A Mystic Monumentality


Salk Institute for Biological StudiesThe Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, designed by Louis Kahn and completed in 1965

1.

How odd that the towering genius of architecture during the third quarter of the twentieth century—when his most conventionally successful colleagues prized innovation over tradition, analysis over intuition, and logic over emotion—was a mystically inclined savant who sought to reconnect his medium with its spiritual roots. Indeed, he ran wholly counter to prevailing images of the modern architect. Rather than casting himself as a technocratic superman along the lines of the young Le Corbusier, or a conduit between man and nature like the twinkling Frank Lloyd Wright, he made his name with an architectural gran rifiuto, rejecting the commercial blandishments of an increasingly corporate culture in favor of a quixotic quest to recapture the archaic power of shelter at its most elemental.

This charismatic anachronism was Louis Kahn, who by the time he died in 1974 at the age of seventy-three was widely and correctly considered America’s foremost master builder, even though his mature career spanned little more than two decades and he executed only about a dozen important buildings. In recent years Kahn’s messy personal history has threatened to overshadow his immense professional accomplishments, yet his aura has grown steadily, not just for what he achieved but also because of what has taken place in the built environment since his death. After he almost single-handedly restored architecture’s age-old status as an art form, his legacy was quickly squandered by younger coprofessionals. From the mid-1970s onward they have careened from one extreme, short-lived stylistic fad to the next—Postmodernism, Deconstructivism, Blobitecture—and lost sight of the profound values Kahn wanted to convey: timelessness, solidity, nobility, and repose.

Ten years after the publication of the architect’s first full-scale biography, Carter Wiseman’s Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style: A Life in Architecture, we now have Wendy Lesser’s You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Although Wiseman examines eight of the architect’s principal buildings in depth, Lesser focuses on what might be termed the Kahn Quintet: his Salk Institute for Biological Studies of 1959–1965 in La Jolla, California; the Kimbell Art Museum of 1966–1972 in Fort Worth, Texas; the Phillips Exeter Academy Library of 1965–1971 in Exeter, New Hampshire; the Indian Institute of Management of 1962–1974 in Ahmedabad, India; and the Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, or National Assembly Building, of 1962–1983 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Each is a masterpiece, but all are also in some ways imperfect, even the universally beloved Kimbell, with its mastery of the use of light to show works of art against stone walls. Its big failure is the parking lot that fronts the main entrance and brings to mind a suburban strip mall, even though Kahn intended visitors to enter via the recessed courtyard on the opposite side of the building, beautifully landscaped by Harriet Pattison. Happily, what by default became the Kimbell’s rear façade has been given new life since the opening of the freestanding Renzo Piano Pavilion of 2008–2013 directly across from it.*

Problems with Kahn’s other buildings are more numerous. The crushing monumentality he sometimes imposed on functions more suited to intimacy is epitomized by the cubic Central Hall of the Exeter library, which is dominated on each of its four sides by circular concrete-framed openings thirty feet in diameter. Exonians call the nearby dining hall, also designed by Kahn, “the crematorium” because of the four tall, ominous chimneys that loom over the single-story structure. Yet that nickname could also apply to the yawning round maws of the library atrium. No amount of nitpicking, however, can diminish his overall contribution, which was nothing less than a complete realignment of architecture’s deepest priorities.

That would not seem to be the expected agenda of an architect who (apart from his fine government-sponsored housing projects in Southeastern Pennsylvania with Oscar Stonorov during the 1930s and 1940s) didn’t identify strongly with reformist social causes later on, even when they became an urgent matter for many of his colleagues amid the upheavals of the 1960s. However, once Kahn began to attain critical prominence, he stuck to his determination to work solely for high-minded clients.

Beyond the patrons of the Kahn Quintet these included universities (Bryn Mawr College, where he built his Erdman Hall dormitory of 1960–1965); museums (the Yale University Art Gallery of 1951–1953 and the Yale Center for British Art of 1966–1977); scientific institutions (the Richards Medical Research Laboratories of 1957–1960 at the University of Pennsylvania); and religious groups (the First Unitarian Church and School of 1959–1969 in Rochester, New York, and Temple Beth-El Synagogue of 1966–1972 in Chappaqua, New York). How often does any architect get so many prestigious opportunities, and, even more rarely, how does one respond to them with the high sense of purpose Kahn commanded?

His mature designs share a remarkable formal consistency, but without the formulaic repetitiveness one sees, for example, in late-career Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. After much trial and error, Kahn at last learned how to make the grand gesture with simplicity and power. He drew on the gutsy ethos of the Greco-Roman tradition with volumetric heft but no hint of slavish imitation. His urge to create contemporary architecture that would endure through the ages was clearly announced in his essay “Monumentality” (1944), which began with the assertion: “Monumentality in architecture may be defined as a quality, a spiritual quality inherent in a structure which conveys the feeling of its eternity, that it cannot be added to or changed.”

Kahn’s design philosophy was based on a Platonic notion similar to Michelangelo’s conviction that all forms are embedded within materials and merely await the artist’s touch to be freed. The sculptor believed that he needed only to chip away any parts of a marble block that were not the David or the Pietà in order to discover those works within. In turn, Kahn pared down his schemes to their most irreducible essentials—monumental mass, pure geometry, numinous natural light—and jettisoned the extraneous trimmings of Classicism without any loss of intensity.

Through his studies at Penn under the Beaux-Arts-trained Paul Philippe Cret, Kahn learned all the compositional elements of the Classical vocabulary, which are evident in the grand, colonnaded, temporary buildings he worked on in his first big job as principal draftsman for the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition of 1926 in Philadelphia, of which Cret was master planner. The French architect’s emphasis on Beaux-Arts principles such as bilateral symmetry and the marche (the central processional route through a building) recurred with particular force in Kahn’s late work. These are most evident at the Salk Institute, with its mirror-image, serrated concrete wings flanking a central plaza that sweeps toward the Pacific, and at the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, with its pairs of gigantic cubes and cylinders perforated with colossal circular or triangular openings, all ringed around a central rotunda.

Yet Kahn avoided what the architectural historian Siegfried Giedion criticized as the besetting sin of American Beaux-Arts design: “Simply and mechanically transferring emotional luxury-forms from earlier periods to our own.” However much the past weighed on Kahn’s thinking, he was no historical revivalist, and his abstraction and transposition of ancient forms to modern circumstances was on a par with that of such earlier giants as John Soane and Edwin Lutyens, though he went much further than either in dispensing with applied ornament.

Less apparent was his enormous debt to Le Corbusier, especially the Swiss-French master’s consecration of concrete as worthy of high-style architecture, and his mysterious modulation of light, above all in the Ronchamp Chapel, which Kahn revered. When he was about to begin construction on the Salk Institute, his first major project in that material, he asked a new employee in his office, Fred Langford, how much he knew about concrete. When the young man admitted, “Nothing,” his boss replied, “That makes two of us,” whereupon Langford embarked on a crash course of self-education on the subject. With amazing alacrity he mastered the fine points of a craft that until then had not been executed at a very high level in the United States, and thereby became one of the master’s most crucial technical collaborators.


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2.

The infelicitous title of Wendy Lesser’s biography refers to a typically gnomic Kahnism about the inherent nature of materials: “You say to brick, ‘What do you want brick?’ Brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’” This imaginary dialogue highlights Kahn’s surprisingly old-fashioned attitude toward materials and their supposed imperatives—a utilitarian notion so at odds with his insistent spirituality—derived from nineteenth-century British sources, primarily John Ruskin. He indirectly absorbed Ruskin’s ideas from his art teacher at Philadelphia’s excellent Central High School, a trained architect who inspired the boy to pursue his future profession. As Kahn recalled this adolescent revelation, “Architecture combined my love and desire for artistic creation, painting, and being able to express and stand out,” a neat summation of both his soaring artistic aspirations and irrepressible egotism.

That latter quality was perversely reflected in his lifelong attitude toward money. Although Kahn is always portrayed as a hopelessly inept businessman, his disdain for filthy lucre was purposeful, and he remained openly contemptuous of financial go-getters. As he told his longtime engineer, August Komendant, who devised ingenious structural solutions that were beyond Kahn’s ken, including the famous vaulted skylight ceilings at the Kimbell:

If you are in the profession of architecture, it is likely that you are not an architect. If you are an architect without thinking of the profession, you might be one. The profession kills your incentive….

You get yourself a good business character, you can really play golf all day and your buildings will be built anyway. But what the devil is that?

From the outset, Kahn was wary of accepting work that he feared would cheapen his image as a great artist-architect. He boasted that “I have refused thousands of dollars that were tainted,” and he died nearly half a million dollars in debt. Two years after his death, the state of Pennsylvania rescued his wife, Esther, from penury by buying his papers for $450,000. (They are on deposit at Penn.) Kahn depended on her income as a medical researcher during most of their forty-three-year marriage, and averred that his undying gratitude prevented him from leaving her for the younger women he impregnated. He gave little more than token amounts toward the upkeep of those satellite families, and his widow angrily (if understandably) rejected pleas that she help out his illegitimate children. “They’re bastards,” she declared. “They’re not entitled to anything of Lou’s.”

During the 1940s and 1950s he took teaching positions at Yale, MIT, and Princeton (to which he commuted while maintaining his architectural practice in Philadelphia), and then ultimately at Penn, for the same reason most other avant-garde architects do: to guarantee a steady income until client fees were able to cover the costs of running an office. A large part of Kahn’s legend rests on his fame as a pedagogue, and although his parallel teaching career was driven by financial necessity, he became renowned for his ability to inspire students with a more elevated vision of professional practice than the technically advanced but psychically stunted approach characteristic of postwar American architectural education.

Although there are several published collections of the architect’s lectures, Kahn at Penn: Transformative Teacher of Architecture gives the first in-depth account of his activities as an educator. Its author, James F. Williamson, was among the students from forty-three countries who received degrees in the architect’s fabled master classes at Penn between 1956 to 1974, testimony to Kahn’s global pull during his final decades. That there were only sixteen women—including Denise Scott Brown—among the course’s 427 graduates is an index of the gender disparity that still persisted in architecture schools. (In recent years, upward of 40 percent of architecture graduates have been women.)

Although many of Kahn’s master class students reckon the course to have been among the most extraordinary experiences in their lives, several of them harbor reservations. As Williamson writes:

He seemed to discourage personal relationships with his students, and my main impression of his personality was its combination of strength and remoteness. Although he was usually kind enough, I recall few overt expressions of concern for his students. Kahn’s idealism, although inspiring, often seemed unrealistic, and in my later professional practice I have continued to struggle to reconcile his lofty ideals with the realities of the marketplace.

Another master class student, John Tyler Sidener Jr., known to the professor as “you from California,” felt excluded by the studio’s abstruse discourse and worshipful atmosphere:

[Kahn] talked about the house as a sanctuary, a chapel, with a central space ringed with columns like a small Pantheon. I wasn’t ready for that. I’d spent too long on publicly funded school buildings, low-cost housing, and other straight-forward projects. More difficult was this abstract conversation; the hard-core students seemed like they were clustered around a guru under a banyan tree, with conversations only among Kahn…and a few chosen students.

But as others discerned, the most valuable lesson to be learned there was less direct. John Raymond Griffin understood that Kahn’s intention was to make his students

critically examine our underlying thoughts about design…to begin developing our own individual approaches—and not so much just about architectural design—but also about the larger humanistic principles and purposes which design could or should seek to reveal.

3.

As the new books amply indicate, Kahn was wildly conflicted within himself: intellectually ambitious yet insufficiently educated save in his specialty; seemingly warm and generous but often aloof and monstrously selfish; endlessly loquacious yet maddeningly obscurantist; at once a wise man and a spoiled child. Although an avid world traveler, he never learned to drive a car. A keyboard virtuoso who helped pay for his education with jobs as a movie-house organist, he could not read musical notation. Physically he presented a similar bundle of contradictions. Though he was short, often rumpled, and facially disfigured, with a high-pitched voice and glasses so thick that he mockingly called himself Mr. Magoo after the purblind cartoon character, he was catnip to the ladies. Kahn’s numerous erotic intrigues confirm Henry Kissinger’s oft-quoted observation that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac (though here it was a matter of cultural cachet rather than political clout).

The deficiencies of Kahn’s appearance notwithstanding, many found him irresistibly attractive, including his longtime collaborator and lover, Anne Griswold Tyng. Nearly twenty years his junior, she recalled how “on swelteringly hot summer weekend charettes when Lou occasionally worked shirtless, it was hard not to notice how unusually broad his lightly freckled shoulders were in proportion to his slim hips.” Vincent Scully, the Yale architectural historian who did more than anyone else to establish and burnish Kahn’s critical reputation, lauded his looks in almost mythic terms:

The impression was of deep warmth and force, compact physical strength, a printless, cat-like walk, glistening Tartar’s eyes—only bright blue—a disordered aureole of whitening hair, once red: black suit, loose tie, pencil-sized cigar. It was at this time that he began to unfold into the rather unearthly beauty and command of a Phoenix risen from the fire.

Scully here alludes to the accident that left the future architect with horrific scars on his face and hands. In his native Estonia, the three-year-old Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky (as Kahn was known until he arrived in Philadelphia in 1906) was so mesmerized by the hypnotic glow of lighted coals that he tried to gather them up and suffered burns so severe that they nearly killed him. It would be facile to interpret Kahn’s strenuous womanizing as overcompensation for his irrevocably damaged countenance, but many people seemed not to notice it at all, such was the distracting force of his magnetic personality.

Kahn was unusually promiscuous by the standards of his time and place, fathering three children by three women. The long-concealed chaos of his private life was first revealed in 1997 with the publication of Louis Kahn to Anne Tyng: The Rome Letters, 1953–1954, edited by their recipient, an architect who worked with him for two decades. Tyng, a glacially beautiful blond WASP who had been one of the first female graduates at Harvard’s architecture school, was the shiksa goddess of a Jewish architect’s dreams. When she became pregnant by Kahn and decided to keep their child, she went to Italy, where her older brother lived, which allowed her to give birth to Alexandra Tyng (who is now a realist painter and the spitting image of her father) far from the prying eyes of proper Philadelphians.

Lesser identifies yet another Kahn mistress hitherto unmentioned in the literature. Marie Kuo was a Chinese-born architect who worked in Kahn’s firm and began a sexual relationship with him while Tyng was away in Italy. By the end of the 1950s he was involved in overlapping affairs with Kuo, Tyng, and Harriet Pattison, his landscape architect. In a scene worthy of Les Liaisons dangereuses, Lesser tells how Tyng overheard an office telephone call in which Kuo assured her mother that she was using birth control and need not worry about an unwanted pregnancy. (Kahn, we learn, would not use condoms, and didn’t like his women to take precautions, either.) Although Kuo spoke Mandarin for privacy, she did not realize that Tyng, who was born to Episcopal missionaries in China and raised there, understood every word.

The architect hardly limited himself to three mistresses, however. One colleague recalled how at parties Kahn “would glom onto some younger woman or other and just press them to the wall—very attractive women, too. And some of them fell for it.” Lesser also discloses Esther Kahn’s long-running affair with an acquaintance of her husband’s, an unnamed married research scientist who taught at Penn and was blond and Gentile like Tyng. According to the Kahns’ daughter, Sue Ann, the architect was “so engrossed in his own world that he probably never even thought about it.”

But nothing exposed Kahn’s unorthodox family relations more than Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003), which was nominated for an Academy Award and became a sleeper box-office hit. In it the director—whose mother is Pattison—joins his two older half-sisters in a touching demonstration of how loving families can be forged under the unlikeliest of circumstances. Alas, what they had most in common was seeking the attention of an affectionate but ruthlessly self-absorbed father who put his work before everything else. Whatever transcendence Louis Kahn found in his architecture, much emotional wreckage followed in his wake.

Whereas Wiseman follows a standard cradle-to-grave chronology, Lesser inverts the narrative and begins with Kahn’s death, a device often used when a demise is particularly unusual, dramatic, or notorious. Her impressive research skills are on full display as she gives the most complete account yet of the architect’s end in a men’s room at Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station on St. Patrick’s Day 1974, after which a perfect storm of procedural foul-ups resulted in his distraught families not being notified until two days later. The author debunks several persistent but erroneous notions about the episode, some held by his closest survivors, and gives plausible explanations for what went wrong and why.

Posthumous medical diagnoses are impossible to verify, yet it does seem likely that he was a victim of excessive long-haul air voyages. To be sure, architectural practice was an international affair well before modern aviation, with masters from Bernini to Wright traveling to far-off lands in search of work. But the advent of regular commercial jet service in the late 1950s put unprecedented pressure on architects to routinely transverse vast distances to secure commissions, supervise construction, participate in conferences, give lectures, fulfill visiting professorships, and accept awards, all deemed desirable components of a major international career.

Cardiologists have since identified frequent and lengthy plane journeys as a major risk factor for those with heart disease, and a cause of deep-vein thrombosis, a clot that can now be prevented with advanced blood thinners. Kahn—who in his final year complained of “indigestion,” a common misunderstanding of a classic cardiac symptom—was felled by a fatal coronary attack on the last leg of a grueling trek from Ahmedabad, his eighth international trip in four months, several of them halfway around the world. Such a marathon would have been hard on a younger, fitter man, but the toll it took on this workaholic septuagenarian was catastrophic. Because genetics are thought to have an important effect on longevity, and the architect’s parents lived into their upper eighties, it might be said that Louis Kahn flew himself to death, a Jet Age Icarus.

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