Louis Kahn died suddenly of a heart attack in Pennsylvania Station in New York 43 years ago, in circumstances that made it the most startling end to an eminent architect’s life since Stanford White was murdered by the husband of one of his lovers. Kahn ranked among the most revered architects in the world, but he had the appearance of a somewhat disheveled old man, and after he collapsed on the floor of the men’s room, his corpse remained at the city morgue for more than two days before anyone discovered that he was an internationally respected cultural figure and not a vagrant.
This bizarre state of affairs didn’t end with Kahn’s death. Eventually, the New York Police Department made contact with his wife, Esther, who arranged to have the body brought home to Philadelphia, where she presided over his funeral accompanied by the couple’s daughter, Sue Ann. But elsewhere in the chapel were two younger children that Kahn had sired by two different women—all while married to Esther. Recognizing that she could not make her husband’s other two families disappear, Esther sent word before the funeral that they were to be seated out of her line of sight.
The strange saga of Kahn’s private life was largely kept from the public eye. His front-page obituary in The New York Times mentioned only Esther and Sue Ann; the Times was not aware of Kahn’s other children, Alexandra Tyng and Nathaniel Kahn, and given the paper’s views on such matters in 1974, the editors would almost certainly have forbidden any mention of them if they had known. The family’s story wouldn’t gain wide currency until 2003, when Nathaniel, now a successful filmmaker, released My Architect, a highly acclaimed film about his quest to know his father.
Today, Kahn is revered among architects and architectural historians as one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest—American architect since Frank Lloyd Wright. His oeuvre is small by Wright’s standards, but it contains an astonishing number of masterpieces: the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York (1962); the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (1963); the library at Phillips Exeter Academy (1971); the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (1972); the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India (1974); the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven (1977), finished after his death; the capitol buildings in Dhaka, Bangladesh (1983); and then a remarkable posthumous work, the Four Freedoms Park, a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in New York City, which Kahn designed shortly before his death and which lay dormant for years until it was finally completed, to wide acclaim, in 2012.
None of these are particularly easy works to experience. They are not visually spectacular in the manner of Frank Gehry, and they do not dazzle with their sleekness in the manner of Renzo Piano or Norman Foster. Kahn’s architecture does not cuddle you. It is not soft, and it is not whimsical. He designed somber, poetic buildings of stone and steel and wood and glass, and the best of them are brooding and deep, like a Rothko painting. The interior of the Unitarian church in Rochester is made of concrete blocks, and it would feel harsh but for the perfection of its proportions and the sublime way in which the light washes down into the worship space.