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An ingenious life of wondrous architect Louis Kahn


"You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn"

By Wendy Lesser

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

416 pages, $30

Biographers of architects inevitably have to calculate how much weight to give to the architect’s life and how much to his work. This choice is especially acute with Louis I. Kahn who is widely revered by architects, critics, and historians as the last great architect of the Twentieth Century.

Yet Kahn’s personal life was so extraordinarily lived – with children by three different women (one of whom was his wife) more or less simultaneously, compounded by an indifferent attitude toward the business end of the profession -- as to incite wonder at the magnitude of his professional accomplishment.

Wendy Lesser has ingeniously organized her book around five chapters focused on major Kahn commissions interwoven with six chapters pertaining to Kahn’s life so that the form of the book moves back and forth between life and work in a lively fashion. Kahn’s life story would merit publication even if his work were extricated from it. Born in Ösul, Estonia, of humble origins and facially scarred for life by burning coals at age of five, he emigrated to Philadelphia with his family in 1906 and was awarded a scholarship to architecture school following high school.

Marriage to Esther Israeli, the birth of a daughter, struggles during the Great Depression and sporadic work, were followed by sudden recognition with a modest but brilliantly-conceived bathhouse for the Jewish Community Center in Trenton, New Jersey, at the age of 54. This led to a teaching position at Yale followed by his rapid ascent to the pinnacle of fame.

Kahn’s success, featured in Lesser’s book in chapters on buildings in La Jolla, California, Exeter, New Hampshire, New Haven, Connecticut, Fort Worth, Texas, Dacca, Bangladesh, and Ahmedabad, India, was compressed into twenty years made hectic by constant travel, numerous unrealized projects, and the necessity of somehow attending to three women and their children while trying to maintain some sense of propriety in Philadelphia. It all ends abruptly with Kahn’s sudden death in New York’s Penn Station on March 17, 1974. Exhausted and disheveled from a long return flight from India, Kahn was not properly identified to his wife, Esther, for two days.

Lesser begins the book with Kahn’s tragic death perhaps to capture our attention but her research, which involved massive archival work, innumerable interviews with family members and former colleagues, and trips to building sites all over the United States  as well as India, Bangladesh, Israel, Estonia, and Italy, approaches the monumentality of Kahn’s best buildings. Biographers who write about architects sometimes err when it comes to the treatment of the work but not Lesser.

Her descriptions of the Salk institute at La Jolla, the library at Exeter, the Kimbell Art museum in Dallas, the Assembly Building at Dacca, and the Indian Institute at Ahmedabad benefit from her informed personal explorations of the sites combined with an impressive ability to translate their complexities and subtleties into lay person’s terms. Nor does she hesitate to comment critically on shortcomings.

Unfortunately the buildings are not sufficiently or well-enough illustrated but they can be seen online and in “My Architect” the wonderful documentary made by Nathaniel Kahn, the architect’s son.

Louis Kahn was so consumed by his work that it may seem unlikely that he would be attractive to women but they, except for Esther, his supportive wife,were all involved in his work as architects including a fourth, Marie Cuo, who managed not to have his child. By all the accounts from Lesser’s many interview subjects Kahn possessed a brilliance that radiated through piercing blue eyes and was communicated by way of a riveting attentiveness and a uniquely mystical form of speech such as that reflected in the title of the book,  “You Say To Brick,” which continues, (and I paraphrase) “Ask a brick what it wants to be, and the brick answers, ‘I want to be an arch.’” Everyone, it seems, found him attractive.

In her penultimate chapter,  “Beginning,” Lesser travels to Estonia in search of Kahn’s birthplace and family origins and while there, taking poetic license, she imagines accompanying the child, Kahn, on a tour of Arensburg Castle and speculates about how its massive forms would have inspired him. It’s an audacious gambit but it is justified by things that Kahn often wrote and said about the importance of the great ruins of Egypt, Paestum, and Rome to him throughout his life.

In a lengthy epilogue Lesser makes a heroic and engrossing attempt to unravel the mysteriousness of Kahn’s inner being. This is tricky going because Kahn’s treatment of Esther and the three other women in his life is so easily reduced to male privilege, selfishness, and a belief among many prominent architects (Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe for instance) that they are transcendent beings.

In his defense she calls upon a throng of male supporters including Vincent Scully, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Renzo Piano, and Moshi Safdie, and his children who, except for Esther’s daughter, knew him as a periodic, somewhat mysterious and very loving visitor.

Perhaps Esther Kahn should have the last word. Lesser writes on the immediate aftermath of Kahn’s death, “For Esther, it was as if all those years of tolerating Lou’s bad behavior had come to nothing in the end. Her patience had been exhausted, and since Lou was no longer there to stanch her anger, she gave into it.”

Kahn’s First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York, completed in 1962 and expanded in 1969, is given relatively short shrift in Lesser’s book but it is quintessentially a Kahn building  -- provocative and challenging in  form, unprecedented in the way its community spaces are shaped around the sanctuary, and mysterious in the way light gives form to its cruciform ceiling. It is the last great modern building in western New York and well worth a visit.

Jack Quinan is the former curator of the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo.

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