Things Which Can be Said
You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn
by Wendy Lesser
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30.00
The 1972 film, “Louis I. Kahn, Architect,” by Paul Falkenberg and Hans Namuth begins with Louis Kahn sitting at his desk at the southeast corner window of his 1501 Walnut Street office in Philadelphia, saying — as he rubs charcoal from his fingers (surely the only world-famous architect with a roll of toilet paper on his desk) — “I must reflect on the circumstances, the mystery of circumstances, which lead a man into paths which he could never anticipate before they happen.” How fragile life is, and how easily it could be otherwise. And paradoxically how unchanging.
From a high school class taught by Walter Gray on architecture, his future as an architect was clear to Kahn. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1924, worked for Paul Cret and others, and in 1935 passed the licensing exam and began practice. Kahn’s work and philosophy straddled the Beaux Arts and Modernism, and reconciled the ancient and the contemporary as one thing. His late work transcended all such stylistic constructs and showed their limited value in understanding art or architecture. In the same way, one might say that his work is evidence of the idea expressed by Susan Sontag, Donald Judd, and others, that thought and feeling, objectivity and subjectivity, are complementary modes of perception — that science and art should not be taken apart, and that perception and understanding should not lean more heavily on the one than on the other.
Kahn’s life can be divided by two extended personal trips to Europe into three roughly equal, quarter-century parts; with one trip in 1928-29 before his 1930 marriage to Esther Israeli, and the second in 1950-51 related to his residency at the American Academy in Rome. It is generally acknowledged that his masterworks all occur in the final 25-year ‘third’ of his life, following the 1951 Yale University Art Gallery designed in association with Douglas Orr.
Kahn never owned a car. His relationship with Philadelphia cab drivers is legendary. They lined the street during his funeral service. Technically, he never owned a house either, and he and his wife Esther lived in the top floor of her mother Annie’s home at 5213 Chester Avenue for decades. Using future inheritance, they purchased a residence at 921 Clinton Street and moved in following Annie’s death at the end of 1966. Each morning as he left for work — if he had even been home the night before — he took a leaf off of a tree in the yard and put it in his lapel buttonhole. Even photographs taken in Venice in 1969 show him standing with Carlo Scarpa — with a tiny leaf in his lapel.
There are details of Louis Isadore Kahn’s life that have only recently been discovered, despite his fame. For decades, there was no record to be found of his birth in Estonia until “My Architect” producer Susan Behr discovered that Louis’ father had changed the family names upon arrival in America, when Kahn was five years old. His actual birth name was Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky, and although Kahn celebrated his own birthday as February 20 throughout his life, the actual ‘new style’ calendar date was March 5, 1901. He was likely born in Pärnu, Estonia, though even this is not certain, and Kahn believed his birthplace to be Arensburg, on the island of Ösel.
Wendy Lesser is the founder, editor, and publisher of “The Threepenny Review,” a remarkable literary and photographic journal published quarterly. She lives in both Berkeley and New York City. In this, the third true biography of the architect following Robert McCarter’s 2005 “Louis I. Kahn” and Carter Wiseman’s 2007 “Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style — A Life in Architecture,” she obtained intimate information from the Kahn family and from those close to Kahn, simultaneously resolving standing issues in his life story (the exact notification mistake causing the delay in learning of his death, for instance) and at the same time recognizing new or other ambiguities for consideration.
Lesser has begun the book in the manner of Nathaniel Kahn’s Academy Award-nominated film, “My Architect” — which she admires — by beginning with Kahn’s death at Penn Station on March 17, 1974 while returning from India. With “Ending” as beginning, her end of the book is titled “Beginning.” There is a fine prologue and an epilogue in which she writes of projects completed after Kahn’s death, such as the FDR Memorial in New York City, or projects never to be completed for one reason or another, and weaves the more subtle qualities of his life into a coherent whole.
Her book is structured with five “In Situ” building visits — Salk, Kimbell, Exeter, Bangladesh, and Ahmedabad — inserted at intervals within the primary text. Her understanding of the technical aspects of a given building may not be as clear as her psychological or emotional reading of it, but these are minor faults and perhaps not even noticeable to a lay reader. The technical aspects of earlier biographies are more “accurate”; for instance, Lesser misunderstands the essential behavior of the Kimbell vaults. They are not two halves, completely separated. Every 10 feet along their 100-ft length, a small beam crosses and continues their shell action, and in fact provides the support element for the aluminum reflectors. In another instance, a photograph of the Central Market in Riga, Latvia, is juxtaposed below a photo of the Kimbell with the serial vaults of both shown in parallel, implying that the market might be some kind of subliminal or even direct precedent on the museum’s design.
She portrays the relationships of all three of Kahn’s children: Sue Ann Kahn, born in 1940 and the daughter of his wife Esther; Alexandra Tyng, born in 1954 and the daughter of his collaborator Anne Tyng; and Nathaniel Kahn, born in 1962 and the son of his collaborator Harriet Pattison. Their stories are perhaps best known due to Nathaniel’s film. Their personal struggles with this not well-defined family dynamic are ongoing.
Lesser also makes generally public for the first time the story of Marie Kuo, who worked for Kahn in the late 1950s and was involved with him intimately at the same time as Tyng and Pattison. She was killed in a tragic car accident in March 1970, after having left the Kahn office in 1966 to marry. Lesser discusses an affair of Esther Kahn’s which those close feel Lou knew nothing about. This had been made public with a quote from Sue Ann in the Wiseman biography. There seems an implication of an ambiguous moral and ethical issue related to a topless portrait of Kahn’s sister-in-law Regina.
Society seems to absolve personal idiosyncrasies and moral or ethical gray areas when the value of a life’s contribution is understood to be of major cultural import. Picasso, to take just one example in history, has attached to his existence many difficult personal qualities and peccadillos which are well known, but given less weight historically than his genius as an artist. Perhaps this is in part because such personal qualities change in value and emphasis over time and across civilizations. Biography attempts to weigh such aspects of personal existence against the contribution. Life lived. Time washes clean most of the detail of a life; and, as Georgia O’Keeffe said, “all that remains are the bones and the blue.”
Kahn’s incandescent charm, like the glowing coal that permanently scarred his face in childhood, drew many to him. His talents in music and drawing sustained him through his youth and were inseparable from his later work in architecture. Friends remember him picking up various magazines at parties and turning them upside-down as though sheet music, “playing” the text to the delight of others. Such impish behavior belied the tough and more tenacious aspects of his personality. Lesser rightly includes commentary by Vincent Scully that the most important elements of his work relate to gravity and physicality — “Lou had the physical perception of form, and that is what made him a great architect.” She notes Kahn’s involvement with wrestling as a youth and hints at the influence on his understanding of space and materials, much as Tadao Ando’s youth as a boxer has informed his work.
There is much rhetoric in our culture about ideas — but few actual ideas. Kahn in his maturity was able to recognize an idea and had an uncanny ability to shepherd it into the material world. He had a remarkable sensitivity with regard to the midwifery of an idea across the threshold into reality and existence. “Silence and Light.” In this personal conception, Kahn was adamant in refusing to use force. Only time and the effects of allowing something to “fall” into place could result in a material reality, which came close to the inherent beauty, capacity, and promise of the original idea. Complete respect for the integrity of materials and resistance to willful and clever moves became a formal religion to Kahn in his work, if not in his life. One might argue, as Lesser almost does, that this refusal of force as a tool and reliance on time to sort things out mirror his lack of resolution and his difficulties in the personal realm. His only means of solving intimate personal problems was to leave them alone and hope that they would take care of themselves over time, something they seldom did.
Wittgenstein made a distinction in the “The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” between that which can be said and that about which we should (for reasons of integrity) remain silent. Lesser has walked a fine line between the two and allowed her estimation of Kahn’s life to breathe where it needs to breathe, and her doing so seems to ring true in taking the measure of his existence. If the earlier biographies lean slightly toward the construction and “professional” perspective, Lesser’s new view is decidedly personal and makes considered use of intimate details to attempt to explain his life, behavior, and works. If the test of a biography is a question of “fit” — like a tailor undertaking a bespoke suit — then this new narrative seems to be carefully tailored. If her building descriptions are not quite as accurate in architectural or construction detail, this comes as a trade-off for a new look at the life of the architect, which includes intimate and previously unpublished details of his existence.
W. Mark Gunderson, AIA, is an architect in Fort Worth.