YOU SAY TO BRICK The Life of Louis Kahn By Wendy Lesser

It is one of history’s cruelties that Louis Kahn is almost better known for his unconventional domestic arrangements than for his architecture. Kahn gave us a remarkable string of masterpieces that includes the Salk Institute and the Kimbell Art Museum, and yet he was one of those shambling geniuses whose life was a mess of contradictions. While his commissions took him around the world, he managed to maintain three separate families at home in Philadelphia. He had a reputation for blowing deadlines and budgets, testing the patience of clients. No one was surprised to learn after his death in 1974 that his firm was deep in debt. The turmoil of his life came to overshadow his accomplishments.

Louis Kahn in the Yale University Art Gallery.
Louis Kahn in the Yale University Art Gallery. © Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania


The situation began to reverse in 2003 with the success of his son’s deeply moving documentary, “My Architect.” The film traces Nathaniel Kahn’s efforts to connect with his father and two half-siblings during a tour of the architect’s buildings. The glorious footage — sunbeams filtering through the National Assembly in Bangladesh, the Salk silhouetted against the Pacific Ocean — rekindled interest in Kahn’s work. His rising stock has brought a shelf’s worth of monographs. While one or two might be categorized as biographies, Wendy Lesser’s “You Say to Brick” is easily the most complete narrative of Kahn’s life and career, magnificently researched and gracefully written. As the founder of The Threepenny Review and a nonfiction author, Lesser has a background that’s literary, yet her account is packed with insights, of both the architectural and psychological kind.

Kahn’s best buildings leave visitors with the same heart-quickening sensation as an ancient Greek temple. They also changed architectural history. His soulful, sculptural designs helped lift the profession out of its functionalist, placeless, modernist rut. But there is no denying that his tangled personal life is the thing that makes Kahn’s story so irresistible. Besides his wife, Esther, Kahn had long relationships with two much-younger women in his office, Anne Tyng and Harriet Pattison. Lesser also details a previously unreported affair with another architect in his office, Marie Kuo, and suggests there were flings on the side as well. Lesser’s other big reveal is that Esther Kahn also engaged in a long extramarital relationship.

Even in the martini-drinking Eisenhower era, when such womanizing was seen as acceptable male prerogative, Kahn’s behavior was shocking stuff. Still, Kahn hardly fits the profile of a successful Lothario. Born Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky in Estonia, in 1901, Kahn moved with his family to the United States when he was 5, and he grew up desperately poor in North Philadelphia. A childhood accident left his face as stippled as the rough concrete of the Salk’s walls. He was short and often disheveled from all-nighters at the drafting table. Yet women and men alike were mesmerized by his vigor and poetic brilliance. A charming mystic, he was given to anthropomorphizing architectural elements. The title, “You Say to Brick,” is one of his classics.