Alexan­dra Tyng, The Let­ter A, 2016, oil on linen, 4246 in, detail. Repro­duced with per­mis­sion of the artist, cour­tesy Design­ers & Books.

This essay is excerpt­ed from A Read­er’s Guide to The Note­books and Draw­ings of Louis I. Kahn © 2021 Design­ers & Books. The Note­books and Draw­ings of Louis I. Kahn and accom­pa­ny­ing Read­er’s Guide are dis­trib­uted by Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press for Design­ers & Books and the Yale Cen­ter for British Art.


One of my clear­est ear­ly child­hood mem­o­ries is of my father and me draw­ing side by side with oil pas­tels at the din­ing room table. He asked me what I want­ed to draw and I said, A cas­tle!” and we both drew a cas­tle. As our draw­ings devel­oped, we talked about whether our cas­tles should have one or more tow­ers, or a draw­bridge and a moat with water. Peri­od­i­cal­ly I would look over to watch him and learn how he made things look three-dimen­sion­al. Two feel­ings stand out. One is our mutu­al delight in shar­ing an activ­i­ty we both loved. The oth­er is my trust in our fam­i­ly unit that came from shar­ing meals and often falling asleep at night know­ing they were both there.

My father stopped vis­it­ing our house when I was five years old. I felt instinc­tive­ly that our fam­i­ly unit no longer exist­ed, but no expla­na­tion was giv­en; per­haps because my par­ents weren’t mar­ried they felt it was unnec­es­sary to men­tion that their rela­tion­ship had end­ed. For the rest of my child­hood, I saw him infre­quent­ly. My ear­ly trust in my father was replaced by a com­bi­na­tion of love, inse­cure attach­ment, and anger. Lou’s feel­ings about me became more com­plex as I ceased to be read­i­ly affec­tion­ate toward him. He pos­si­bly felt a com­bi­na­tion of love, guilt, and hope that I would need him less as he was involved in a new rela­tion­ship and traveling.

Alexan­dra Tyng, The Let­ter A, 2016, oil on linen, 4246 in. Repro­duced with per­mis­sion of the artist, cour­tesy Design­ers & Books.

The Let­ter A is about the inner life of chil­dren and the role cre­ativ­i­ty plays in their attempt to make sense of their lives. As a child of unmar­ried par­ents in the 1950s, I grad­u­al­ly real­ized that my fam­i­ly was not typ­i­cal.” I am draw­ing and writ­ing in chalk on the street, describ­ing the world as I under­stood it, while my par­ents stand by at dif­fer­ent dis­tances. The ini­tial of my first name, A, appears many times in the chalk; an A is also stitched into the bodice of my mother’s dress as a ref­er­ence to the par­tic­u­lar dynam­ic between the three main char­ac­ters in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The Scar­let Let­ter.

When we resumed see­ing each oth­er, our inter­ac­tions were more intense. Secret­ly I want­ed to run up to him and hug him, but my nat­ur­al affec­tion was sti­fled by know­ing I couldn’t depend on him to be there for me. Even the prospect of see­ing him caused inter­nal con­flict. Some­how in this dif­fi­cult rela­tion­ship we found that we could still con­nect through art and ideas. He would ask to see my draw­ings and look through them mak­ing appre­cia­tive sounds. I still have a stack of sketch­books that he gave me begin­ning before I was two and con­tin­u­ing on into my teens.

They were real hard­back books with black, peb­bly-tex­tured bind­ings and smooth white blank pages that I filled with col­ored-pen­cil draw­ings. As soon as I had fin­ished a book, anoth­er would appear, and my moth­er kept track of my age at the start and fin­ish of each. When I was old enough to walk down­town on my own, I would take the ele­va­tor up to my father’s office and we would walk togeth­er to Taw’s art sup­ply store down the street. For sev­er­al years I only want­ed to draw in pen­cil and black ink, so Lou made sure I had crow-quill pens, India ink, and good paper. Some­times his gifts seemed more like future invest­ments — maybe because he was a lit­tle out of touch with where I was in my life — but I always appre­ci­at­ed the thought that went into them. When I was ten he gave me a pol­ished wood­en box that held an oil-paint­ing set, but he was not around to show me how to mix col­ors, clean brush­es, or even to explain that the box was sup­posed to rest on my lap. After a few dis­ap­point­ing tries, I put the box away and didn’t begin my first real oil paint­ing until five years lat­er. And while the paint box sat unused in my clos­et, Lou thought maybe I would like egg tem­pera, rum­maged in his desk draw­ers through old dried-up tubes to see if any were usable, then final­ly gave up: Let’s go to Taw’s and buy you some tem­pera. Not gouache, real egg tem­pera!” I took the tem­pera set to Maine that sum­mer and dis­cov­ered I enjoyed paint­ing out­side from obser­va­tion. Lou was telling me it was time to work in col­or, and he was right.

If I want­ed to see my father, I went to his office. I would watch his hands as he sketched a build­ing in char­coal, adding shad­ows with strong par­al­lel strokes, and foliage and peo­ple with a few curved, expres­sive ges­tures. These marks looked to me like the shapes that he made when sign­ing his name, and I real­ized that draw­ing is rather like hand­writ­ing. I could almost see my father’s ideas take form as they trav­eled down from his mind through his arm and into his hand, ema­nat­ing from his fin­ger­tips through graphite, char­coal, or pas­tel to make the thoughts into marks. Lou’s hands had sol­id, square palms and long fin­gers. When he han­dled a pen­cil or stick of char­coal, his move­ments were sen­si­tive and sure, inten­tion­al yet play­ful. His strokes of vary­ing pres­sure con­veyed solid­i­ty or translu­cence; move­ment, eter­ni­ty or ephemer­al­i­ty. My moth­er described his lines as alive,” and she espe­cial­ly admired the way he drew trees. Even as a child, I knew she meant he drew trees as if they were grow­ing, mov­ing with the wind or reach­ing up to cel­e­brate the light, and that this qual­i­ty was more impor­tant than draw­ing every detail. 

I’m not sure why Lou nev­er showed me his pas­tel draw­ings, though he kept them in a desk draw­er in his pri­vate office. I first saw one of his sketch­es of Albi Cathe­dral in the orig­i­nal edi­tion of Note­books and Draw­ings and I was fas­ci­nat­ed by his heli­cal scrib­bles” of the tow­ers. Even at eight years old, I real­ized he was draw­ing not what he saw but what he knew to be around the back of the cylin­dri­cal forms of Albi’s tow­ers. Why had he bro­ken the rules? It was not until I was old­er that I real­ized he was draw­ing to under­stand the form, to con­tem­plate the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the hol­low col­umn that he sub­se­quent­ly explored in designs for the Bryn Mawr Dor­mi­to­ries, Mikveh Israel Syn­a­gogue, Hur­va Syn­a­gogue, Indi­an Insti­tute of Man­age­ment, and Capi­tol Com­plex at Dhaka.

Dur­ing our occa­sion­al con­ver­sa­tions, I loved lis­ten­ing to Lou talk about Silence and Light,” his idea of how works of art are cre­at­ed from spent light” and exist on a thresh­old between the mea­sur­able means and the unmea­sur­able” desire to be. In the last decade of his life, Lou designed build­ings that emanat­ed ener­gy and inspired won­der. What gives cer­tain build­ings these qual­i­ties that could be felt but not mea­sured? Lou pon­dered this ques­tion repeat­ed­ly over many years as he stood in ancient spaces like the Pan­theon and mod­ern spaces like Ron­champ. Mea­sur­able qual­i­ties like pleas­ing pro­por­tion and rela­tion­ships of ele­ments are impor­tant in the design of a build­ing, but the intan­gi­ble ingre­di­ent, the ener­gy ema­nat­ing from the space, is elu­sive. Lou stood in many build­ings mar­veling at this ener­gy and tak­ing it in. Through this process, he was even­tu­al­ly able to envi­sion, draw, and design build­ings that, when final­ly built, belonged in the lim­i­nal space between Silence and Light. 

Alexan­dra Tyng, Art and Lega­cy, 2012, oil on linen, 4052 in. Repro­duced with per­mis­sion of the artist, cour­tesy Dowl­ing Walsh Gallery.

In Art and Lega­cy, I address the con­trast between the artist’s con­sum­ing dri­ve to cre­ate some­thing endur­ing, and the cre­ative or mate­r­i­al lega­cy that is left after the artist’s life is over. My father sits in a tow­er, iso­lat­ed, focused on paint­ing a water­col­or, while his three chil­dren watch. Each of us sees him through a dif­fer­ent win­dow or per­spec­tive. But the win­dows are also bar­ri­ers because we chil­dren can­not reach our father or even see him clear­ly. While paint­ing this I was also think­ing about my rela­tion­ship to my own children.

In col­lege I reg­u­lar­ly vis­it­ed the Muse­um of Fine Arts in Boston where I inevitably grav­i­tat­ed to an oil paint­ing that took up most of one wall: The Daugh­ters of Edward Dar­ley Boit by John Singer Sar­gent. Every­thing about the paint­ing fas­ci­nat­ed me. I soaked up lessons on edges and brush­strokes and col­or, but I could not fig­ure out how Sar­gent had cre­at­ed large areas of dark­ness that were mys­te­ri­ous, trans­par­ent, spa­cious, and full of air. All I could do was stare at the dark­ness, won­der­ing how paint could have cre­at­ed this trans­for­ma­tive illu­sion. No mat­ter how long I stared at the paint­ing the answer elud­ed me. Per­haps this was how Lou felt when he stood inside the great archi­tec­tur­al mas­ter­pieces and felt but could not define what made them great.

My father died when I was nine­teen and a junior in col­lege. I had been on the verge of ask­ing him some dif­fi­cult ques­tions, and part of my griev­ing process involved accept­ing that I would nev­er hear his response and would have to accept the lack of clo­sure. I read every­thing I could find that he had writ­ten or spo­ken, and the fol­low­ing year I wrote my senior the­sis on his phi­los­o­phy of archi­tec­ture and life. In the process of learn­ing more about how his mind worked, I was espe­cial­ly intrigued by his draw­ings of con­cepts like The Room” and Silence and Light.” They were poems of inter­wo­ven pic­to­r­i­al and ver­bal lan­guage. At that time the art world was focused on abstract con­cep­tu­al­ism, so the idea that rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al art could also be con­cep­tu­al” did not occur to me until that time. I knew I would be an artist.

In this way and in oth­er ways, Lou was still com­mu­ni­cat­ing with me through art after his death. Right after col­lege, I began paint­ing seri­ous­ly, but I want­ed to tran­si­tion from sim­ply record­ing what I saw to under­stand­ing the col­or rela­tion­ships gen­er­at­ed by nature. In Lou’s words, We only know the world as it is evoked by light.” One of Lou’s pas­tels hung on the wall of my mother’s work­room, and I won­dered why he had made the shad­ows red when the light was yel­low. Shouldn’t the shad­ow col­or be com­ple­men­tary to the light? But one win­ter day I noticed that the snow appeared gold­en in direct light, orange with a vio­let tinge in oblique light, and ultra­ma­rine blue in shad­ow. The col­or of the direct light on the snow was clear­ly not com­ple­men­tary to the col­or of the shad­ow; instead, the areas hit by indi­rect light were com­ple­men­tary to the shad­ow. In my paint­ings I began to approach col­or sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly by first con­sid­er­ing the col­or of the direct light and then choos­ing the col­ors gen­er­at­ed by it, mix­ing them with local col­ors and adding reflect­ed light. In this way I uni­fied the col­or rela­tion­ships in my work. In 1991, when Jan Hochstim’s Paint­ings and Sketch­es of Louis I. Kahn was pub­lished, I saw the vast major­i­ty of Lou’s pas­tel draw­ings for the first time. Because Lou worked in pas­tel, his dis­tinct marks of com­ple­men­tary col­ors were vis­i­ble in the halftones and shad­ows. I was beyond excit­ed to see that, in draw­ing after draw­ing, he cre­at­ed col­or schemes by using the same kind of three-col­or rela­tion­ships I was using to indi­cate the time of day and to turn” form from light to shad­ow, thus cre­at­ing the illu­sion of three dimensions. 

In the past fif­teen or so years, I have returned to a very ear­ly love of mine, nar­ra­tive fig­ure paint­ing, and I have found it to be chal­leng­ing tech­ni­cal­ly in a fun way, and even more chal­leng­ing in a tor­tur­ous but reward­ing way as a vehi­cle for com­mu­ni­cat­ing ideas. More than any­thing, I want­ed to paint my fam­i­ly, espe­cial­ly my father, but I hes­i­tat­ed. After spend­ing my child­hood feel­ing as though I had to stay in the shad­ows” and not acknowl­edge our rela­tion­ship out in the world, I was still hold­ing back. Final­ly I real­ized, This is my sto­ry; it belongs to me; I’m giv­ing myself per­mis­sion to tell it,” and I began a series of mul­ti-fig­ure paint­ings of var­i­ous fam­i­ly mem­bers inter­act­ing in envi­ron­ments. The scenes are con­struct­ed from my imag­i­na­tion but they are based on actu­al sit­u­a­tions and expe­ri­ences. As I am paint­ing, I feel as though I’m illu­mi­nat­ing prob­lems and cre­at­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for pos­i­tive resolutions. 

Alexan­dra Tyng, Scav­engers, 2019, oil on linen, 6060 in. Repro­duced with per­mis­sion of the artist, cour­tesy Dowl­ing Walsh Gallery.

Scav­engers is my visu­al descrip­tion of how it feels to have our bound­aries invad­ed. The idea first came into my mind after a biog­ra­phy of my father was pub­lished and his per­son­al life was revealed to the pub­lic, dis­cussed, and judged. My sib­lings and I each had dif­fer­ent reac­tions, which I exag­ger­at­ed for dra­mat­ic effect in the com­po­si­tion. The seag­ulls are an obvi­ous nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, one of my favorite films. My goal was a com­bi­na­tion of hor­ror and humor.

The idea expand­ed to include the prob­lem we are all deal­ing with today: an inva­sion of pri­va­cy on many lev­els and in numer­ous ways, includ­ing data steal­ing and shar­ing on social media,internet, and cell phones. The walls that we thought were sol­id have sim­ply dis­solved, leav­ing us anx­ious and vulnerable.

One of my most impor­tant goals is to not only tell my own sto­ry, but also to tell a sto­ry that res­onates with oth­ers. I am con­stant­ly ask­ing myself, What is this paint­ing real­ly about?” while con­tin­u­ing to dig deep­er and reach far­ther for mean­ing. When peo­ple tell me my fig­ure paint­ings are com­mu­ni­cat­ing some­thing that is felt but not seen, I think of the elu­sive qual­i­ty of Sargent’s dark­ness, and of the dynam­ic thresh­old between Silence and Light, and I feel hope­ful that I might some­how be able to com­mu­ni­cate my per­son­al emo­tions, chal­lenges, real­iza­tions, and visions not just as Alex’s expe­ri­ences,” but as human expe­ri­ences. The Let­ter A is a self-por­trait of me at age five, mak­ing sense of my world, but it is not just about me, because we all go through our jour­neys of self-discovery. 

Lou was not the kind of father I could rely on to be there when I need­ed him, but I nev­er doubt­ed that he loved me and sup­port­ed me in oth­er ways. He sup­pressed my pub­lic voice by not open­ly acknowl­edg­ing my rela­tion­ship to him, but he encour­aged my pri­vate, per­son­al voice through art-mak­ing. He gave me the sense that art was a wor­thy chal­lenge, and that I was capa­ble of tak­ing up the chal­lenge. It was up to me to find my voice out in the world and use it well.

Alexan­dra Tyng is an award-win­ning fig­ure and land­scape painter. Her work has been exhib­it­ed world­wide and her por­trait of her father, Louis I. Kahn, is in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of the Smith­son­ian Nation­al Por­trait Gallery in Wash­ing­ton, DC. She is the author of Begin­nings: Louis I. Kah­n’s Phi­los­o­phy of Archi­tec­ture.