Image courtesy Macmillan
Several biographies of Louis Kahn have been written in the 21st century, but Wendy Lesser’s may be the most compelling. Lesser, a writer, critic and editor in the arts, founded the literary magazine The Threepenny Review, and has published both fiction and nonfiction. Lesser authored Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, a narrative in which the quartets guide the reader through the composer’s life
The Life of Louis Kahn is her first book with an architectural subject. Kahn’s story is interspersed with chapters describing what it’s like to visit five of his greatest buildings: Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Kimbell Art Museum, Phillips Exeter Library, National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, and Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. An engaging array of black and white photographs help bring the man and his works to life.
Two points about this book initially struck me. The first is the subtitle, “You say to brick,” which in this case comes before the title and is an excerpt from a famous Kahn quote: “You say to brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ Brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ if you say to brick, ‘arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel over an opening. What do you think of that, brick?’ Brick says: ‘I like an arch.”
Biographies of architects often use subtitles but usually in a more prosaic way than Ms. Lesser has here. Those four words represent an apt distillation of Kahn’s understanding and mastery of his profession – he knew the materiality of brick well enough to believe that his buildings expressed what brick “liked.”
The second point goes to the body of the text. After a prologue, the book opens with the death of Kahn in a chapter titled “Ending”. Lesser’s approach is at once uncommon and purposeful. Most people who pick up this book will know that Louis Kahn was an influential figure in the world of architecture. Lesser’s meticulous description of Kahn’s last hours, based on facts such as travel checkpoint records and interviews with those who encountered him during that final act of his life, are intended to both contrast with and reinforce what is popularly known of the man.
While bringing fully to light Kahn’s secretive, messy and contentious private life and his disdain for sound business practices, Lesser describes how Kahn’s architecture was informed by the circumstances of his life and from what he experienced – both by happenstance and by choice – during his formative years.
Although primarily a non-fiction author, Lesser brings a novelist’s eye for detail to the book. Her speculations on what went thru the eyes and mind of the young Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky (the name Kahn was born with) is convincing and buttressed by her considerable research.
The last chapter before the epilogue is “Beginning.” Here is the young boy profoundly influenced by the ruins of Arensburg (Kuressaare) Castle in his hometown in Russia (now Estonia). Kahn loved ruins because of the sense of stillness and repose there. He felt they spoke of how the building was made. This is in seeming contrast to the very ordered and precise appearance of Kahn’s buildings, yet his architecture speaks of a timelessness. His buildings are evocative of ruins and readily speak to how they were made. We see that the form and presence of this structure stayed with him his entire life. Kahn’s Assembly Building at Dhaka clearly recalls and evokes Arensburg Castle.
A word that reoccurs in consideration of Kahn is mystical: his approach to design, his process, his gift and allure as a teacher, the overall way he chose to experience the world all lend credence to that depiction. Kahn spoke of and worked into his architecture the concept of desire.
“The ground floor is apparently meant for pleasure reading… But you have no desire to explore this lower region now, because an immense, alluring, semicircular staircase is drawing you to the next level,” Lesser writes of the Phillips Exeter Library. “On both sides of its curving symmetrical arms, the wide travertine steps and handsome, solid balustrades beckon you upward toward the castle-like notches that mark either side of the landing; and as you approach this landing, you sense that something colossal and surprising awaits you there. It is the classic Kahn seduction: the somewhat opaque exterior, the elusive front door, the low-ceilinged entryway, and then the sudden arousal and fulfillment of one’s previously unknown desire. Desire, not necessity, is the motivating force. Need is so many bananas. Need is a ham sandwich, Kahn once remarked. But desire is insatiable and you can never know what it is.”
Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute
Yet this book is about more than Lou Kahn. For as singular an individual as Kahn was, his time with us wove a wonderful tapestry of passion, desire, mystery, love, brilliance, and wonder. Inherent in the threads of this tapestry were all those he touched, befriended, frustrated, angered and surprised.
Lesser’s delving into and explaining (to the degree it can be explained) the life of Kahn, serves to reflect on ourselves. What are the secrets in our life? Do those around us observe that we live life with the passion that Louis Kahn did? Do they see us as an open book or enigma? Is it evident by a modicum of observation that we are affecting our profession and those in our profession in a profound way?
Lesser suggests, but she does not dictate how we view the architect. Ultimately, we are left to be our own judge of Kahn, what his life meant and what he was. Reading this book is a good way to answer these questions and form our own judgment of this oft-mythologized architect.
This book was the winner of the 2017 Mayfield Prize, the national award for arts writing and Pen America Los Angeles’s 2018 Literary Award in research nonfiction. It was a finalist for the 2018 Pen/Bograd Weld Prize for biography. In addition, it was one of the Washington Post’s 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction in 2017, a New York Times Notable Book of 2017, and one of Kirkus’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2017
Bob Bailey, AIA is an Associate and Specifications & Constructability Specialist at IKM, Inc. Bob enjoys mentoring younger staff on technical issues.