Lesser, Wendy. “You Say To Brick: The Life Of Louis Kahn”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
The Life and Work of an American Architect
Louis Kahn was born to a Jewish family in Estonia in 1901 and was brought to America in 1906 where he grew up in poverty in Philadelphia. By the time he died in 1974, he was widely recognized as one of the greatest architects of his time and this reputation was based on only a handful of masterpieces that were all built during the last fifteen years of his life.
In Wendy Lesser’s “You Say to Brick”, we get a look into Kahn’s life and work and meet the man who was considered to be a “public” architect who focused on medical and educational research facilities, government centers, museums, libraries, parks, religious buildings, and other structures that were used for the public good. Kahn was a man beloved by students and admired by colleagues and he was also a secretive and mysterious character hiding behind a series of masks. Lesser reconstructed Kahn’s life through extensive original research; lengthy interviews with his children, his colleagues, and his students; and she traveled to the sites of his career-defining buildings. We get to see the mind behind some of the twentieth century’s most celebrated architecture. Still today, Kahn remains a strong presence in his adopted city of Philadelphia.
Kahn’s complicated private life involved overlapping love affairs and children with two women, neither to whom he was married. He was married to Esther Kahn with whom he had a daughter, Sue Ann Kahn. The book’s title comes from a mystical Kahn remark on the relationship between materials and architectural form: “You say to brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ Brick says to you, ‘I like an arch….’”
Lesser puts attention on Kahn’s architecture and she intersperses her narrative with chapters detailing her personal responses to his best buildings. We are reminded that an architect is constrained by a building’s site, budget and program unlike a writer or visual artist.
This is the story of a poor Jewish immigrant boy (born Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky) who, becomes a pre-eminent architect while having a scandalous personal life. He was inept and a businessman and depended on his wife’s income as a medical technician. When he died, he was almost a half-million dollars in debt.
Kahn’s first loyalty was to his work whose major romances involved fellow architects. Anne Tyng was a key contributor to his early projects, including both the Yale University Art Gallery and Trenton Bath House. Harriet Pattison developed landscape designs for the Kimbell Art Museum and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, on Roosevelt Island, New York . A third lover, Marie Kuo, also worked for a time as an associate in Kahn’s office.
We also get a revelation that Esther Kahn herself had a long-term love affair with a married man, a scientist at Penn (who is not named in the book). This was not revenge for her husband’s infidelities but he probably did not know about it. It probably helped Esther deal with Kahn’s betrayals and absences.
Esther was aware of his other families but never entirely reconciled to them. By contrast, Tyng and Pattison did become friendly, largely through their children even though Pattison had displaced Tyng as the primary object of Kahn’s extramarital affections. The book fills in some fascinating details about Kahn’s death. He suffered a heart attack in New York City’s Penn Station on his way back from a trip to India. Lesser explains the long time in reporting the death as a byproduct of a police cable being sent on a weekend to Kahn’s office address rather than to his home.
Lesser traces his career chronologically. We learn of the fire that scarred Kahn and that helped shape both his personality and his buildings. We also learn that when Kahn died there several potentially exciting projects that were abandoned. Kahn was a man of many achievements and this is a beautiful way to remember him.