One of the most influential architects of the twentieth century, Leiser-Itze Schmalowski, starts in Pärnu, Russia (modern day Estonia) where he was born in 1903. His family left for the United States in 1906, during the Russo-Japanese War. They couldn’t afford pencils so they made their own from burnt twigs so that Schmalowski could earn some money from his drawings. He later earned money by playing piano during silent films. When his family because naturalized citizens years later, his father changed their name to Kahn and Schmalowski adopted the name Louis Kahn.
Kahn trained at the University of Pennsylvania in Beaux-Arts tradition. After completing his Bachelor of Architecture in 1924, Kahn worked as senior draftsman with the city architect, John Molitor. In 1928, Kahn traveled Europe. He was interested in the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, France, and the castles of Scotland. When he returned to the US, Kahn worked in the offices of Paul Philippe Cret, his former studio critic at the University of Pennsylvania.
Kahn worked with the architects George Howe and Oscar Stonorov for the design of housing developments in Philadelphia and other parts of Pennsylvania. A formal architectural office partnership between Kahn and Stonorov began in 1942 and ended in 1947, which produced fifty-four documented projects and buildings.
Kahn’s didn’t form his distinctive architectural style until he was in his fifties. He was influenced by a stay in Rome during 1950. After visiting the ruins of ancient buildings in Italy, Greece, and Egypt, he adopted a back-to-the-basics approach. He developed his own style influenced by earlier modern movements that was monumental and monolithic. He became well known for his meticulously built works, his provocative proposals that remained unbuilt, and his teaching.
He began teaching at Yale University in 1947. He was later named as the Albert F. Bemis Professor of Architecture and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kahn then taught at the University of Pennsylvania from 1957 until his death, becoming the Paul Philippe Cret Professor of Architecture.
Kahn was elected a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1953. He was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964. That same year he was awarded the Frank P. Brown Medal and was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate Academician. He was also made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and awarded the AIA Gold Medal, the highest award given by the AIA, followed by the Royal Gold Medal by the RIBA.