You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn

  • Review
By – March 16, 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

Why I Wrote You Say to Brick

How Jew­ish Was Louis Kahn?

Relat­ed Reads:

Ira Wolf­man is a writer and edi­tor with a deep inter­est in Jew­ish his­to­ry. He is the author of Jew­ish New York: Notable Neigh­bor­hoods, Mem­o­rable Moments (Uni­verse Books) and the own­er of POE Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a con­sult­ing firm that spe­cial­izes in edu­ca­tion­al publishing.

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