Self Portrait with a Cigarette. Louis Kahn.

Self Portrait with a Cigarette, Philadelphia, 1946. From The Paintings and Sketches of Louis I. Kahn, Jan Hohstim.

The fire that is not put out is a holy fire. – G.B. Shaw

The singular American architect Louis I. Kahn was born Leiser-Itze Schmuilowsky in Estonia, in 1901, where he spent his early childhood in the small village of Parnu. When he was three years old, something in the hearth caught Kahn’s eye: “I remember I took the coals out of the fire and put them in my apron,” he recalled. “They flared up. It was a heavy rug-like apron…It flared up and I tried to protect my eyes, which I did. My hands were burned, and my face.” The accident disfigured Kahn’s lower lip and chin.

Historians have largely avoided or ignored the psychological effects of this accident, since any causal relationship between Kahn’s injuries and his architecture rests on pure speculation. Why then theorize Kahn’s burns? Two reasons at least: first, to help interpret the strangely compelling self-portraits Kahn produced between 1929 and 1949, during his formative years as an architect; second, to test Elaine Scarry’s argument that one consequence of intense pain is its externalization into creative work, in particular as “fragments of world alteration.”

In The Psychoanalysis of Fire, Gaston Bachelard argues that the poetic signification of fire rises out of fundamental social prohibitions:

[T]here is at the base of a child’s knowledge of fire an interaction of the natural and the social in which the social is almost always dominant…fire is initially the object of a general prohibition; hence this conclusion: the social interdiction is our first general knowledge of the fire. What we first learn about the fire is that we must not touch it.  As the child grows up, the prohibitions become intellectual rather than physical…

Consequently…the problem of obtaining personal knowledge of fire is the problem of clever disobedience. The child wishes to do what his father does, but far away from his father’s presence, and so like a little Prometheus he steals some matches.

From his earliest years, then, we have an unusual window into Kahn’s relation to risk, which may help illuminate his complex significance in the history of modern architecture. Like a little Prometheus – who seeks to know in order to give despite the cost – he keeps courting fire.