In 2003, Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary film “My Architect” introduced a general audience not just to the extraordinary legacy of his father, architect Louis Kahn, but to the complexities of his father’s family life, which included a wife to whom he was devoted for decades, several mistresses, and two women with whom he also had children and maintained long-standing familial relations. The tone of the younger Kahn’s film was lyrical, loving, sad and sympathetic.
Wendy Lesser’s new biography, “You Say to Brick,” takes a similar tone, referring to its subject simply as “Lou” and finding reasonable and plausibly human explanations for behavior that often seems, from the outside, callous. She builds her narrative not just on existing accounts and archival research, but on extensive interviews with Kahn’s family members, friends and professional colleagues, and while she doesn’t let Kahn off the hook, she doesn’t indict him either.
The results are refreshing. Kahn was an extraordinary man, with supersize talent, who left a deeply admired and profoundly influential architectural legacy. He was born Leiser-Itze Schmuilowsky, in Russian-controlled Estonia, in 1901 and emigrated to the United States in 1906. He grew up poor in Philadelphia, showed little aptitude for school but great skill at art and music, and evolved through a protracted process full of disappointment and frustration into one of this country’s greatest architects. Among his masterpieces are the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn., the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., and the enormous building that houses the Parliament of Bangladesh.
Lesser opts for an unconventional structure to her narrative, holding off until the end of the book a key chapter about Kahn’s youth and an accident that left him disfigured, and interspersing five poetic meditations on his buildings with biographical chapters. Unlike Carter Wiseman’s lucid and more straightforward 2007 biography, Lesser is more interested in fleshing out the interpersonal and emotional milieu in which Kahn operated than she is in a conventional account of his development and career. She is animated by ideas about how we experience architecture, how creative people interact with others and develop their potential, how collaboration influences the evolution of ideas and the relationship between memory, emotion and the built environment. The writing tends to the lyrical rather than the analytical, and her descriptions of buildings are stronger on phenomenology than the details of construction and engineering.
Lesser readily acknowledges that some of Kahn’s buildings are better than others — a library at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire is a triumph, but sits next to a Kahn-designed dining hall that is noisy and unloved — but she doesn’t dwell on the failures. These include the Richards Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania, which was widely celebrated by critics and architecture scholars in the 1960s, but has never proved a congenial workspace for science. “Ultimately, there proved to be some practical problems with the Richards design,” she writes, noting that its large windows made the spaces hot in the summer. “But this did not interfere with the passionate adoration that the Richards Medical Research Building inspired in the architectural community at large.”
Kahn married his wife, Esther, in 1930, and by all accounts it was a happy marriage in the early years. But as Kahn gained stature and built his own practice, he became romantically involved with other women, including his own employees. Shorthand accounts of this make it seem more scandalous than it was, with suggestions of multiple secret families. But Lesser’s detailed and sympathetic reporting gives a much better sense of the individuals involved and complicates the narrative of a powerful man victimizing the women around him. Esther also had an affair, and she was well aware of much of what her otherwise loyal husband was doing with his younger associates. In the background to all of this was the larger sexual revolution and the entry of women into the workplace. For many years, Kahn was dependent on his wife’s income, and later in life was loath to leave someone to whom he was deeply grateful. Esther wasn’t pleased by the state of affairs, nor was she always gracious to the women and children who threatened the carefully constructed appearance of a solid marriage and happy nuclear family. But what else would one expect?
Describing Kahn’s relationship with Anne Tyng, a brilliant colleague and collaborator with whom he had a child, the painter Alexandra Tyng, Lesser writes: “He was not shirking his role as either father or lover. He was doing his best to be warm, loving, and emotionally available. And yet, as usual, what he presented to Anne was not the whole story.” And describing Kahn’s larger family relations: “A certain willed obliviousness had become an ingrained habit in the Kahn family. It may even have been what allowed them to move forward.”
What Lesser adds to the Kahn narrative isn’t simply a pragmatic understanding of his personal life. She allows the women in his life to emerge as far more than mere satellites to a great male ego. Anne Tyng played an essential role in the development of projects such as the Trenton Bath House, the 1953 addition to the Yale University Art Gallery and the Salk Institute. Harriet Pattison, one of this country’s leading landscape designers who is also the mother of Nathaniel Kahn, was another associate, and paramour, who built a formidable life and practice independent of her former collaborator. The architecture field, which is often reflexively and stupidly oblivious about how it treats women, is still wrestling with the history of what women have contributed to modern design. Without signaling any particular intent to right the record, this book makes strides toward doing so.
Lesser writes beautifully and engagingly. Sometimes, she is given to repetition, particularly when it comes to well-established and not always revealing quirks of her subject, including his failures as a businessman (he died with his practice deeply in debt) and his need for creative interlocutors and collaboration. From time to time, she asks questions that don’t seem particularly revealing: “How did a man who practiced no particular religion, who believed in rationality and disdained irrationality, have such remarkable access to the spiritual element in architecture?” Atheists and agnostics will roll their eyes at the implication behind the query.
But these are minor issues. The success of this biography lies in the author’s fundamental acceptance of the messiness of human life. She underscores conflicting memories of key events, accepts radically disparate interpretations of Kahn’s behavior and character, and indulges the unsurprising fact that we are all capable of loving and resenting important people in our lives at the same time. Near the end of the book, she lets one of Kahn’s clients sum up the case that she has built, gently and elegantly over some 350 pages: “He really cared about all the people he was involved with. He wasn’t conventional. He didn’t want to hurt people. He did, but he didn’t want to.”
Philip Kennicott is the art and architecture critic of The Washington Post.
By Wendy Lesser
Farrar Straus Giroux. 397 pp. $30