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.

Relat­ed Content:

Wendy Less­er is an Amer­i­can crit­ic, nov­el­ist, and edi­tor based in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia. She is a mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Arts and Sci­ences and the found­ing edi­tor of The Three­pen­ny Review. Wendy 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 and Writers.