The ProsenPeople

The Biographer and the Architect

Friday, March 24, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Wendy Lesser wrote about Louis Kahn’s Jewish identity why she chose to write You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Wendy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Early on in my interviewing for the book that would become You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, I talked to a Philadelphia architect, David Slovic, who had been both a student and an employee of Kahn's. “Here’s what I want to know,” Slovic mused toward the end of our conversation. “We all went to the same schools. We all had the same training. Why did he turn out to be Louis Kahn and the rest of us didn't?"”

“That's what I'm hoping to answer in my book,” I said.

But when you write a biography of an artist—any artist—the effort to find the sources of their inspiration or the key to their work is only part of what you are doing. You are also trying to understand a human being as a fellow human, though in ways that are utterly different from what you might apply to the people around you. I know both more and less about “Lou” than I will ever know about my best friend, my husband, or my own child. I never met Kahn, but I would recognize his voice, his handwriting, perhaps even his style of sketching or his way of putting words together. I probably know more about his fears and dreams and desires than I know about my own; I certainly know more about his death (which was, in its own way, quite mysterious) than I will ever know of my own. And though some of the information I painstakingly gathered helped me to understand his buildings, a great deal of it was just interesting for what it told me about him as a person.

I think now of three key moments in the research process, moments that made me feel I was drawing especially close to the man behind the architect. One was a four-page letter written to Lou in 1945 by his younger brother, Oscar Kahn, when they were both in their early forties. (I learned about the letter from Nathaniel Kahn, who told me to look it up in the Architectural Archives at Penn.) I won’t reproduce the letter here—it appears in full in my book—but suffice to say it gives the clearest, most incisive analysis of Lou's personality I have yet come across.

The second item was a series of test results that came out of a study run at UC Berkeley in the late 1950s, a “creativity study” in which Kahn was one of the participating architects. No restrictions were ever put on this material, so the kindly people at the Institute for Personality and Social Research—the inheritor of this research—gave me Lou's Rorschach results, his Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, his Thematic Apperception Test, his psychological interview transcripts, and a whole host of other materials he never imagined would see the light of day. Some of it was uninterpretable garbage, but amid the rubbish were a number of deep and incisive revelations, including key observations about his childhood, his parents, and his relationship to his own work.

And then there was the dream Lou scribbled on the back of his BOAC boarding pass during one of his final visits to Bangladesh in January of 1973. His older daughter, Sue Ann Kahn, handed it to me with a bunch of family papers she had accumulated but not necessarily read. It was written in microscopic handwriting I had to decipher with the aid of a magnifying glass. Again, I can't really go into the dream and its meaning in this brief space, but what I remember is the uncanny sensation I had when first reading it—almost as if I were touching Kahn's mind with my hand.

Still, all the personal insights I’ve gained do not really explain why Louis Kahn became the great architect he did. There is always a gap between individual personality and artistic achievement, and with an architect the gap is even greater than usual, because so many factors beyond his own character (collaborators, clients, money, the site itself, various social and historical forces, the state of technological development, etc.) influence the outcome of his work. So I can't make a case that my biography will fully reveal, for David Slovic or anyone else, the true sources of Kahn’s architecture.

What I can say is that there was a moment in the process when I suddenly became aware of a felt connection between the individual man—that unusual person who carried on all those intense, unconventional love affairs—and the marvelous buildings he produced. When I visited the home of his younger daughter, Alexandra Tyng, she showed me a picture of Lou that hung on her wall, a photograph taken in 1936 of him shooting a bow and arrow at the Brookwood Labor College. As I looked at him standing there in his skimpy archery costume, with his well-muscled body and his confident stance, I thought, Yes: that is the feeling his architecture gives us, the sense that we are fully inhabiting our bodies. His buildings make us feel we are contained within a vast space, at once tenderly embraced and freed into a kind of elevated exaltation, as if the massive environment is lifting us up and making us larger even as it protectively acknowledges our merely human size.

Wendy Lesser is a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dedalus Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars.

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How Jewish Was Louis Kahn?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Wendy Lesser wrote about why she chose to write You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Wendy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Louis Kahn’s Jewish parents, Beila-Rebeckah Mendelowitsch and Leib Schmulowsky, were married in 1900 in Livonia, the Russian-held province that before World War I encompassed Latvia and southern Estonia. Less than year later, in February of 1901, the future American architect was born there, either on a Baltic island or on the mainland nearby, under the name Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky. According to the rabbinical record, kept in both Russian and Hebrew—as all Jews had to be registered in that time and place—he was circumcised seven days after the birth. Upon his arrival five years later in Philadelphia, he was given a new name, Louis Isadore Kahn. While the new name retained the Jewish associations of his original Eastern European name, it made him sound classier and German-Jewish.

It is not clear whether his first name was intended to be pronounced "Lewis" or "Louie"; from childhood onward he was known simply as Lou, and that was what everyone called him, including his colleagues, his employees, his relatives, and his lovers.

Lou spent a total of one day in religious school (his mother snatched him out, apparently, after the teacher smacked him) and he was never bar mitzvahed. When he grew up, he married a Jewish girl, Esther Israeli, from a highly assimilated Philadelphia family. Their wedding was conducted by a rabbi, though Esther always insisted this was done solely for Kahn’s parents, since she would have preferred a secular wedding.

Of Kahn’s three children, one was born to Esther and one each to two separate non-Jewish women with whom he carried on long-term love affairs: the architect Anne Tyng and the landscape architect Harriet Pattison, both of whom worked with him. (All three women knew about one another, as did all three children. The fact that Kahn had three families was a widely shared secret in the small-town Philadelphia of his time.) An additional significant love affair—though one that did not result in a pregnancy—was with another architect who worked for him, Marie Kuo; she was not Jewish, either.

Some of his male friends were Jewish (though many were not); his favorite client was Jonas Salk, who, like him, was the child of Eastern European Jews. Kahn had what many people think of as a Jewish sense of humor: self-deprecating, ironic, intimate. Despite the severe scarring of his hands and face that resulted from a childhood accident, he carried himself confidently, as if he were comfortable in his own skin, and people—especially women—found him attractive. Some of this self-confidence can perhaps be attributed to his mother (now renamed Bertha Kahn), who in typical Jewish-mother fashion lavished a great deal of attention on her brilliant oldest son. Like many immigrant mothers, she husbanded the family's limited resources, but what she could spend, she spent on Lou. In somewhat less typical fashion, Bertha left him alone to find his own way through the poverty-stricken world of Philadelphia's Northern Liberties district. In later life, Kahn credited her with having "absolute confidence" in him.

Kahn worked on several synagogue commissions in the course of his life, but his two greatest synagogue designs, Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia and the Hurva in Jerusalem, were never built. Two of his most successful projects were a church (First Unitarian in Rochester) and a mosque (part of the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh). When he was hired to design the Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs in Battery Park, he labeled its central glass pillar a "chapel"; the memorial was voted down by a committee of fifty prominent Jews. When working on the Mikveh Israel commission, Kahn wrote "Kaddish" and "kiddush" in the margins of one of his plans to remind himself of the different Hebrew terms; again, the synagogue membership ultimately rejected his plans. He apparently viewed all religions as essentially one, and though he was frequently described as a person of great spiritual depth, he did not practice any religion himself. He joined the Rabindranath Tagore Society in Philadelphia before embarking on major work on the Indian subcontinent, and he studied Islamic architecture before building the government center in Bangladesh.

As an adult, Kahn never celebrated Jewish holidays, but he and Esther donated small sums, intermittently, to various Jewish causes; they also donated $1,000 to the Unitarians in 1961, when he was working on the church. His extended family, included Esther's sisters and cousins, celebrated Christmas every year at Kahn’s house.

When he died suddenly in 1974, a rabbi he had never met was hired to conduct his funeral service—a decision made without his own involvement. Since his parents had both been buried by rabbis, people assumed he would have wanted that, too.

Wendy Lesser is a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dedalus Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars.

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  • Why I Wrote 'You Say to Brick'

    Monday, March 20, 2017 | Permalink

    Wendy Lesser is the author of You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Wendy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

    As usual with my books, there is a long story and a short story. The long story begins many decades ago, when I was in high school and a family friend, an architect, made me think that architecture was a great career. Gradually this morphed into an interest in city planning, and by the end of high school I was working for a city planner's office in San Francisco.

    In college my focus shifted to literature, but I was still sufficiently interested in the earlier topic to write my undergraduate thesis on a turn-of-the-century Scottish city planner named Patrick Geddes. Like Louis Kahn, the subject of my biography You Say to Brick, Geddes was a visionary, a man way ahead of his time, who spoke in his own peculiar language about things that mattered deeply.

    Fast forward to 2003, when Nathaniel Kahn's wonderful movie, My Architect, came out. Though by this time I had seen and admired the two art galleries Kahn designed at Yale, I hadn't really focused on the architect himself until I saw Nathaniel's film about his father. It is a terrific documentary, deservedly nominated for an Academy Award. I loved it for what it did with the essay-film form, but I also found myself attracted to the subject himself. Kahn's personal life was fascinating—he had three different children with three different women, even as he remained married to the mother of the oldest—and so were the glimpses of his architecture the film offered. I saw the movie twice in the year it came out (no easy thing to do, in those pre-streaming years), but still it never occurred to me that I might someday write about Louis Kahn myself.

    Now for the short story. I was casting about for a new book idea, and in November of 2012, on a casual Sunday walk, I happened to visit the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in New York. The minute I set foot on the monument—designed by Kahn in 1973, but left unfinished when he died in 1974 and not completed until 2012, nearly four decades later—I realized I had a new subject. The structure spoke directly to me about openness and containment, about freedom and restraint, with the kind of expressive but non-verbal communication one can find in arts like architecture, painting, music, and dance. I had known from Nathaniel's movie that his father led an unusual life—excellent material for a biography—but what really got me interested in writing the book was my fortuitous encounter with one of Kahn's masterworks.

    As my research wore on, I discovered so many interesting new facts about Kahn's life that at times I joked, "Maybe I should ignore the architecture and just write about the life." And I did, in the end, manage to fit most of those intriguing discoveries into the book. Through it all, my admiration for the architecture continued to grow. I visited all the sites of his masterpieces—from the Salk Institute in La Jolla to the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh in Dhaka—and the more of Kahn's work I saw, the more I loved it—and the happier I was to write about it.

    A skeptic might interrupt me at this point to question: what does a literary person know about architecture? How did you ever have the chutzpah to write about a technical field like that?

    Well, I do have a lot of chutzpah. Previous books of mine have been about a lawyer handling a death-penalty case, a theater director's methods, and a composer's life—and I probably know less about law, drama, and music than I do about architecture. (That's true of all of us, I would guess, since we all live in and surrounded by architecture, using it every day.) But my real justification for venturing onto this ground is to try to explain things in non-technical terms to other people like me, people who don't have a degree in architecture but still find its works and processes entrancing. So, for instance, when I met with Kahn's concrete consultant, Fred Langford, or his engineer, Nick Gianopulos, to find out how they contributed to the collaborative enterprise, I would say, "Wait, Fred, tell me that about that form construction again, but in language I can understand," or, "Hold on, Nick, what do you mean by 'parallel canted joists'?" In each case, I would be rendering into English—my language, our language—the technical secrets that lay behind Kahn's magnificent works.

    Oh, and the weird title? It comes from a story Kahn often used to tell: "You say to brick, What do you want, brick? And brick says: I like an arch. And you say: But I could put in a concrete lintel and it would be much cheaper. What do you think of that, brick? And brick says: I like an arch." That sense of resistance to outside advice, of remaining true to one's essence in the face of all obstacles, was what I found not only in the materials Louis Kahn lovingly used, but in the man himself.

    Wendy Lesser is a member of American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the founding editor of The Threepenny Review. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dedalus Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars.

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