For a man who said “the wall does not want an opening,” architect Louis Kahn left an astonishing body of work that includes some of the world’s most memorable walls, pierced by incredible openings.
Whether at his sublime Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, with its famed indirect natural lighting scheme, or his giant, mysterious Assembly Hall in Bangladesh, Kahn was an artist who knew how to fenestrate.
He also learned how to obfuscate. For his entire adult life, Kahn was married to Esther Israeli, and they had one daughter. Secretly, he had two lengthy affairs with two other women that each resulted in a child. There were shorter affairs, as well.
The Kahn family dynamic was, to put it mildly, unconventional. Much like his buildings.
In a fascinating new biography, “You Say to Brick,” Wendy Lesser enlightens us about Kahn’s life and work, while also recognizing the hazard of asserting too obvious linkages between the art and the life.
“The danger in any biographical examination lies in pressing too hard on the connections, for even if we intuitively sense that there must be one, our ponderous insistence may cause the fragile bridge to crumble beneath our weight.”
Yet Lesser doesn’t hesitate to think, deeply, about how Kahn’s design genius may have been related to his extramarital affairs, his impoverished upbringing, his travels, his Jewishness, even the facial scars he carried from an early childhood accident.
Kahn’s parents emigrated from Estonia to a poor section of Philadelphia in 1906 when he was 5 years old. Young Louis was precocious and artistic, his mother’s pet. The enterprising teen learned piano well enough to get a job playing at silent movie houses.
He was determined to become an architect even before entering the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate.
Partly due to the Depression, Kahn’s career gained momentum very slowly, and he supplemented his meager income from architecture by teaching, first at Yale and later at Penn.
Not until Kahn was in his 50s did big, noteworthy commissions start to arrive, including his much praised Yale University Art Gallery and the brick-and-glass Richards Medical Building at Penn.
Kahn’s stunners — the Salk Institute on a dramatic oceanside site north of La Jolla, Calif.; the library at Exeter Academy, with its seductive spaces and “supremely elegant” use of materials; the Kimbell and large projects in India and Bangladesh — were done when the workaholic Kahn was in his 60s and early 70s.
These dramatically different masterworks all show Kahn’s dedication to his own brand of modernism (he was a big admirer of Corbusier) as well as his then unfashionable, near mystical adoration of medieval castles and monumental ancient ruins.
This remarkable, readable and humane book pairs painstaking research with poetic interpretations. No detail is too small, as long as it sheds light on one of the 20th century’s most admired, influential architects. Lesser cites income tax returns, ferryboat tickets, dental visits, police reports obtained via Freedom of Information requests.
Terrific short “In Situ” chapters tour Kahn’s best buildings, describing the experience of moving through complex spaces lit by ingenious and meticulously planned placement of windows, cutouts, skylights and atriums.
Kahn’s infidelities hurt or offended many who were close to him. He could be ruthless in pursuing his obsessions. He was terrible with money and died with a pile of debt. But the philosopher/builder had a seductive charisma that made students and colleagues feel that they were in the presence of visionary greatness.
Claude Peck is a night metro editor at the Star Tribune. Twitter: @ClaudePeck
You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn
By: Wendy Lesser.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 397 pages, $30.