If These Walls Could Talk

You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn BY Wendy Lesser. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 416 pages. $30.

The cover of You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn

Readers could be forgiven for assuming that the biographer of an architect might devote her most incisive analysis to the work of her subject, particularly if that subject happens to be widely acknowledged as one of the masters of the twentieth century. The first, bracing surprise in Wendy Lesser’s new account of the life of Louis Kahn, then, is that some of its most insightful passages are dedicated to a structure that was not even designed by Kahn, and is surely a serious contender for the title of Worst Building in America. The “monstrosity” in question is New York’s current Penn Station, built in the late 1960s after the demolition of McKim, Mead & White’s turn-of-the-century masterpiece. In a tour de force of architectural criticism, Lesser excoriates this building as “something like a living hell,” using an extended comparison to another major East Coast transit hub, Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Street Station, to underscore Penn Station’s many failures: urban (the elegant approach to Thirtieth Street along one of Philadelphia’s main arteries versus the ignominious midblock descent into the chasm yawning below Madison Square Garden that constitutes Penn’s main entrance); environmental (the flood of warm natural light that fills Thirtieth Street versus the harsh fluorescent glare of Penn’s underground expanse); spatial (the high ceilings and symmetrical plan of Thirtieth Street, so helpful for visitors to orient themselves, versus Penn’s befuddling catacombs); and even social (the implicit democracy of the benches that limn Thirtieth Street’s main concourse versus the explicit hierarchy of Penn’s isolated waiting rooms, which are reserved for ticket holders and divided by class).

Lesser makes this comparison in her prologue, and it might seem like an odd detour (although Kahn did use both buildings frequently, as Lesser points out, and in fact died of a heart attack in a Penn Station bathroom in 1974). But the contrast between these two buildings in fact offers a brilliantly concrete demonstration of the dual premises that underlie her book. The first is that architecture possesses what she describes as a profound capacity to “make a difference”—to exert a fundamental influence on our quality of life by literally shaping our activities and experiences. The second is that this capacity is best understood not in the abstract terms of aesthetics or history but by looking closely at the actual mechanics of our daily interactions with buildings; by trying to understand how we live in and move through them.

Putting this notion to the test, Lesser punctuates her narrative of Kahn’s life with detailed descriptions of her visits to five of his buildings. This is the second significant surprise of her biography: Nearly half of its chapters contain not biographical material but a series of highly personal and carefully observed encounters with Kahn’s work, set in the present tense and directly addressing the reader. By focusing her analysis of Kahn’s architecture in separate sections, Lesser provides it with a welcome degree of autonomy, saving his works from being read merely as symptoms of the events in his personal life or as physical evidence from which to draw conclusions about its maker, and allowing her to delve into rich details that are more or less purely architectural and would have been difficult to weave into a strictly biographical narrative. Part of the pleasure of her account is her ability to convincingly capture the beauty of these features: the sublime light pouring into the interior of Kahn’s National Assembly Building of Bangladesh; the smooth, rose-tinted surface of the concrete used for his Salk Institute in La Jolla, California; or the almost archaic grandeur of the colossal brick wall that wraps the exterior of his Exeter Library.

Of course, this is not to say that the man can be completely separated from his buildings, and admirers of Kahn’s work not familiar with the details of his life will find that Lesser has assembled a host of suggestive material. Despite its somewhat unorthodox bipartite structure, the book offers an impressively complete profile of Kahn, with Lesser drawing on interviews with family, existing scholarship, and Kahn’s own writing. This volume joins the 2003 film My Architect, directed by Kahn’s son, Nathaniel, as an essential document of the architect’s life. Perhaps most striking is the ample evidence she offers of his almost freakish talents. As a young art student enrolled in one of his first architectural-drawing classes at Philadelphia’s Central High School around 1920, Kahn could draft so well and so quickly that he completed not only his own assignments but also those of half of his classmates. Though these drawings were unmistakably Kahn’s, his teacher was so taken with his skill that he overlooked this blatant (if generous) deception. Later in his career, Kahn would amuse students and clients by standing at a chalkboard and drawing two identical circles simultaneously, one with each hand. If a single freehand circle was enough to convince the pope that Giotto was the most talented artist of his age, we can only imagine what the pontiff would have thought of this show of ambidextrous acuity. By detailing Kahn’s uncanny representational abilities, Lesser helps us begin to understand the geometric precision and spatial complexity of his buildings.

Lesser also describes Kahn’s intense physicality, a quality that seemed to mirror the rugged materiality of his architecture and his predilection for massive, even monumental materials such as brick, stone, and concrete. We learn that Kahn was a wrestler in his early years and remained obsessed with physical fitness throughout his life. He was a man who, in Lesser’s words, “inhabited his own body more viscerally than most,” a comment that gains an additional dimension when she relates the history of his many affairs, which eventually resulted in three children with three different women—despite the fact that he remained married to his first wife (the mother of his eldest child) for forty-four years, until his death. (The mothers of Kahn’s other two children were both onetime employees in his office, and while the extent to which they were involved in his practice has been contested, Lesser convincingly argues that they made significant contributions to several of his projects, playing an important role in his life as creative collaborators, even if this was unacknowledged or actively suppressed at the time.)

Louis Kahn in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1953. Lionel Freedman, from the Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Louis Kahn in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1953. Lionel Freedman, from the Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Finally, there is Kahn’s astounding ability to focus, which bordered on the pathological. Well into his sixties, he would draw through the night, with younger colleagues arriving at his office in the morning to find him napping on a table; he once forgot his wife’s birthday, working right through it as his family waited for him at a vacation home on Lake Placid. This intensity was combined with a profound—indeed quixotic—belief in architecture’s power to shape human experience for the better. Drawing on speeches and letters from Kahn’s time in Dhaka supervising the construction of his design for the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, Lesser suggests that he saw the project not merely as providing a site for the young nation’s parliament to meet but as physically establishing democracy there—as if the spatial configuration of his building would bear as much responsibility for good governance as the legal structure of a constitution.

For Kahn, the ultimate source of architecture’s power was its ability to communicate. He believed that buildings are composed of “universal elements” that have remained essentially unchanged throughout the ages, and so constitute a kind of ancestral spatial language shared by all of humanity. The most famous articulation of this idea is probably the aphorism from which Lesser has borrowed her title, often repeated by Kahn in his lectures:

“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.'”

There is something antifunctionalist, and in a sense antimodernist (or at least antitechnological), in this statement. Kahn is clearly not arguing that a brick arch is the best way to span a doorway or window aperture; rather, he is saying that it’s an ancient and ingenious one. The fundamental nature of a brick—surely among the oldest, primary elements of construction—suggests this use, and, for this reason, arches have been found in an immense range of buildings across cultures and throughout history.

Lesser relates a story from the construction of Kahn’s building for the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad that reinforces this interpretation of the brick’s universality. The architect had designed the facade as a series of brick arches, and when he arrived on-site to supervise construction, he was unhappy with the structures that the local workers had produced—he wanted thinner and more uniform mortar joints between the bricks. The construction crews spoke no English, so Kahn himself built a sample arch as they watched, and then watched in turn as they followed his example. Here, indeed, was brick construction as a kind of Esperanto.

At their best, Lesser’s careful descriptions of Kahn’s projects capture this same universal power, just as her prologue so convincingly demonstrates that Penn Station is (as anyone who has ever taken Amtrak to New York City can agree) objectively and unequivocally inferior to Thirtieth Street Station. But not all architecture can be judged in such black-and-white terms, and sometimes she seems almost too assured of the omnipotence of Kahn’s buildings, as when she declares of that ethereal light in the interior of the National Assembly’s mosque: “Whoever you are, it will speak to you.” Such a claim ultimately does architecture a disservice by forgetting that every building is grounded in a specific context, both spatial and social.

Lesser’s most egregious lapse in this regard comes during her account of a visit to the Exeter Library. She writes that the students there reassured her that she could leave her coat and cell phone unattended on the ground floor as she explored the rest of the building. Her conclusion is that “they have no doubts at all. They feel utterly safe and protected in this place.” While she vividly describes the welcoming feeling evoked by the building’s surfaces of warm brick and rich wood, it is naive to pretend that they alone produce this sense of safety. The library building is ensconced within the campus of one of the most expensive and exclusive private schools in the country, itself tucked away in a sleepy New England town.

While his rhetoric may have drifted toward a similar fundamentalism, Kahn himself never lost sight of architecture’s connection to a particular time and place. Even a brick, after all, is not only a universal element but a chunk of baked clay, often made of local soil, fired in a local kiln by local workers, and assembled into larger structures according to the traditions of local craft. This is true even—perhaps especially—of the bricks in the Institute building: They were all sourced from a single nearby factory because Kahn liked the color produced by its particular combination of clay and firing process; bricks were used in the first place
in part because they were the most viable material for a building of that size in that location. Kahn wanted thin mortar joints not because the resulting arch was necessarily any more archlike but because the thick joints reminded him too much of Le Corbusier’s nearby 1954 building, for the Mill Owners’ Association, and he was eager to distinguish his own hand from that of the European master. Kahn’s brick, then, is perhaps ultimately a reminder that the structure of architecture is always dialogic, speaking simultaneously of ancient truths and particular cultures (indeed, of such things as the value of labor and up-to-the-minute geopolitical dynamics), just as we always come to it with collective memories and individual expectations. Even a cursory glance over the history of architecture demonstrates both the existence of certain universal problems—spanning a doorway, holding up a roof—and the fact that they have an infinite number of singular solutions. It is architecture’s unique ability to hold all this in suspension, like an arch of bricks and mortar, or a wall of the roughly mixed concrete that Kahn so loved.

Julian Rose is a senior editor of Artforum.