Louis Kahn was one of the greatest architects of the 20th Century, known for creating beautiful spaces and structures that combined modern elements with the dignity and power of ancient monuments. He is considered by many in the architectural fraternity to be in the pantheon of modernist architects such as Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.
Wendy Lesser’s biography ‘You Say to Brick’ is the fruit of years of research, and synthesis of his renowned work, and personal life in a beautiful, intriguing masterpiece that is in a way equivalent to an architectural composition.
The book alternates between gripping segments on Louis Kahn’s life and Wendy Lesser’s own experiences and thoughts on five of his iconic works, namely the Salk Institute in California, the Phillips Exeter Academic Library in New Hampshire, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India and finally the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, which was completed posthumously.
The book begins with a chapter titled ‘Ending’ which details out Kahn’s sudden death in 1974 at the Penn Station and concludes with a chapter titled ‘The Beginning’ where Lesser evocatively details the accident where Kahn’s face was scarred forever. Wendy Lesser’s writing style that puts the beginning at the end and the four chapters of his life in between, titled ‘Preparing’, ‘Achieving’, ‘Becoming’ and ‘Arriving’ is not only highly creative but also conveys an overall sense of Kahn’s disordered and restless life and career.
These chapters are interspersed with ‘In Situ’ chapters, comprising his most notable projects. These brief pauses are symbolic of his personality – consumed by his passion for work, sprinkled with emotional upheavals and unconventional family life.
Wendy Lesser’s response to Kahn’s architecture in these chapters is so evocative and sensitive that you feel as though you yourself are traversing through the spaces. She paints a picture with her words, and you are as profoundly affected by Kahn’s concepts, as Wendy Lesser was, while visiting these spaces.
At the Salk Institute, you can feel yourself being transported to the fountain in the courtyard and can almost imagine being kinesthetically moved by the calming acoustics as the water flows in an axial pattern, before descending into the sea. You can imagine the smooth, exposed concrete, pitted travertine, and the weathered teak in the surrounding structures. You can see yourself working in the research labs and enjoying the view beyond.
In the chapter where Wendy Lesser covers the Phillips Exeter Library, the repetitive yet harmonious geometry of the central core makes you appreciate the complexity of Kahn’s thoughts and his determination to complement the context.
In the Indian Institute of Management segment, she transports you through the brick walls, circular windows, and spaces within, so much so that you feel as though you’re on a campus tour. The dramatically different projects chosen for the book, show Louis Kahn’s dedication to his ideology of modernism, and his mystical adoration of medieval castles, and monumental ruins that he encountered on his travels to Europe and Russia as a young graduate.
Throughout her iterations on the iconic projects, Wendy Lesser narrates interviews with Louis Kahn’s significant associates, who not only reflect on the space and structure, but also on their interactions with Kahn, which say a lot about his character and the impression he left.
For example, in the Salk Institute segment, Tim Ball the maintenance director of the institute reflects on the fact that though certain elements accentuate the aesthetics of the building, they also have their practical sides. The five ‘In Situ’ chapters cast a shining light on the projects and bolster Wendy Lesser’s insights and travels through Kahn’s life in the other chapters of her book.
As much as the biography details Kahn’s most notable projects and the concepts behind them, it also reflects on his scandalous, unconventional life. The book is filled with the drama of his everyday life; the fact that he had three children with three different women while staying married to Esther Israeli, his rough childhood, his passion for music and painting, his initial trials and tribulations with various business partners and competitions, and the rocky start to his career, that ultimately left him in debt without the fame and glamour and glamour that other architects had been bestowed with.
In these chapters, Wendy Lesser puts forward her thoughts on how Kahn’s design thinking may have been influenced by his extramarital affairs with two women in his office – Anne Tyng and Harriet Patterson, his impoverished upbringing as an immigrant from Estonia, his travels, his Jewish faith, and even his early childhood days in Estonia.
The author also acknowledges the accounts of many familiar leadership roles in Kahn’s office such as Marshall Meyers and David Wisdom, as well as partially unknown and neglected collaborators, such as Henry Wilcots. Wilcots remarked that while it was obvious that Louis Kahn was the go-to architect in the office, David Wisdom was the one who actually held things together. With these accounts, Lesser proves that any architectural masterpiece requires the continual involvement of an indispensable team, who together refine the project at hand.
Another account is that of Shamsul Wares, the renowned Bangladeshi architect who worked with Kahn. He remarked that while Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier were forward-thinking architects, Louis Kahn was the only one who understood the value of looking backward. While Wendy Lesser argues that Kahn’s name is now well-known, she makes it clear through the various accounts that it wasn’t always a smooth journey. Till the very moment that he took his last breath, Louis Kahn preserved his passion.
The book is a heart-wrenching, exciting and insightful read, that is fascinating enough to keep you turning the pages. Even if you’re not an architect or in a design-related field, you will be intrigued by the beautiful, realistic iterations of this book by Wendy Lesser, which is one of the most well-written and complete narratives that pay the perfect homage to one of the greatest architects of our time.