You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn

Farrar, Straus & Giroux  2017


Louis I. Kahn is widely considered one of the greatest American architects of the 20th century. Wendy Lesser’s comprehensive new biography includes evocative chapters about five of Kahn’s remarkable buildings. Of course, she also tells the story of his life.

It’s a startling tale. For one thing, Kahn was severely burned as a child, leaving him with disfiguring facial scars. More astonishing is how Kahn maintained three different families simultaneously. Besides his wife Esther and daughter Sue Ann, Lou had children with two other women. These other families were generally unacknowledged until 2003, when My Architect, a documentary film by Kahn’s son Nathaniel, brought the arrangement to public awareness.

The ways in which Kahn’s Jewish identity affected his career are also intriguing. While it is not a major theme, Lesser explores how Jewishness was important as well as irrelevant to Kahn, helpful at times and harmful at others. She calls it a “kind of mask, defining him in the eyes of WASP Philadelphia . . . [and] the echt-Protestant architecture world, but less fully defining him to himself.”

Today, Kahn is revered in Bangladesh as the architect of the country’s capital building and mosque, and celebrated for his First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York. There are no Jewish buildings, however, in Kahn’s portfolio of masterpieces.

Why not? Lesser suggests Kahn’s limited knowledge of Jewish tradition was partly to blame.

Born in 1901 on an island off the coast of Estonia, Lou came to Philadelphia with his family when he was five. He grew up poor, and discovered his life-defining passion for architecture in high school. To fund his way through the University of Pennsylvania, he took numerous part-time jobs. “He had a battle, being Jewish and going to Penn,” recalled one of Kahn’s former employees. Nonetheless, Kahn graduated with an architecture degree.

At first, Lou received modest commissions—a Philadelphia synagogue, a New Jersey Jewish Community Center. Finally, in the early 1960s, his design for the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, brought him major success.

Soon, Louis Kahn Architects was doing prestigious jobs around the world. The wider Jewish world took notice. Kahn’s projects included a new sanctuary for the historic Philadelphia congregation Mikveh Israel, the restoration of Jerusalem’s ruined Hurva synagogue, and the design of a Holocaust memorial in New York City.

All three were unsuccessful.

Lesser cites “Lou’s insufficient Jewishness” as part of the problem at Mikveh Israel: “He could not conceal . . . his own lack of religious education.” Bizarrely, Kahn used Christian terminology during discussions, calling the sanctuary a church and the sukkah a chapel. When he lost that commission, his daughter Sue Ann called it “one of the greatest disappointments of his life.”

Other disappointments followed. His concept for the Memorial to the Six Million in New York’s Battery Park was a solemn formation of glass pillars. It went through various iterations, but none of his proposals satisfied some committee members: “They did not see their sorrow and their pain expressed in these abstract pieces of glass.”

The Hurva synagogue was a thrilling opportunity in the newly conquered Old City of Jerusalem. After three rounds of drawings in the early 1970s, Mayor Teddy Kollek told Lou he felt ready to begin building. Sadly, Kahn died shortly thereafter.

In You Say to Brick (the title comes from a talk by Kahn about respecting the quality of building materials), Lesser extolls Kahn’s brilliant work, examines his messy life, and considers his contradictory Jewish identities. She provides another insight about Lou with this anecdote: “‘I’m too religious to be religious,’ he told a friend after a synagogue commission . . . died after years of conflict. Perhaps,” Lesser adds, “he also meant that his sole religion was architecture.”

Visiting Scribe: Wendy Lesser

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