Alumna shares discovery of her grandfather, architect Louis Kahn

The Daily Pennsylvanian
October 6, 2009

According to '08 alumna Rebecca Kantor, her grandfather, world-renowned architect Louis Kahn was fascinated with beginnings. But while much is known about Kahn's later life, his early childhood remains shrouded.

In a discussion last night in the Kelly Writers House, Kantor sought to move through this fog and reconstruct the beginnings that shaped a great man. In her talk, Kantor discussed her travels to Kahn's birthplace and her findings on his early childhood. She hopes to share her grandfather's past in her upcoming book, "Volume Zero: Uncovering Louis I. Kahn's Baltic Origins."

Kantor explained that she first became curious about her grandfather's life as a senior at Penn. In her research over the past few years, Kantor visited several cities that were significant to her grandfather's life in order to better understand the family dynamics that shaped him as a person.

Some of Kahn's architecture is said to be based upon the burns on his face and hands obtained as a child trying to pick up hot coals, Kantor explained. This, she said, is an example of how a person's beginning has "potential to shape and form a person."

Kantor first journeyed to Kahn's birthplace, Riga, now the capital of modern Latvia. There, Kantor visited Kahn's ancestors' apartments, as well as exploring the architecture of the city itself.

Next, Kantor traveled to the city of Sloka, west of Riga in modern Latvia. Having discovered that Kahn's father, Leopold, descended from the Traines family, Kantor combined family narratives to trace the extended family's origins back to Sloka.

The last leg of Kantor's journey was to the town of Kuressaare on the island Saaremaa, Estonia. Kahn's mother, Bertha, and her family had owned a hotel in the city center in 1917 and Kahn's father had worked in the basement of the city's castle as a clerk.

Kantor discovered that Kahn returned to Saaremaa for only a day in 1928, where he was met with the neoclassical style buildings in the city center and older wooden buildings on the city outskirts.