Days after Louis Kahn died in 1974, his obituary ran on the front page of The New York Times, where architecture critic Paul Goldberger hailed Kahn as “America’s foremost living architect.”
Today, Philadelphia’s Kahn remains a towering figure who’s had profound influence on subsequent generations. Dozens of books have been written about his work, which ranges from famed sites such as the Salk Institute in San Diego to private one-bedroom residences like the Esherick House in Chestnut Hill.
In 2003, Kahn became the subject of considerable intrigue when his son, Nathaniel Kahn, released the documentary My Architect, which delved more deeply into Kahn’s complicated personal life: In addition to conventional family life with wife Esther and daughter Sue Ann, Kahn had two other children from long-term extramarital relationships.
Author Wendy Lesser, founder and editor of Threepenny Review, saw My Architect two or three times the year it came out, but it wasn’t until several years later that she decided to write the new biography, You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn.
“I had written only one other biography and that was of Shostakovich, looking at his string quartets,” she said. “Reading his life through them was so hard, I thought I was never going to write another [biography].”
Her editor kept pushing her, however, and she finally agreed after visiting New York’s Roosevelt Island, the site of Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park.
“When I saw this piece of architecture,” she said, “it spoke to me in the way that the Shostakovich quartets had. Certain works of art, I feel like, I get something about this. Not only do I get it about the art, but it makes me really interested in the person who made it.”
She spent the next several years immersed in Kahn’s life and work, and the result is a masterful book with plenty of appeal for local readers, who can follow Kahn’s journey from childhood poverty in West Philadelphia to professional success at his Center City office at 15th and Walnut streets.
Many local luminaries show up in Kahn’s story, including George Howe, Oscar Stonorov, Samuel Fleisher, Robert Venturi and Paul Cret. Anyone familiar with the late Edmund Bacon will delight in Lesser’s description of Kahn’s battles with the irascible planner.
But this book is far from a by-the-numbers bio. It begins with Kahn’s death, follows his career trajectory chronologically and ends with his early childhood. In between traditional chapters, there are five “In Situ” chapters, written in the second-person present-tense. These give the reader the experience of being in some of Kahn’s most famous buildings.
These interpolated chapters help readers understand the magnitude of what Kahn accomplished professionally before we return to his everyday life. Lesser leaves the revelation of how Kahn got his facial scars, as a child, to the very end.
“I am a murder mystery reader, and I like to have something held off to the end,” she explained. “I’m big on plot, and I care about plot.”
But it wasn’t just the element of suspense that made her choose the book’s unusual structure. She wanted readers to identify with Kahn, something she had difficulty doing after reading other Kahn biographies and letters from his mistress, architect Anne Tyng.
“In all of them, I ended up feeling worse about him in the end than I did in the beginning, because of all the involvements with the women and producing the extra children who he never was able to legally acknowledge in a will,” she said. “I didn’t want people to be left with that Lou at the end. So I thought, ‘OK, if I tell the story backward, and go back into his childhood and everything that made him who he was, people will end up feeling more empathetic with him.’”
In terms of the accident that led to his scars, Lesser left it to the end partly to make sure it wasn’t overdetermined.
“Some people viewed [the accident as] explanatory of everything about him,” she said. “I don’t view any one factor as explanatory about him.”
Though Kahn came from a Jewish family, he was not observant as an adult. Lesser, who is also Jewish but not religious, could relate.
“There was a lot of anti-Semitism at the time of his young manhood and in Philadelphia,” Lesser said. “I haven’t coped with anti-Semitism as far as I’m aware of it, but he obviously had to be aware of it. So that would make him more of a Jew. But I utterly identified with his sense that religion is irrational, and you have other accesses to spirituality.”
The experience of being in Kahn’s buildings, as Lesser demonstrates, can be deeply spiritual; and he often spoke of the architectural process in rather mystical terms. But the one synagogue design he did, for Philadelphia’s Sephardic congregation Mikveh Israel, was rejected after an 11-year process. Lesser calls this failed project “one of the saddest examples of the hauntingly unbuilt, at least in his own eyes.”
As for his more troubling personal behavior, Lesser tried not to judge.
“I didn’t want to justify or rationalize it, but nor did I want to attack it,” she said. “At times I felt furious at him … but I didn’t want any of that to get into the book.”
Lesser will read from You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn at the Parkway Central Library on April 6 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, go to freelibrary.org or call 215-567-4341.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747