Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Modern Family: Louis Kahn, Revamped

Photo by Pieter Estersohn.

When Steven and Toby Korman hired architect Louis Kahn, in 1971, he was at the peak of his career: He was working on the Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth, Texas; the Phillips Exeter Academy Library, in New Hampshire; and the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, in Dhaka; and had already finished the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla, California (now on many lists of the best 20th-century American architecture). Today Kahn is also known for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, on New York’s Roosevelt Island, whose 1974 design was completed posthumously in 2012. A charismatic teacher, Kahn had moved architecture away from steel and glass and toward simple, monumental forms, usually made from concrete, brick, and wood. The Kormans had been watching Kahn’s work in Philadelphia, where his practice was based, and pursued him through mutual friends for about a year to be their architect. Steve Korman had run his family’s building-supply business in the 1960s (he later managed their many rental properties), which gave him an appreciation for Kahn’s care with materials.

Even as he built significant public works, Kahn also designed houses (nine were built in and around Philadelphia alone), listening closely to clients and translating their desires into tailor-made homes. According to William Whitaker, coauthor of The Houses of Louis Kahn and curator of the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, “Kahn often assigned the design of a house to his students at Penn as a way to test their abilities. A house is ‘extremely sensitive to internal need,’ he said.” During the multiyear design process for the Kormans’ house, Kahn spent a lot of time discussing the family’s home life, which included “three boys and a dog and a goldfish.” In a four-page document the Kormans prepared for the architect, they wrote, “We would love an easy-to-care-for, warm, hospitable, exciting, home to raise three boys.”