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The Penn community is mourning the passing of A. Eugene Kohn (BArch’53, MArch’57). Kohn was the co-founder and chairman of Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), the New York architecture firm he helped build into a global powerhouse as its president—and whose success he never seemed to take for granted.
“Gene was a legend in architecture,” says Weitzman Dean and Paley Professor Fritz Steiner. “He understood better than almost anyone what it takes to conceive, build, and maintain a practice over decades—over continents—at a really high level. And his success only intensified his appreciation for our school and our students.”
Kohn was a devoted and enthusiastic supporter of his alma mater for decades, having studied with legendary faculty members Louis Kahn, Ian McHarg, Lewis Mumford, Paul Rudolph, and Robert Venturi. He served on the Board of Advisors at Weitzman since 1984 and was its chair from 1991-1996, representing the school on the Board of Trustees of the University.
Born in Philadelphia, Kohn came to Penn to study architecture in 1948. Although he wasn’t sure he wanted to be an architect, he was particularly inspired by Paul Rudolph, with whom he spent weekends traveling the mid-Atlantic region to visit significant buildings and meet their architects. He later cited the many guest lectures he took in as a student—by the likes of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Richard Neutra— as transformative. It was also at Penn, where he returned for his graduate degree after serving in the US Navy, that Kohn met Sheldon Fox, his future business partner and the co-founder, with Bill Pedersen, of KPF.
As a student, Kohn received the Theophilus Parsons Chandler Architecture Fellowship for advanced study and travel abroad. It was the first in a succession of architectural honors he would accumulate over his long career, and he later established a generous endowed fellowship to support exceptional graduate students pursuing a Master of Architecture degree at Penn. Kohn’s dedication to educating students also inspired him and his firm to endow an annual lecture at the Weitzman School to bring leading architects from around the world to campus.
In addition to numerous professional honors for KPF projects, Kohn received the PennDesign Dean’s Medal of Achievement, the Alumni Award of Merit by the University of Pennsylvania (the highest University-wide award given to graduates) and the Wharton Real Estate Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2019, he received the Kanter Tritsch Medal for Excellence in Architecture and Environmental Design, one of just three professional honors given by the Weitzman School each year. The other medalists in architecture include Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Peter Eisenman, MASS Design Group, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
Kohn attributed KPF’s success to design excellence, building collaboration, and creating opportunities for young members of the firm to become future leaders. He was insistent that teamwork was at the heart of KPF’s work, and that credit be shared. Throughout his career, he was involved in recruiting and mentoring promising designers from the US and abroad, including Penn graduates.
“What drives me is the joy of seeing young people come into this firm and, in a relatively short period of time, become a partner, doing fantastic work in different parts of the world,” said Kohn in a 2016 Penn video produced in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of KPF’s founding. He went on to add, “Architecture should be about what makes people happy, what brings out the best in people, not about making sculpture.”
Kohn’s generosity and charisma made him a sought-after juror and public speaker, lecturing at numerous universities and for professional organizations and institutions across the United States and abroad. In 2020, he spoke at Penn following the publication of his memoir, The World by Design: The Story of a Global Architecture Firm, written with Clifford Pearson. The book was widely praised for its engaging and honest treatment of the business of architecture, the pitfalls and promise of design.
“We’re a firm of 730 people, we have nine offices in eight countries, we’ve worked in over 40 countries, and we’ve done every building type,” said Kohn in his 2020 presentation. “It’s a big firm, but we didn’t start that way. And, very honestly, I never had a dream that we’d be that big.”
Kohn’s most visible legacy at Penn may be KPF’s design of Jon M. Huntsman Hall at the Wharton School, completed in 2002. But he was also instrumental in the restoration of Fisher Fine Arts Library—the work of another Philadelphian, Frank Furness—which he called one of his favorite buildings.
Gifts in his memory can be made to the Gene Kohn Memorial Fund and all gifts received will be allocated to a specific priority at the Weitzman School at a later date.
Kevin Penn, chair, Weitzman Board of Advisors:
The longest serving member of our board, Gene brought endless wisdom and context to our meetings and work. Always generous with his time and resources, he was an invaluable friend, colleague, and mentor. He will be greatly missed.
Marilyn Jordan Taylor, professor of architecture and urban design and former dean of the Weitzman School:
We lost an extraordinary man, a colleague, a coach, and a brilliant competitor in the wins and losses that all architects encounter. Gene Kohn did not often lose. He would jump on an overnight flight to explain to a potential client why his team was the best team, why his scheme was the best scheme, and very often they were. He insisted on playing by the rules, and he led his talented partners and teams toward excellence. He was both tactical and supportive, even to his competition, and while I was one of those competitors, he became a kind and lifelong friend. Rest well Gene.
Gary Hack, professor emeritus of city and regional planning and former dean of the Weitzman School:
Gene Kohn loved Penn. When I arrived as dean of the Graduate School of Fine Arts, he became my mentor and advisor. He was the longtime head of the School’s Board of Overseers and a trustee of Penn, willing to go to bat for us whenever needed. He called me regularly from the four corners of the globe, simply to ask how things were going and to offer help. He was also extraordinarily generous, creating a fund for student scholarships, endowing the annual KPF Lecture, hosting shows of fine arts student work in the gallery of his office, and contributing in many other ways.
Winka Dubbeldam, Miller Professor and chair of architecture:
We are deeply saddened that our dear friend, alumnus, and inspiration Gene Kohn passed away. We feel lucky that Gene generously shared his long experience with our students in his 2020 lecture at Weitzman Architecture, and that we were able to share our admiration and respect for his achievements by awarding him the Kanter Tritsch Medal for Excellence in Architecture and Environmental Design. He will be dearly missed but his dedication to architecture and great spirit will always remain with us.
Watch a 2020 lecture by Kohn at Penn
Read a 2016 Weitzman interview with Kohn on the occasion of KPF’s 40th anniversary.