The infelicitous title of Wendy Lesser’s biography refers to a typically gnomic Kahnism about the inherent nature of materials: “You say to brick, ‘What do you want brick?’ Brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’” This imaginary dialogue highlights Kahn’s surprisingly old-fashioned attitude toward materials and their supposed imperatives—a utilitarian notion so at odds with his insistent spirituality—derived from nineteenth-century British sources, primarily John Ruskin. He indirectly absorbed Ruskin’s ideas from his art teacher at Philadelphia’s excellent Central High School, a trained architect who inspired the boy to pursue his future profession. As Kahn recalled this adolescent revelation, “Architecture combined my love and desire for artistic creation, painting, and being able to express and stand out,” a neat summation of both his soaring artistic aspirations and irrepressible egotism.
That latter quality was perversely reflected in his lifelong attitude toward money. Although Kahn is always portrayed as a hopelessly inept businessman, his disdain for filthy lucre was purposeful, and he remained openly contemptuous of financial go-getters. As he told his longtime engineer, August Komendant, who devised ingenious structural solutions that were beyond Kahn’s ken, including the famous vaulted skylight ceilings at the Kimbell:
If you are in the profession of architecture, it is likely that you are not an architect. If you are an architect without thinking of the profession, you might be one. The profession kills your incentive….
You get yourself a good business character, you can really play golf all day and your buildings will be built anyway. But what the devil is that?
Although there are several published collections of the architect’s lectures, Kahn at Penn: Transformative Teacher of Architecture gives the first in-depth account of his activities as an educator. Its author, James F. Williamson, was among the students from forty-three countries who received degrees in the architect’s fabled master classes at Penn between 1956 to 1974, testimony to Kahn’s global pull during his final decades. That there were only sixteen women—including Denise Scott Brown—among the course’s 427 graduates is an index of the gender disparity that still persisted in architecture schools. (In recent years, upward of 40 percent of architecture graduates have been women.)
Although many of Kahn’s master class students reckon the course to have been among the most extraordinary experiences in their lives, several of them harbor reservations. As Williamson writes:
He seemed to discourage personal relationships with his students, and my main impression of his personality was its combination of strength and remoteness. Although he was usually kind enough, I recall few overt expressions of concern for his students. Kahn’s idealism, although inspiring, often seemed unrealistic, and in my later professional practice I have continued to struggle to reconcile his lofty ideals with the realities of the marketplace.