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Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn at the Kimbell. Photo courtesy of Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

You Say to Brick:
The Life of Louis Kahn

by Wendy Lesser
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

“When you work together with someone like that, you understand that sublime persistence is the only way to get to the center of things.”
—Renzo Piano on Louis Kahn, who employed him in Philadelphia

With his memorable film My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn sought  to know his father through his buildings, peers, and complicated personal life. Wendy Lesser’s wonderful new biography of Louis Kahn expands on the film’s account, filling in details about his slow-to-ripen career, his relationships, his evolving creative process, and the late-appearing monuments that made his reputation.

Lesser notes Kahn’s involvement in Donald MacKinnon’s late-1950s study of architects’ creativity at UC Berkeley. When asked if he had exceptional talent, Kahn wrote, “Yes, a sense of order from which design flows. I am unique in this. Order! out of which stems true design and structure.” Kahn’s “order” was influenced by the ruins of antiquity and by modern buildings like Le Corbusier’s La Tourette and Ronchamp. He worked with structure, volume, light, and view—the elements of form. Place and function led to designs that engage their sites or turn inward.

Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn looking in the Yale University Art Gallery, 1953. Photo: © Lionel Freedman Archives

As Lesser explains, Kahn first made his reputation with his modernist Richards Medical Building at Penn. The work that followed established him as an architect sui generis, and she sees the Trenton Bath House as embodying that transition. Kahn ran his office initially as an atelier; the Yale Art Center, designed with Anne Tyng, reflects her influence, and although Tyng joined Trenton late, she grasped what Kahn had intuited from the ruins he visited. The result is a brilliant small work that anticipates the later ones. Lesser describes it eloquently:

“Picture a girl from nearby Trenton—an adolescent, say, just a year or two younger than Kahn’s oldest daughter—who might have come to the Bath House for a swim after it opened to the public. After passing by the front wall’s mural and reaching the central courtyard, she goes left to get into the women’s changing room. Slipping through one of the twisty, doorless concrete entrances that lead in from either side, she finds herself released into the surprisingly grand space of the room itself, all the larger in comparison to the tunnel-like approach. Above her, the high arch of the pyramidal wood roof guides her eye upward to the square hole from which light pours down, making everything, even her own body, seem to bask in the ceiling’s glory. At one side of the room, a five-foot space between the roof and the wall—one of Kahn’s earliest and largest “light joints”—allows the sun to shine directly on her shoulders as she sits on the changing-room bench. Looking around, she notices how lightly the massive pyramid rests on its four corner supports, so that the ceiling almost seems to float above her head.”

Trenton Courtyard Kahn

Trenton Bath House interior courtyard. Photo: John Ebstel © Keith de Lellis Gallery

Trenton Bath House, the Salk Institute, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh—Kahn’s masterpieces—use the pared-down elements of his intuited order to define and orchestrate sequences of viscerally human experiences. He achieves this despite differences in scale, purpose, and setting, situating each building in an unfolding present that refers both to history’s ruins and to the ruins it will become. 

Building the Monuments

Lesser “reads” Kahn’s principal works evocatively in a series of vignettes that bracket the main text. (She recommends Robert McCarter’s monograph, Louis Kahn, as visual accompaniment.) She also exposes the lengthy struggles required to get them designed and built. Kahn engaged an array of collaborators in these commissions, including his client-patrons. He animated the process through design and construction, with others taking significant roles. His openness to ideas from all quarters and his willingness to persevere are rare in architecture, then and now.

Salk and Kimbell were both substantially reworked to address functional concerns and realize the order Kahn sought. At Salk, this meant prying the two wings of the building open and then reconceiving its plaza (on the advice of Luis Barragán) to view the sea. At Kimbell, it meant finding the right arch—a cycloid arch—to give the galleries volume without ruining the experience of the art itself. Kahn’s staff architect, Marshall Meyers, worked this out.

The Bangladesh project was complicated by distance, political upheaval, the challenges of local construction, and Kahn’s death while it was under way. Its completion testifies to the commitment and brilliance of Kahn’s closest collaborators. Dying of heart failure at 74, Kahn lived at full tilt, habitually overscheduled. His office ran on cash flow, mostly losing money. Only the Salk Institute, for which the office was paid for every hour, made a profit.

The Art of Parallel Living

My Architect brought Kahn’s personal life into public view. Lesser elaborates, but it’s clear that, despite turmoil and heartache, Kahn enjoyed his extended family’s loyalty and affection. He had a rare ability to be entirely there with others, as Lesser recounts. Stanley Tigerman, running into a disheveled Kahn at Heathrow, who was returning from his final, fatal journey to South Asia, noted his coherence and gracious gesture to Paul Rudolph, who he admired despite shabby treatment.

Louis Kahn

Louis Kahn and his son Nathaniel. Photo courtesy of Harriett Pattison Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

“Work as if immortal,” the writer E. M. Forster’s credo, could have been Kahn’s. His “sublime persistence” led to a unique body of work—not purely his own, but only he could have produced it.