YOU SAY TO BRICK The Life of Louis Kahn by Wendy Lesser, Illustrated. 397 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $30.
Wendy Lesser’s biography of the architect Louis Kahn (1901-1974) is, like one of Kahn’s monumental buildings, unusual in its design.
Lesser distributes critical essays on Kahn’s best-known structures, including the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh and the Phillips Exeter Library, in New Hampshire, at regular intervals in her narrative, as if they were load-bearing walls.
So many of Kahn’s masterpieces were built toward the end of his life. This design prevents “You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn” from taking on too much water at the stern.
Like Kahn’s buildings, too, Lesser’s book has its penetralia, core elements to which one is only gradually led. Kahn had terrible scarring on the lower part of his face, for example, from a childhood accident. He didn’t talk about these scars. Few people knew the whole story. Lesser doesn’t tell us, either, until near the end of her book. This reticence allocates some drama, and suggests what it was like to know the reticent Kahn.
Lesser is the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, a well-regarded literary magazine based in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of many nonfiction books, including “Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets” (2011).
Her biography is not the first we have of Kahn, but it is notable for its warm, engaged, literate tone and its psychological acuity. Lesser’s prologue is almost too tasty, an intellectual fanfare.