The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 13 February 2018

You Say to Brick

The Life of Louis Kahn

by Wendy Lesser

The Jonas Salk research lab in La Jolla, CA is an almost perfectly serene architectural setting. It is also, of course, quite famous, given its smoothly crafted concrete walls, teak wood insets, and crystalline views out over the Pacific. The building, designed by Louis I. Kahn in the early 1960s, has been minimally altered over the years, and has portions of its original plan that were never constructed, but it remains one of the more finely crafted and timeless architectural spaces of the 20th century. Getting to such a result took creative brilliance, intimate cooperation between architect and client, and, of course, a bunch of money, in this case provided by the March of Dimes. Salk, himself, had his own brilliance, famously devising a vaccine for polio that has since made that disease virtually eradicated across the globe. That scientific success predated the building, but the building stands as a sleek modernist monument to a creative moment. Louis Kahn was a subtle and bold designer who made just a handful of notable buildings, but these buildings are among the most iconic of the last century. This book is a biography of the man which tells some of the story of his work. But, mostly, it is an intimate biography of Kahn, his connections to his art, and his now famously unconventional personal life.

Louis Kahn died in 1974, and that is where this biography begins. He died, too, in perhaps the most humiliating place a noted architect could die: the bathroom of Pennsylvania Station in New York City, itself a symbol of an historic and infamous catastrophic failure of architecture and urban planning. The details here are sad and intricately researched. The author takes away whatever mystery or myth surrounds Kahn's death by detailing it in a way that makes the great man utterly human. In the end, it is that humanity, enduring burn-scars and all, that contributed to Kahn's determination to live a life grounded in his passions, both personal and creative. Kahn arose from the Baltic states of Tsarist Russia, exhibiting precocious artistic talent, and living a determined artistic life, often at the expense of others in his own family. He seemed aloof to many, and yet sustained several extramarital affairs, two of which resulted in children aside from the daughter he had by his wife, Esther. But Kahn's charisma, talent and charm insulated him from the conventional consequences of such a life. Esther, perhaps, lost most by the arrangement, as Anne Tyng, Harriet Pattison and Marie Kuo -- all strong creative women in their own right, all who had strong artistic careers, but all who also remained overshadowed by Kahn's success -- all might have been expected to understand their own roles in Kahn's drama. In the age of the #MeToo movement, one is left to judge how Kahn and these women managed, justified and even treasured their uncommon arrangements. To his credit, anyway, Kahn acknowledged all his children. We don't quite know if he felt any conventional guilt over his affairs, but we can see the effect his behavior had on his family, as witnessed by his friends and associates, and most pertinently on the children, all of whom, it seems, yet adored their flawed father.

This intimacy of personal life sets a tone that flows through this book. Intermittent chapters in which the author subtly and engagingly describes the visceral experience of inhabiting five of Kahn's major works -- including the Salk Center, Kimbell Museum, and Indian Institute for Management -- also reflect a personal sense of the man who designed them. The process of making this body of work is outlined and we meet many of the men and women who worked with Kahn, many with a strong protective devotion to the man. There have been other books written about Kahn's work in the 44 years since his death. Buildings of his are often revered. His Yale University Art Museum was renovated in recent years, to its somewhat flawed glory. But this book is more about the man than about the detailed technical work of making his buildings. We learn about his process, his visions, but also about his relationship with his family, and with himself, even to the point of answers he gave in a study about the origins of creativity. But this isn't a gossipy exposé of the man. It is more subtle than that, elegantly structured and sympathetic to the many people involved. A very personal biography and yet leaving us with a sense that much of the man remains unknowable. As with all artists, maybe this is more than we're entitled to. We are left with his works, great and small, from residences to the monumental parliament of Bangladesh. His descendants, too, are at least partly his creation. They are marked by their experience of an artist who compromised some, but not much. We can see some of that here. But we can see, live within, and deeply experience his buildings, as well.

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