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What’s in a Name? Part I

Would an architect by any other name be as great?

By Jim Atkins, FAIA

The names of well-known architects and architecture firms continue to carry weight these days, especially now that the process of branding has become trendier. Most architects know what the acronyms SOM and HOK stand for, although they also know that almost all of the namesakes are no longer around. Individual names, especially the most ancient, are indelibly planted into our brains, as we can attest from our architecture history classes.

Today, it seems the more unique the name the more memorable they become. Names like Piano, Himmelb(l)au, Jiricna and Ando may stick with us more easily, although Foster, Rogers and Williams still hold their own. What architects and the public may not be aware of are the names of some of the renowned before they made their way into the limelight; architects that began with one name and changed to another. Tossing around names like Schmuilowsky isn’t likely to get you anywhere unless your listeners are into historical minutiae.

For fun and enlightenment, in this two-part series we will review the names of a few of our better known architects who had other names before they made it big. In some cases we will learn why they changed their names. And after all is said, please feel free to ponder which of the names you think would have been better suited for their stardom.

“The crow-like one”?

Let’s begin with Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris. If you had even an oblique interest in architecture history back in school, you may recognize Le Corbusier (Oct. 6, 1887 – Aug. 27, 1965), one of the fathers of Modern architecture and the International Style, as well as an AIA Gold Medalist. Born in Switzerland, he became a French citizen in his 30s.

Le Corbusier adopted his pseudonym in the 1920s after having met Amedee Ozenfant, a painter. The two began to collaborate, and they jointly published their manifesto, Apres le Cubisme, which rejected cubism as irrational. He and Ozenfant launched the artistic movement Purism, publishing their purist journal, L’Esprit Nouveau. Following the Parisian one-name trend of the times, Chuck Jeanneret-Gris became Le Corbusier with the first publication of the journal.

His name is a derivation of his grandfather’s name, Lecorbesier, and translations range from “the raven-like one” to “the crow-like one.” Some believe it to be an unflattering nickname that stuck with him. More dynamic thinkers relate the name to the French verb courber, “to bend.”

His most notable works were Villa Savoye, a weekend country house just outside the town of Poissy, France, and Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp, high on a hill near Belfort in eastern France. An existing church was destroyed in World War II, and Ronchamp replaced it. After my Corbu enlightenment in architecture history class, I tried to impress my east Texas relatives with my references to “Raw-shaw.”

It certainly didn’t hurt Charles’ career to go with the Corbu angle, and when I settle into my Corbu lounge chair I realize that I like him under any name. He was obviously a cool guy, sporting those round framed eyeglasses long before Philip Johnson, FAIA, or Ieoh Ming Pei, FAIA.

Who is Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky?

What do you think of the work of Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky? No opinion? It is easy to speculate as to why Louis Isadore Kahn, (Feb. 20, 1901 – March 17, 1974), chose to change his birth name. It just doesn’t come off the same way when you say, “Schmuilowsky’s Kimball Art Museum.”

He was born in Estonia, then part of the Russian Empire, in 1901, and his family immigrated to the United States when he was 4. Louis became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1914, and his father changed the family name in 1915, possibly to make their assimilation easier. Itze-Leib translates to Leiser-Itze, which was changed to Louis Isadore. In this case he was not attempting to re-brand himself to further his career. He was simply trying to become an American.

Kahn (also an AIA Gold Medalist) worked for several architecture firms in Philadelphia before starting his own practice in 1935. In addition to his practice he was a professor at Yale from 1947 to 1957, and thereafter until his death a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Kahn’s architectural style did not emerge until he began to produce extraordinary designs in his 50s. His notable works include the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif.; the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, (his most celebrated work); and the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, the building that I most admire in the world.

Kahn had three relationships with women, concurrently producing three families. He remained married to his wife, Esther, and at the time of his death in 1974 she and their daughter were the only listed survivors, although others attended the funeral. Kahn was found dead in a men’s restroom in New York’s Penn Station. He was reportedly returning from a trip to see his project in Bangladesh, and was not identified for three days because he had erased his home address on his passport. His enigmatic and prolific life was explored and celebrated in the Oscar-nominated biographical documentary, My Architect: A Son’s Journey, produced by Nathaniel Kahn, his son with Harriet Pattison. This is a film definitely worth your time.

In Kahn’s case his new name was not a pseudonym. It was a new identity which served to enable his life and his work in a new and challenging country.

These notable architects were not the only great designers to work under assumed names, as we will see in the upcoming Part II of this series on March 18.

 


AIA Gold Medalist Louis Kahn. Image courtesy of the AIA Archives.

   
     

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Reference:

James B. Atkins, FAIA, is an independent project management and litigation support consultant who occasionally writes about architecture. He was a senior principal with HKS Architects for over thirty years, and he has served on numerous AIA committees. He has recently been appointed a Trustee of the AIA Trust. For more information, go to www.atkinscs.com

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