scars that decorated his jawline, obtained in a near-deadly accident sustained as a child.
It’s said that Kahn became fascinated by the hot coals in his family’s stove and began shoveling them into his apron, which subsequently caught fire.
Although tragic, the incident highlights Kahn’s insatiable curiosity even from a young age; throughout his youth he transferred this inquisitive nature to his new base of Philadelphia, whose architecture was then in the process of being steadily remodeled.
Geometry Reigned Supreme in His Work
Kahn’s most famous buildings are often described as minimal and modernist; they’re all defined by a unique sense of symmetry, clean lines and a unique geometrical approach which remains synonymous with his legacy. The geometrical elements are said to be a nod to historical buildings, yet their simplicity created a visual language unique to Kahn.
The best examples of this singular style are such as the Indian Institute, a series of brick rectangles punctuated by square windows and circular hollows, and the Salk Institute, an enormous complex of imposing concrete structures arranged symmetrically at either side of a flowing stream.
He Was Famous for His ‘Ruins in Reverse’
A juxtaposition between old and new is prevalent in Kahn’s work, and it stems from a tour of Europe in his late twenties which saw him visit the castles of Scotland and, most notably, Carcassonne, a French city drenched in medieval flair.
He became inspired by the rich history of the buildings he encountered and set out to marry the past with the future in his own designs, creating works which he famously described as ‘ruins in reverse’.
He achieved his ambitions by marrying the streamlined silhouettes of futurism with the rugged geometric etchings of the historical buildings he saw first-hand, resulting in a portfolio which retains a unique, timeless quality.
He Was in His 50s When He Received His First Major Commission
Many of us worry that we’re wasting our youth – when we see teen stars like Bieber and Swift on television, it can be easy to feel guilty for years of procrastination and missed potential. Take solace, however, in the fact that Kahn was over 50 years old when he received his first major commission, the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut.
It was in 1953 that Kahn designed the main building which is still largely hailed as his first masterpiece – created from glass, steel and concrete, the modernist building’s interplay of light and dark filtered through windowless walls and cavernous internal studios is still celebrated for its beauty.
His Buildings Span the Entire Globe
Although Kahn was based in Philadelphia, he has been commissioned to erect a series of iconic landmarks in countries all over the world.
As well as creating artist studios and research laboratories in the city in which he lived and worked, he also masterminded global landmarks including the National Parliament House in Dhaka, Bangladesh as well as American art institutions including the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas.
From synagogues and temples to academic libraries and corporate factories, the functions of his projects differ enormously but their aesthetics remain united by Kahn’s distinctive eye for design.
He Had a Famous Reputation As an Eccentric
Kahn used to make a living lecturing students at the University of Pennsylvania, and stories of his eccentric approach to architecture have made their way into countless profiles of the late genius.
The most famous tale is of the dialogue he advised students to engage in with their building materials; he believed that, if they were ever stuck for inspiration, they should ask their bricks and concrete for advice. “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick? 'I like an arch.' And you say to brick, 'Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel.' And then you say: 'What do you think of that, brick?' Brick says: 'I like an arch.’"
Needless to say, these stories have earned Kahn a lasting legacy as architecture’s most respected oddball.
For more architecture content, check out 10 fashion designers influenced by architecture.