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How Louis Kahn Became a Monumental Architect - and Nearly Transformed Jerusalem

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Architect Louis Kahn is seen at an undisclocsed location in this 1973 handout photo
Architect Louis Kahn is seen at an undisclocsed location in this 1973 handout photo.Credit: Bloomberg

“You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn,” by Wendy Lesser, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pp., $30.

Louis Kahn was more than a good architect. He was both an artist and a punctilious engineer. In the former capacity, he is remembered for the sublime, often mystical, beauty of his designs; in the latter, for the care he took in making his buildings functional and comfortable.

Personally, he was short of stature, not terribly articulate, and his face and neck were severely scarred from burns he suffered at age 3 when his clothes caught fire. Nonetheless, Kahn (1901-1974) had an undeniable magnetism that was not only sexual, but also made him beloved by children and his colleagues. When he “turned his light on you,” as his son, Nathaniel, who was 11 when his father died, described it, “it was warm and it made you glow.”

Kahn, in the words of Wendy Lesser, was a “generous egotist, who wanted others to get as much pleasure out of life and work as he did.” That may explain why even the people – family, colleagues, students – who were most hurt by Kahn’s behavior remained loyal to him and grateful for the time they spent in his presence.

If Louis Kahn never enjoyed the type of public acclaim that accrued to designers like Frank Lloyd Wright or I. M. Pei, it’s largely because he died just as he was hitting his stride. Nonetheless, today, more than four decades after his death, he is among the most respected and admired architects of the 20th century.

It is all the more surprising, therefore, that Wendy Lesser’s “You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn” is the first general biography of this remarkable artist and man. One might have expected the release 14 years ago of “My Architect,” Nathaniel Kahn’s film about his father, which was nominated for an Academy Award, to spur the writing of books, the organization of exhibitions, and more. Yet it is only now that we have Lesser’s superb biography to satisfy the craving set off by that documentary.

Lesser, the founder and editor of the literary magazine Threepenny Review and a prolific writer, visited Kahns’s birthplace in Latvia and most of his finished buildings, including those in India and Bangladesh; interviewed not only his children but many relations who didn’t appear in Nathaniel Kahn’s film, as well as peers, one-time employees and clients; and availed herself of voluminous amounts of archival material in order to give Kahn the life he deserves. “You Say to Brick” is thorough, knowledgeable, deft in its physical descriptions, and pulls no punches when it comes to confronting Kahn’s failings, particularly on the personal level. Yet the author writes with empathy and understanding, and the image of Kahn that emerges is nuanced and complex.

When he was interviewed by Kahn’s son, the fabulously successful I.M. Pei implied that Louis Kahn was the superior architect, telling Nathaniel, “Three or four masterpieces are more important than 50, 60 buildings. Quality, not quantity.”

Of the approximately 40 original Kahn designs that were ultimately built, Lesser numbers 14 of them as “major.” They include the library at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and the National Assembly complex in Dacca, East Pakistan – a project that took so long to complete that by the time it was finished, not only had Kahn been dead for eight years but the country in which it was situated was now called Bangladesh, after it fought a war to gain independence from Pakistan. It is the crowning achievement of his career.

Bound for greatness

Louis Kahn was born Leiser-Itzer Schmulowsky in the province of Livonia, then part of Estonian Russia, and spent most of his first five years there, on the island of Osel.

In 1906, together with his mother, the former Beila (later Bertha) Mendelowitsch, and two younger siblings, he sailed for Philadelphia, where his father, Leopold, had come two years earlier to stake out work and a home. There he became Louis Isadore Kahn.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Louis’s accident took place shortly before his father left for America, when the toddler drew several glowing coals from a fire and dropped them into his lap, causing the apron he was wearing to burst into flames. Although Leopold had expressed his belief that his son would be better off dying after suffering such severe burns, Lou grew up with the understanding that his mother viewed the incident as a sign that her son was bound for greatness. Seven decades later, the rabbi officiating at Kahn’s funeral explicitly compared him to Moses, who, according to the famous midrash, was “heavy of tongue” because he, as a baby, picked up glowing coals and put them in his mouth.

Kahn showed a gift for drawing as a child and young man, and was also a talented pianist who during his teenage and university years accompanied silent movies at local cinemas. He was offered a full scholarship to study art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but having been introduced to architecture by a charismatic teacher during his senior year of high school (one of several mentors who had decisive influence on his life), Kahn decided to attend architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania, for which he and his family would have to scrape together the tuition each year.

Money was always a problem. Kahn married Esther Israeli in 1930, six years after completing his architecture degree, and for the next 35 years they lived in her parents’ home in West Philadelphia. During those same years it was Esther, a medical researcher, whose regular job as a lab assistant largely supported the family.

Only during the last decade of his life did Kahn begin breaking even in his architectural practice. And even that was thanks to a single, lone project – the design in the early 1960s of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where his client Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine, possessed not only great sympathy for Kahn’s work but also deep pockets. Even so, when Kahn died, his practice was more than $400,000 in debt.

It would be convenient to say that Louis Kahn was uncompromising, socially inept, or so far ahead of his time that no one understood what he was doing. In fact, he knew how to compromise, and regularly redid plans when the clients’ needs changed or a project became too expensive. His charm and warmth were also legendary, and for most people quickly overcame any initial recoil that may have been caused by his scarred face. And he was a popular, if sometimes cryptic, teacher, both at Yale and later at Penn, where students flocked to his lectures as if to a guru. (The title of Lesser’s book refers to a legendary talk of Kahn’s in which he described this scenario: “You say to brick, ‘What do you want brick?’ Brick says to you, ‘I want an arch.’ If you say to brick, ‘Arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over an opening. What do you say to that, brick?’ Brick says, ‘I like an arch.’” It’s mystical, but not incomprehensible.)

The Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In truth, Kahn was just a terrible manager whose projects always went over-budget. He wasn’t indifferent to financial or other success, but cared more about doing a job right (which often meant listening to brick) than about making money from it. He worked around the clock and pushed his employees to work similarly hard, but never figured out how to use his own reputation as a genius to become a rainmaker for the office, nor is it clear that he gave much thought to doing so. Kahn had a tendency to get caught up in details.

Today it’s well known, thanks to “My Architect,” that Kahn had a bizarre family life, fathering two children outside of his marriage. Yet he and Esther, who also bore him a child, Sue Ann, in 1940, remained married for 44 years, until Lou’s death, and by all accounts their bond was a strong one. At the same time, Kahn, both passionate and childlike, allowed himself to form serious romantic attachments with women in his office. With two of them, the much younger architects Anne Tyng and Harriet Pattison, he fathered their children. (Kahn didn’t believe in birth control.)

Kahn did not disavow any of his children, and in the case of Alexandra Tyng (born in 1954) and Nathaniel Kahn (the son of Harriet, born in 1962), he was an important, if rarely seen, presence in their lives. Both women, at different stages, believed that Lou intended to leave his wife to marry them, though that never happened.

We can judge Kahn harshly, and we can certainly question his honesty, both with the women and children in his life, and with himself. But he wasn’t abusive (Alexandra told Lesser that, “You could say he used people, but he was also respectful of them”), and clearly he gave as much love as he was capable of to his three families. Each of the women knew about the others, and eventually the three children did as well, and on their own sought out their siblings and built relationships with them.

On balance, the reader is left with the impression that with all the pain that accompanied Kahn’s unconventional family life, none of those involved would have traded it in if that had meant giving up their time with Lou.

Unrealized projects

Perhaps part of the reason for this was that everyone who knew Kahn understood that his first priority was architecture. His dedication to his work was nonpareil and it kept him on the road, mainly in the sky at a time when international travel and communications were far more cumbersome than they are today. He was driven by an ambition to build structures that would echo the majesty and balance of classical architecture of the ancient world, which he had examined firsthand during a three-month residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1950.

The Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem, Version 3.0

At their best, Kahn’s designs integrated light and shadow, texture and color, mass and intimacy in ways that made his spaces – and I use that word rather than “buildings” because the plazas and landscaping and other outdoor areas were no less critical to his designs than the structures themselves – seem as if they were destined to be the way Kahn created them, as if it was a natural, organic process.

Lesser suggests that not every one of his structures is recognizable as “a Kahn project by the way it looks. What you can recognize is the feeling it gives you to be in it.” Later in the book, she writes that “what a Kahn building offers you on the inside is a drama, a journey, a narrative with a plot.”

Among the most satisfying elements of Lesser’s book are the “In Situ” chapters she intersperses in her narrative, taking us for a tour of five of Kahn’s greatest projects – in addition to the Salk, the Phillips Exeter library and the Bangladesh Assembly, these are Kimbell Art Museum in Dallas and the Indian Institute of Management in Hyderabad. In each case, she explains how Kahn used materials and the movements of the sun to give his projects character, and demonstrates how much planning and replanning it took to build structures that felt like they were part of nature.

Every architect has commissions that don’t work out, but for Kahn the proportion of these was high – more than two-thirds – and the unrealized projects arguably constitute some of his greatest designs. One of his greatest disappointments was the decision of the historic Mikveh Israel synagogue in Philadelphia to settle on another architect for a new home, after Kahn had worked on the design for 11 years.

Kahn was a proud, identifying Jew and he was deeply spiritual, but in no way religiously observant, nor did he see Jews as better than other people. Lesser describes some of the things he did that may have put off the board of the Orthodox shul, including his refusal to place the Mikveh Israel gift shop in the same structure as the sanctuary, explaining his position, at least in conversations with his own staff, as inspired by Jesus’ attempt to drive the money changers from the Temple. It must also have hurt that he had no major commissions built in the city that was his home for almost his entire life.

Lesser suggests that Kahn’s invitation by Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek in 1967 after the Six-Day War to design a reconstructed Hurva Synagogue provided some consolation after the loss of the Mikveh Israel commission. He had already been to Israel in 1949 to consult with the new state on housing policy. (Unfortunately, the book devotes minimal attention to either of these chapters in Kahn’s life.)

Kahn worked on three plans for the Hurva, a historic structure whose Ottoman-era building was one of more than 30 Old City synagogues blown up by the Jordanians during the War of Independence, but sad as it was that he died before the project could be executed, the real losers in this case were Israel and the Jewish people. Kahn went through three sets of plans for a truly monumental building that would have been linked to the Western Wall in a manner that might have helped turn that site into one meant for all the Jewish people, even humanity as a whole, rather than for an extremist Orthodox segment of Jews, as it is today.

Louis Kahn died of a heart attack in New York’s Penn Station on March 17, 1974, while returning home after a working visit to India (a communications screw-up by the Philadelphia police prevented the news of his death being reported to his wife for 48 hours). The Hurva plan died with him, though Jerusalem religious politics is such that there’s no way of saying with certainty that even a political wizard like Kollek would have been able to get it built.

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