Have You Ever Had an Intense Experience of Mystical Communion with the Universe, Life, God, etc?

Buildings that call attention only to themselves generally fail at everything else. So the sustained direct attention offered by a critic or writer about a building is always already a great distortion.

Louis Kahn’s work is accessible, minimal, simple, solid, systematic, and self-evident. It is also the exact opposite.

Elm Street Dining Hall, with Exeter Library in the background. Photograph by Gunnar Klack.

Wendy Lesser. You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.

Here are two things to know about architects. First, they are fastidious and inventive with their names. Frank Lincoln Wright was never, unlike Sinatra, a Francis. He swapped in the Lloyd when he was 18—ostensibly in tribute to his mother’s surname on the occasion of her divorce, but also to avoid carrying around the name of a still more famous man, and for that nice three-beat meter, in full anticipation of seeing his full name in print. In 1917, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris—who is to modern architecture what Freud is to psychoanalysis—was given the byline Le Corbusier (after corbeau, crow) by his editor at a small journal, so that he could anonymously review his own buildings. The success of the sock puppet critic meant that after the critiques were collected into a book-length manifesto, the nom-de-plume eventually took over Jeanneret-Gris’ architect persona, as well. Ludwig Mies—the inventor of the glass-walled skyscraper—inherited an unfortunate surname that doubled as a German epithet for anything lousy or similarly defiled. He restyled himself Miës van der Rohe—vowel-bending heavy-metal umlaut and all—with the Dutch geographical tussenvoegsel “van” from his mother’s maiden name to add a simulation of the German nobiliary particle, von. Ephraim Owen Goldberg became Frank Gehry.

Second, all architects are older than you think. Or than they want you to think. Unlike the closely adjacent fields of music and mathematics, architecture has no prodigies. Design and construction take time. At 40, an architect is just starting out. Dying at 72 in architecture is like dying at 27 in rock and roll. The body of knowledge required is broad and intricate, philosophical and practical, and the training is long. The American Institute of Architects, a self-appointed enforcer of the title, requires five to seven years of school, then years more of closely monitored internships, and a further year of exams to confer the word architect on its dues-payers. This has formalized a longstanding tradition in which, architecture schools being rare (for a long time the Paris Académie des Beaux-Arts and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were your choices), it wasn’t unusual for would-be architects to lose a decade in a kind of autodidactical twilight among artists and builders, before commencing their practice. Even now, architects start late. And they never stop, working well into their eighties and nineties, or famously in the case of Brazilian midcentury master Oscar Niemeyer, their hundreds. This is why the life story of a very different midcentury master, the Philadelphian Louis Kahn, who got started only around age 50 and died at around 70—is, among other things, a tragedy. A student once asked Kahn why it took so long to become an architect. “Why not,” he answered, “you want to die earlier?”

These matters of name and age reflect the social uncertainty and financial precarity of the profession. Prominent architects, from Palladio to Mies, were sons of stonemasons who jumped up socially thanks to gentleman patrons. The class ambiguity persists to this day; the architecture studios I teach are full of people who are the first in their families to enter any of the professions. Or are the opposite: would-be bohemian artiste children of first-generation professionals who have compromised with their elders. These exchanges of capital and class, style and status, are complicated: ever since the upstart Medici family employed Giorgio Vasari to put up pageants and palaces to substitute for pedigree, the ornamental company of architects—though themselves only tradesmen and servants—has conferred a touch of the very class to which architects also aspire. The slow and resource-rich making of buildings is impossible without the patronage of invested clients. Architecture, like certain kinds of filmmaking, is an art of spending a lot of other people’s money: a successful architect, said the teacher of the single business class my design school obliged me to take, should be the poorest person in any room. Architects, relieved just to build, work for a tiny fractional fee of projects’ construction costs. And, pleased to imagine themselves worldly, they work without managers and agents. The hours are long. The pay is bad. When Kahn died, his firm—slow-rolling chaos held together by a long-suffering Quaker deputy named David Wisdom—owed its creditors $464,423.83. In 1974 dollars.

Wendy Lesser, in her monumental new biography of Kahn, You Say to Brick, chooses to call her subject, for the most part, Lou. As in Reed, Gehrig, and Costello—a name that connotes a kind of nostalgic American working-class heroism. Lesser recounts how Kahn disarmed a colleague, who was inclined to forever call him Professor, by saying, “In the office, everyone calls me Lou.” Wendy understandably follows that lead, but for me, her Lou, Lou, Lou rings like a cowbell: like a life of the prophet Isaiah that calls its subject Izzy. Within the small world of architecture, a self-regarding world that guards its heroes to a fault—a world where Kahn is almost alone in being almost universally revered (even by those who think of his work as a terminally perfected dead end)—the only people who say “Lou” are the dwindling ranks of his former students. But even they all seem to say Lou-Kahn, one word, like lupin or Lacan. To the rest of us he has become that second single syllable, whose long open vowel—sound of submission and satisfaction—echoes in its evocation of preeminence the exotic imperial honorific, Khan.

Leiser-Itze (or Itze-Leib) Schmulowsky formally became Louis Isadore Kahn around the age of 13, with the American naturalization of his father, a Leib who became a Leopold. The father, something of a dandy and a flake, likely emigrated to avoid conscription in the Russo-Japanese War. The mother, Bertha, was the kind of mother who would visit her son’s teachers to remind them he was a genius. The new names were supposed to make the relatively provincial and exotic family fit in better among the mostly German Jewish emigres of the Northern Liberties, their Philadelphia neighborhood. Kahn’s precise age also feels tricky, syncopated by his incomplete records, his 1906 immigration as a young boy from a part of the Russian Empire that is now mostly Estonia—the ocean liner passenger manifest has the surname as Kahan—and the art of recalculation between Old Eastern and New Western calendars.

Kahn must tempt biographers. A small body of work. And good gossip. His architecture was minimal. His personal life was baroque. His death was gothic. He had a beautiful face, dramatically scarred by burns, the story goes, from luminous coals in an open stove to whose light, at the age of three, he was irresistibly drawn. Gifted and driven, Kahn helped support his indigent family by playing cinema piano, before the advent of talking pictures. He then worked his way through architecture school at Penn, where he would later teach, under neoclassical master Paul Philippe Cret. As with Shakespeare, there was a sister, Sarah, of equal or far greater talents—unjustly diverted, with Kahn out of the piano-playing business, to the making of hats.

Kahn had a forty-year marriage, and a daughter, Sue Ann, with fellow Penn graduate Esther Israeli Kahn—but also two additional families with women who passed through his office: a daughter, Alex, by architect Anne Tyng; and a son, Nathaniel, by landscape architect Harriet Pattison. These three families’ mutual acknowledgments, tacit and explicit, along with their fraught treatment by Kahn’s circle, is a topic to which Lesser brings tenderness and insight. She reports a stinging recollection by Alex Tyng, then 15, of her father introducing her pointedly, and only, by her full name. Esther had her own enduring extramarital attachment—likely not, in Lesser’s careful assessment, to the self-absorbed Kahn’s knowledge—through much of the 1950s and ‘60s, to a research scientist at Penn. Nathaniel’s 2003 documentary film, My Architect, depicted the comedy and tragedy of those arrangements, and filmed his father’s buildings—I think deliberately—not to their most photogenic advantage.

Lesser, a wise storyteller, ends her book with the fiery infantile injury and opens it with the gothic death. With detective-like patience, she meticulously reconstructs the wretched tick-tock of how Kahn, exhausted by a series of missed connections on a long return flight from India, died of a heart attack in the men’s bathroom at New York’s Pennsylvania Station—the modern, bad one, not the neoclassical good one demolished in 1963. Despite Kahn’s local fame, his body—maybe because police departments in New York and Philadelphia weren’t working too hard over St. Patrick’s Day weekend, maybe because of ambiguities in his identifying documents that, his children touchingly speculate, may have had to do with his divided personal life—went unclaimed for days. Lesser’s compassionately novelistic account of Kahn’s funeral—presided over by a slick rabbi who, never having met Kahn, compared him to Moses, and by an associate who tried to keep the tacit families away from the front of the room—is extraordinary.

Louis Kahn’s professional reputation rests pretty much on only a dozen buildings designed over a score of years: two or three early houses in suburban Philadelphia; a pavilion for a community recreation center in Trenton; a Unitarian church in Rochester; two art galleries at Yale; a library and dining hall complex at a New England prep school; a midsized art museum in Fort Worth; a life sciences research campus, the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, California; a business school, the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad, India; and the national assembly complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Kahn’s work is accessible, minimal, simple, solid, systematic, and self-evident, with a deliberate legibility about how any given structure was made, and out of what materials; and about what people do there, and how they do it. Kahn arranged everyday details like electric sockets and air vents with the same candid care that the Shakers took with pegs and chair rails—evincing a practical distaste for gratuitous hocus-pocus. Asked in a famous 1958 Berkeley creativity study that included a survey of designers, “Have you ever had an intense experience of mystical communion with the universe, life, God, etc?” he answered only, “No.” Formally, Kahn’s work tends toward what appear to be Platonically-derived boxes, cylinders, and truncated pyramids. Materially, his work is simply and strongly made, usually of cast concrete and brick and glass, but sometimes with surprising inserts or veneers of lead or travertine marble or teak—all detailed with a machine-age precision and a craftsmanlike competence.

Kahn’s work is also the exact opposite: gnostic, cryptic, hermetic, esoteric: governed by a private gematria of proportions and associations. Illuminated by hidden sources of light. Given to misdirections and revelations of sightline and procession. Nothing quite as it first appears. The seemingly straightforward arched vaults at his masterpiece, the 1966–69 Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, are actually anything but: they’re concealed cantilevers suspended by post-tensioned steel cables hidden inside concrete shells—split to create skylights exactly where functional arched vaults would have keystones, the cuts concealed and the daylight redoubled by a tubular reflector suspended below. Each shell’s shape is not a simple arc but the uncanny quasi-semi-elliptical profile of a cycloid, the curve traced by a point on the circumference of a circle rolled along a line. The main trajectories of people’s movements through the museum are choreographed not along the long lines of the vaults, but willfully against their grain. Kahn’s unbuilt 1961 synagogue design, for the Mikvah Israel congregation in Philadelphia, appears to recapitulate in its floor plan the Tree of Life sephirot diagram of the Jewish Kabbalah in a way that would please readers of Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, or even Dan Brown; his unbuilt 1968 design for the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem had all the portent and sublimity, if not precisely the ordained site, of a Third Temple. A private creature working in a mass medium, Kahn produced works that can prompt an impassioned feeling of intimate connection—with their author or with some higher Creator. This Louis Kahn, devoted deputies and cultish fans and all, may be as close as architects have to their own Leonard Cohen.

All of Kahn’s work is compounded by his gift, as a longtime teacher at Yale and Penn and a practiced public speaker, for transcendental-sounding aphorisms and gnomic semi-koans. Of these, one particular set piece, from which Lesser takes her book’s title, is the most famous: “You say to brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ Brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ If you say to Brick, ‘Arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel over an opening, What do you think of that, brick?’ Brick says, ‘I like an arch.’”

Lesser takes this at face value, concluding, a little neatly, “For Kahn, there was no going against the inherent nature of the materials—and that included himself.” It’s true that an arch is how you can span a long distance with bricks—but there’s nothing inherent to bricks about arches. In arches made with rectangular cast bricks (unlike stones that can be cut into trapezoids), the structural curve is achieved with mortar, a cement paste that fills in all the triangular gaps introduced between the bricks and holds the span together. (To clarify further: concrete is also a kind of mortar, a cementitious aggregate reinforced, in modern construction, by embedded steel cables or wires. A lintel is any single big element that spans an opening; pleasingly, the lines of force inside even a rectangular lintel are still arch-shaped.) Mortar likes an arch. What bricks like is a wall. Not an opening, arched or otherwise.

Even the imaginary dialogue itself is far more oblique than it seems: when asked what it wants, Brick responds by saying what it likes. Which is not the same thing. Plus, Kahn-as-You lies to Brick: concrete lintels, which require a new material and building trade, would be more expensive than arches in brick walls. At the Indian Institute of Management, Kahn’s largest building in brick, he uses a strange belt-and-suspenders compound detail in which low brick arches are supplemented by reinforced concrete lintels that span under them. The uncanny lowness, and therefore relative weakness, of the arches in compression is permitted by the complementary structural work of the lintels in tension: a both-and response to Kahn’s allegorical either-or. In that set piece Kahn’s different aspects—candid and cryptic, explicit and tacit, wanting and liking—approach and avoid each other.

The Indian Institute of Management is one of five major Kahn projects Lesser describes in short chapters that break up the longer chapters about the life. The buildings she picks are all canonical, although they’re the bigger, showier, later projects: the Salk Institute; the Kimbell; the Phillips Exeter Academy library; the National Assembly at Dhaka; and the IIM. Because they’re bigger they enable longer visits and afford lengthier descriptions. But I would have included Kahn’s smallish but monumental breakthrough building, the Yale University Art Gallery of 1953, in which, the story goes, under the influence of Egyptian and Roman ruins his conventional midcentury modernism was finally transformed into something more eternal.

Lesser is a keen observer. For these five case studies, she summarizes shapes, structures, materials, routes, accommodations of activities; and reports user feedback—awe-struck, wry, diffident, bemused—from current occupants. She misreads, I think, the complex at Philips Exeter: “If the Exeter Library is one of Kahn’s finest constructions, the Exeter Dining Hall—designed and built at exactly the same time—is surely one of the worst. [Its] overall atmosphere is one of gloom and oppression.” To explain the purported difference between these simultaneous structures—both identically square in plan but the library tall, foursquare and latently classical, the dining hall low, broad, and vernacular under a pitched roof—Lesser concludes, “The fact is, Lou did not care much about food.” Yet these two neighboring brick buildings, materially connected by brick paving and aligned arcades, are an intimately complicit architectural composition, as integrated and mutually dependent as brain and gut, as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza—the poetical airiness of the one simultaneously supported and countered by the prosaic groundedness of the other.

Lesser’s 2014 Why I Read brings her readers over her shoulder as she peruses canonical works of literature; her 2011 Music for Silenced Voices takes readers along on the experience of listening to Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartets. In You Say to Brick, her subtle interpretations of conversational remarks by Kahn’s intimates, and especially of of Kahn’s written ephemera—a dream journal entry on the back of an airline receipt, an unsent postcard—are luminous and deep. It is difficult to develop, in prose, an architectural equivalent for this kind of close reading or close listening. Nobody (except architects) reads a building front to back or listens to it start to finish. The experience of architecture is an immersive, incidental, subjective event: embodied and cognitive, active and passive, transient and recurrent, chronological and asynchronous. And any encounter through space and with form is inevitably filtered—through taste and fashion, through culturally specific conscious associations with styles and forms; through semi-conscious associations with archetypical spatial arrangements; through primal responses to symmetries and patterns in the visual field.

Architecture is not altogether different from certain kinds of literature or music in engaging senses and sensibilities in these ways. But it not only immerses you in a radical simultaneity and constant succession of associations and sensations, it also infuses all of everyday life with the incidental operations of aesthetic effects. For example, here’s Lesser on Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art: “One entered at the corner, through an external foyer whose heavy concrete-coffered ceiling recalled the unwelcoming entrance of [Kahn’s] Richards Building,” an earlier campus project at Penn that also featured a corner approach. That evocation of unwelcome is narrowly accurate without being fully true. The entrance sequence begins at the building’s east-facing corner with that understated outdoor foyer—forty feet deep, open on two sides, with a twelve-foot ceiling in smooth concrete, at the scale of neighboring commercial storefronts. What might glancingly appear to be heavy concrete coffers—deep caisson beams framing inset panels—are fine-edged lighting fixtures in thin steel, whose delicacy of detail establishes a human scale. Walking through that outdoor foyer, you’re under the building without yet being inside it. “But once inside,” Lesser continues, “visitors were rewarded with a tall, light-filled atrium that nearly rivaled in grandeur the central spaces at Exeter and [Dhaka].” The language of reward and punishment doesn’t apply: the high, narrow, stone-paved atrium and the low, broad, brick-paved foyer—both identically forty feet square—are as mutually dependent for their complementary experiential effects as Kahn’s library and dining hall at Exeter.

The atrium and the foyer induce and depend on each other’s anticipation and recollection. The gradual transition provided by that outdoor foyer places you within the building’s perimeter but not its enclosure; this delay sets up the sudden transition, through glass doors, into the four-story skylit atrium that Kahn’s drawings label the Entrance Court: from low to high, from dim to bright. That those doors are part of a twenty-foot-by-twelve-foot wall of glass means that, walking across that tenebrous outdoor foyer, you are drawn towards beckoning light: daylight different from the everyday sidewalk daylight behind you, as if beyond that glass was a different kind of outdoors. Early architectural modernists were skeptical of grand entrances punched into walls, instead preferring that you somehow seamlessly slip between inside and outside. Kahn’s choreography of the British Art Center’s entrance sequence retains this skepticism but finds a way to make a moment. Or moments: when you leave the building, that same sheltered-but-outdoor foyer serves as a kind of decompression chamber for your return from the lofty atrium to the everyday world of the street. The simultaneous association of memory that those moments recall, at least for some, might be of walking through a low gothic gatehouse into a sunlit cloister—the essential architectural experience of the Oxford colleges on which much of Yale’s nearby Old Campus is based.

The precedents for the kind of description of architectural effects that you just read tend toward either the dry vocabularies of sociologists and anthropologists, or the empyrean musings of philosophers about the poetics of space. Often, when you write about architectural experience, you sound like the Dungeon Master in a Dungeons and Dragons game, or you provoke in your reader the enervating sense of being stuck watching someone else move an avatar through a video game. Here’s Lesser on the Salk Institute:

You are drawn forward by the promise of something magical . . . And that promise is soon fulfilled. Reaching the near side of the ninety-yard-long, pale-travertine-paved plaza, you see in the distance a band of blue, the Pacific Ocean, glinting at you from beyond the open end the rectangular space. The long stone bench set perpendicularly in your path forces you to pause [and] take in the view from this position . . . A foot-wide shallow stream, encased in a travertine channel, runs in a straight line from a small square fountain directly in front of you and draws your eye westward, almost to the horizon.

It’s an accurate description. But it shows the difficulty: magic is asserted but not demonstrated; the agency of the subject is attributed to the object—that forcing bench, that drawing channel. The searching eye becomes merely knowing. I do it too: when I struggle to describe what buildings are like, I often find myself stuck between litanies and itineraries and portentous pronouncements—to convey both the intricacy of the means and the power of the effects. Often I explain the joke without ever quite having told it. And yet even that kind determined description can inherently be a deception: architecture, the art form we live in, is often best experienced in a state of distraction or only semi-conscious awareness. Buildings that call attention only to themselves generally fail at everything else. So the sustained direct attention offered by a critic or writer about a building is always already a great distortion.

An acute description of the Salk Institute—indeed some of this year’s keenest new writing about architecture—appears in the design scholar and journalist Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s recent treatise Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes our Lives. Goldhagen applies developments in cognitive neuroscience to develop a theory of architectural experience based on proprioception—our perception of motion and spatial orientation through the body’s sense of its own internal balance and motor functions—illuminating that radical simultaneity of sensation and interpretation, recognition and adaption. This theory complements Lesser’s insight that “awareness of the body in motion is something that transmits itself to you whenever you enter a structure [Kahn] designed . . . It is there, most of all, in your sense of yourself as being tenderly enclosed, or borne upward, or crowned with grandeur—all in the context of a weighty structure whose mass exists, not to intimidate the human-sized body, but to offer it protection and reassurance.”

Goldhagen also does a walk-through of that very same travertine-paved plaza on the Pacific. “As we cross into the central plaza,” she writes,

Kahn breaks the quietude of our initial ingress at first with sound: water gurgles into the channel embedded in the plaza’s travertine pavement, with the fountain that feeds it emitting far more noise than its small size might suggest. As a result, our auditory and proprioceptive faculties are put on alert . . . As we make our way into the plaza’s center, the importance of the site’s topography and the overall composition of the buildings diminishes. Once we are deep into the central plaza, Kahn leaves behind the obvious . . . geometries and the emphatic attention to nature—greenery, topography, light—to orchestrate a more conventional architectural experience.

That generally anticlimactic word conventional is here no disappointment. Goldhagen suggests that Kahn—in some conscious rationalization of his own semi-conscious intuition—is calibrating the forms of the Salk buildings, seen from that plaza’s center, to some universally shared aspect of our individual subjectivities. The facades have a kind of sawtooth profile, so that when you are in that plaza, looking toward the ocean, all you see of the facades are blank vertical surfaces: the back walls of the parts of the buildings that angle out into the plaza like the teeth of a saw. These gray surfaces overlap in perspective like scales or receding waves. The resulting blankness is as sublime as the sea and sky. But turn your gaze sideways to directly face one of these facades, and you see a more conventional composition of rectilinear and angular shapes made by doors and windows and panels—a return to rational legibility and domestic scale.

The shapes of these facades derive some of their uncanny homeyness, the theory goes, by conforming to intersections and accretions of about forty universal geometrical templates—weird “viewpoint-invariant” configurations called geons—that we have wired into our brains. These configurations serve as perceptive shortcuts to apprehending the bewilderingly complex shape of the world. Our preconscious use of geonic forms—wedges, boxes, barrels, donuts, cones—is reinforced by our associative memories of all the built places that have convened those templates. At the Salk Institute, that relief of recognition, in a strange place previously architecturally established as wildly topographic, prompts the visitor into a state of renewed subjectivity to the next set of effects. It’s an intentional modulation of life’s usual continual terror and delight—of speculation and confirmation, anticipation and recollection. Tapping into what Goldhagen calls the “universality of this shared mental storehouse,” something like a spatial version of a Jungian collective mono-myth, may be part of why Kahn’s buildings work as they do. Why they seem to do so very much with so very little. Why, when you come to them for the first time, you feel you have been there before. Why they seem to change as you experience them, from acute to oblique, from forthright to withholding, from heaviness to lightness, from presence to absence—and why those changes feel like what life is like.

If you read about Louis Kahn’s buildings, the word that recurs most, after Light, is Silence. Maybe because it is not a representational art—indeed because it is not an art at all but a service, the direct configuration of the everyday world—architecture is, its practitioners suspect, a liberation from signification: a means of drawing or translating the unseen world across the dark glass into the tangible one. To bring the whole into the broken. Maybe this hope is why, at heart, architects often work for so long, for so little pay, and work until they die. Maybe it’s because they suspect such a difference between possible experience and possible description that they are both so flexible and so forceful about names, even their own names: because they are divining for something that they will never know, or call, by name.

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