Wendy Lesser shines a new light on American architect Louis Kahn

A problematic and rich life exposed with ink on paper.

Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California (1959-65) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California (1959-65)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I WAS keen to read Wendy Lesser’s “You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn” for at least three reasons. First, I have a weakness for stories about Jews who rise from the most obscure beginnings to the heights of their chosen professions. Second, I’ve long been intrigued by the manner in which certain people can discuss architecture with the sort of mystical rapture more commonly applied to music or poetry or painting; what, I keep wondering, is this apparent artistic endeavor that so supremely eludes me? And third is Kahn himself, a man whose professional life was as complex, passionate and befuddling as his notorious private life.
It helps that Lesser is no architectural monomaniac. Yes, she can be as numinous as the worst of them (“You cannot help but feel that the building itself is changing you. The person who emerges from it will not be quite the same as the person who went in”). But Lesser, the founder and editor of the much-respected literary journal “The Threepenny Review,” has also written books on such disparate subjects as literature, music, theater and crime. The salient point being that she writes well – and just as obviously, thinks and feels deeply.
Which is not to say Lesser has written a conventional biography. She trips along chronologically when it suits her, deviates when the mood strikes. For example, her narrative includes countless references to Kahn’s severely scarred face and hands, even as she describes the childhood accident that caused these deformities only near the very end of the book. Furthermore, she begins the book with a description of Kahn’s death. In between, it’s mostly step by step, but Lesser does interrupt her story five times for essays on her personal visits to various Kahn projects.
But why demand a conventional biography when at least a dozen books on Louis Kahn have preceded Lesser’s, as well as Nathaniel Kahn’s acclaimed 2003 documentary film, “My Architect: A Son’s Journey.”
Besides, Louis Kahn was anything but conventional.
Louis I. Kahn (1901–1974) was born Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky into a tiny Jewish community on the Baltic island of Osel in what was then Latvia and is now Estonia.
His father was a tradesman and his mother a homemaker, but the former was also artistic and the latter musical. By the age of five, their son demonstrated an uncanny talent for drawing, and without any formal training, also learned to play both the piano and the organ – well enough to earn regular wages for years by performing in silent movie houses. To their credit, Kahn’s parents heartily encouraged his creative pursuits.
After the family emigrated to Philadelphia, where relatives had preceded them and where the elder Schmulowsky changed the family name to Kahn, the young Kahn earned a place in the city’s top high school on the strength of his artistic talents. Though he never distinguished himself academically, a high school architecture course ignited him and established the course of his life.
He subsequently enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture program, considered at the time among the best in the United States.
After graduation, Kahn worked as a draftsman before striking out on his own as an architect, working mainly on public housing projects. But the year was 1929 – the Great Depression had just began and architectural commissions throughout the US had largely dried up. Thus the tone was set for the personal and professional strands of turmoil that were to entangle Kahn throughout the ensuing decades.
The man’s private life was spectacularly complicated. Despite his scarred face and social awkwardness, Kahn evidently proved mesmerizing to women. He married a fellow Penn student, Esther Israeli, and shortly after, they had a daughter. But he also had affairs with several young women who came to work at his firm, and had children with two of them. Soon enough he was juggling time between three households.
Kahn’s business life was also problematic.
By the time of his death in 1974, he was widely acclaimed as perhaps the greatest of American architects as well as an inspiring professor of the subject, yet he was half a million dollars in debt, largely because of his poorly run firm.
Beyond that, Lesser estimates that Kahn produced about 235 designs, of which only 81 were ever realized, among these office remodels, home interiors, additions to existing structures and the like. “Generously including three of the nine private houses,” Lesser writes, “you still come up with only 14 major buildings out of a lifetime of very hard work.” The probable causes for this comparative lack of success include his unusual architectural designs and the cost of building them, his personal quirks and antisemitism.
Of these 14, only a few are recognized as masterpieces: the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California; Yale University’s Center for British Art; the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh in Dhaka; the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; and maybe the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on New York City’s Roosevelt Island.
Equally significant are the Kahn designs that were never realized. Among these are Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel Synagogue (the board ultimately awarded the commission to a congregant); the Pakistani presidential palace; a vast conference center in Venice, Italy; the Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs in New York’s Battery Park; and the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The failure to see his plans for the Hurva materialize apparently grieved Kahn considerably.
The architect had visited Israel several times, beginning in 1949 when he was called in to consult on public housing projects, and over the years with then- Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek’s support, Kahn submitted design after design for the Hurva. The Israeli authorities, however, could never agree on a plan.
Not that Kahn’s disappointment over the Hurva arose from any particular Jewish sentiment.
The architect was a fiercely non-observant Jew. He celebrated Christmas (thrice each year, with each family), and the only synagogue he ever designed and built, in Chappaqua, New York, was given a radical makeover after Kahn’s death. He also designed and built a Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York, and a mosque as part of his Bangladesh complex. These last two are considered among his triumphs. Indeed, although Kahn’s completed output was relatively small, he was acclaimed by such contemporaries as I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Renzo Piano and Moshe Safdie, the last of whom cut his teeth in Kahn’s studio.
But Lesser says Kahn also had his flatout failures. Among these are the “cramped and dark” dormitory on the campus of Bryn Mawr College, which Lesser says remains the last choice among incoming freshmen, and the dining hall at New Hampshire’s exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy, which students call the Crematorium, “a deeply unpleasant environment, and no one chooses to spend more time there than necessary.”
The library Kahn designed on the same campus is considered brilliant. Yet Lesser reports that the chief librarian there complains that “the heating and air-conditioning system is inadequate, so it is often too cold or too hot. Cracked pipes located deep within the walls sometimes leak a sewage smell.
The windows don’t open. Light bulbs and vents on or near the high ceilings are almost impossible to reach. The fireplace in her office, though enticing, can’t be lit without releasing smoke into other rooms.”
If only Lesser were as plainspoken about architecture elsewhere in the book.