You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn

You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn

by Wendy Lesser


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One of the Washington Post's 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction in 2017, a New York Times Notable Book of 2017, and one of Kirkus's Best Nonfiction Books of 2017

"Wendy Lesser's You Say to Brick is easily the most complete narrative of Kahn's life and career, magnificently researched and gracefully written." —Inga Saffron, New York Times Book Review

Born in Estonia 1901 and brought to America in 1906, the architect Louis Kahn grew up in poverty in Philadelphia. By the time of his mysterious death in 1974, he was widely recognized as one of the greatest architects of his era. Yet this enormous reputation was based on only a handful of masterpieces, all built during the last fifteen years of his life.

Wendy Lesser’s You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn is a major exploration of the architect’s life and work. Kahn, perhaps more than any other twentieth-century American architect, was a “public” architect. Rather than focusing on corporate commissions, he devoted himself to designing research facilities, government centers, museums, libraries, and other structures that would serve the public good. But this warm, captivating person, beloved by students and admired by colleagues, was also a secretive man hiding under a series of masks.

Kahn himself, however, is not the only complex subject that comes vividly to life in these pages. His signature achievements—like the Salk Institute in La Jolla, the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, and the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad—can at first seem as enigmatic and beguiling as the man who designed them. In attempts to describe these structures, we are often forced to speak in contradictions and paradoxes: structures that seem at once unmistakably modern and ancient; enormous built spaces that offer a sense of intimate containment; designs in which light itself seems tangible, a raw material as tactile as travertine or Kahn’s beloved concrete. This is where Lesser’s talents as one of our most original and gifted cultural critics come into play. Interspersed throughout her account of Kahn’s life and career are exhilarating “in situ” descriptions of what it feels like to move through his built structures.

Drawing on extensive original research, lengthy interviews with his children, his colleagues, and his students, and travel to the far-flung sites of his career-defining buildings, Lesser has written a landmark biography of this elusive genius, revealing the mind behind some of the twentieth century’s most celebrated architecture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374537630
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/06/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 778,871
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Wendy Lesser is the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review and the author of a novel and several previous books of nonfiction, including Why I Read (FSG, 2014), which garnered rave reviews from coast to coast. She has written for The New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. To complete this biography, she was awarded one of the first National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar awards, the only one given to a Californian in 2015.

Read an Excerpt

You Say to Brick

The Life of Louis Kahn

By Wendy Lesser

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2017 Wendy Lesser
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71331-7



He was tired, and he was not accustomed to being tired. He had always been famous for his energy. He could work all night, make a presentation in the morning, take off on an airplane in the afternoon, chat to his seatmate about architecture for five hours straight, and make up for it all with a quick catnap. He did not feel seventy-three, not at all. Although his body had thickened somewhat with age, his arms and chest still showed the strength of the wrestler he had been at college. He could still split an apple with his bare hands. He could still run up the four flights of stairs that led to his Philadelphia office. And he could still charm young women — or at least the occasional young woman — with his sparkling blue eyes. He was used to pushing himself to the limits of his capacity, of all his capacities. It was the only way he knew how to live.

Still, the last few months had been hard. Since November of 1973 he had made at least eight quick trips to visit clients overseas. At home, there had been times when he definitely felt ill. Esther called it "indigestion" and worried about what he ate. Sue Ann, the few times she had come down from New York, had commented to her mother that he did not look well. One night, when he was visiting Harriet and Nathaniel on the occasion of Nathaniel's violin recital, there was an episode that frightened Harriet so much she drove him to the emergency room. But the hospital doctor had checked him out and said he was fine: false alarm. So he continued his heavy travel schedule. In January of 1974 he had flown to Dacca to sign some additional contracts for the work his firm was doing in the Bangladeshi capital. In February he had gone to Iran, where he was to collaborate with Kenzo Tange on a 12,000-acre new town in the heart of Tehran. In April he was due to visit Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, to consult about the garden for the Hurva Synagogue. "I find that I must visit Jerusalem to spend time on the site of the Hurva, to be in your company, and think about the whole thing in the presence of everything around it," he had written to Kollek earlier that year. "A garden is a very special thing ... Please expect me in Jerusalem, within two months or so."

And now, taking advantage of his weeklong spring break from teaching at Penn, he was in Ahmedabad, giving a talk for the Ford Foundation, taking a look at the Institute buildings with an eye toward making some additions, and spending time with his dear friend Balkrishna V. Doshi. He and Doshi had first met in 1958 or 1959, and they had been working together since 1962, when he was invited to design the Indian Institute of Management in Doshi's home city, Ahmedabad. From the Indian architect's point of view, this American colleague had proven to be something quite out of the ordinary. "Every time he talked about the people of India," Doshi would later remark, "I got more and more interested. Somehow he found there was a much closer affinity between him and the people of India. I really feel that he was more Eastern, more Indian than a lot of Indians are ... Temperamentally, he was like a sage; he was like a yogi. Always thinking about things beyond, thinking about the spirit."

During this March trip, as on most of his previous trips to Ahmedabad, he made sure to leave time to visit with Doshi's family. He was particularly fond of the youngest child, Maneesha. "He thought she was the most remarkable because she had the talent of Picasso. He liked to think this," Doshi noted wryly. On this occasion Doshi and his wife brought out all of Maneesha's drawings and showed them to him. "And mind you," Doshi continued, "more than forty to fifty minutes, he is going through each drawing, watching them carefully, satisfying himself of every intricacy that she was drawing. And then once he explained why this was good and why this was not good. In fact to me it was a revelation. I had never felt that this man saw so well and in such detail."

Though he had been scheduled to fly back on Friday the 15th, intending to reach Philadelphia on Saturday so as to be rested and ready for his Monday class, he delayed his return by a day so that he could see Kasturbhai Lalbhai. The venerable old mill-owner, one of the masterminds behind the Indian Institute of Management, was nearing ninety now, and given his age, one couldn't help but be aware that each visit could be the last. "I must see Kasturbhai," he said to Doshi, "and I don't mind leaving on Saturday." So on his last afternoon in Ahmedabad, they went to Kasturbhai's house for tea. The three of them chatted about the additions he was designing for the IIM, and he promised to return with drawings in May or June, immediately after a further trip to Tehran.

"You will bring me cashew nuts from there, from Tehran, when you come?" said Kasturbhai.

"Of course," he answered, according to Doshi, "I will bring for you not only one box, I will bring for you two boxes, Kasturbhai. If you like something, I must do it for you."

At some point before Doshi drove him to the airport for the flight to Bombay, the two of them had a long talk about art. Doshi didn't write anything down at the time, but later he thought about their conversation and tried to remember some of his friend's exact phrases so as to note them in his diary. All that he could recapture with certainty, though, were a few words about "the process of discovery, the fountain of joy and the spirit of light."

* * *

The flight from Ahmedabad got him to Bombay's Santacruz Airport in plenty of time to catch his usual Air India flight to London, which left late at night. Before boarding, he went through passport control, where the immigration official stamped his passport with the airport's characteristic oval mark and wrote the date — March 16, 1974 — in the center. Once aboard, he endured a seemingly endless journey as the plane stopped in Kuwait, Rome, and Paris before finally reaching London, where he was supposed to connect with a TWA flight that would bring him straight to Philadelphia. But by the time he reached Heathrow on Sunday, he had missed his scheduled flight, so he had to rebook on an Air India flight that would instead take him to New York.

At the London airport, by complete chance, he met a fellow architect, Stanley Tigerman, who was on his way to Bangladesh. "I'm at the airport and I see this old man, who looks like he has detached retinas, is really raggy and looks like a bum. It was Lou," Tigerman later reported. "If I had not known he was Lou Kahn, I would have thought he was a homeless person."

Louis Kahn had been a teacher of Tigerman's at Yale in the 1950s. Years later they had run into each other in Dacca, where they both started working on architectural projects at about the same time. Tigerman, however, had withdrawn from his projects during the nine -month war that turned East Pakistan into Bangladesh, whereas Kahn had retained his ties to the capital, quietly working on his plans throughout the war and then being welcomed back as the architect of the new country's government center. They hadn't seen much of each other in the years since, but now the two men greeted each other cordially, sat down together in the airport, and talked for a while — mainly about architecture, Kahn's eternal subject.

"We were reminiscing. We had a nice talk," Tigerman recalled, and then went on: "He seemed exhausted, depressed. He looked like hell."

One of the things Tigerman remembered from his time at Yale was that Paul Rudolph, who eventually became dean of the architecture school, was "kind of not nice" to Kahn. (In fact, what Rudolph did was to remodel the interior of Louis Kahn's first major project, the Yale University Art Gallery, without asking his permission or advice.) But on that Sunday at Heathrow, after he had said goodbye to his former student, Kahn suddenly turned and called out, "Tigerman, come here. I want to tell you something." As the younger man later described it, "He said, 'I know you are close to Paul, and I haven't seen him in such a long time. Tell him when you see him that I miss him and I think he is really a terrific architect.' I was really touched by that," Tigerman added.

Kahn caught his Air India flight out of London and got to JFK around 6:00 p.m. on Sunday the 17th, nearly three hours after he had originally been due to arrive at Philadelphia's airport. Instead of trying to catch a connecting flight, though, he made his way to New York's Penn Station so as to travel by train to 30th Street Station — always his preferred mode of arriving in Philadelphia. He was unable to get a ticket on the 7:30 Metroliner, so he bought one for the 8:30 train. Since he had over an hour before his train boarded, he bought a newspaper and checked his overcoat and suitcase in a locker. Although he had been away for a whole week, he was traveling with just one suitcase, the somewhat battered old leather case, barely larger than a briefcase, that he liked to take on all his trips. Attached to its worn handle was a permanent luggage tag on which were typed the words "Prof. Louis I. Kahn, 921 Clinton Street, Philadelphia, PA, USA."

A woman who knew Kahn by sight, an artist from Philadelphia, saw him go up to a pay phone and try to make a call, but apparently no one picked up at the other end. She watched as he headed off toward the men's room, which was on the lower level of the station. This would have been sometime after seven.

Just before eight o'clock, a man who didn't know Louis Kahn — but who happened, as it later turned out, to be the brother of a friend of Esther Kahn's — encountered Kahn in the men's room. He noticed this small white-haired guy with thick glasses and a heavily scarred face walking around with his jacket off and his shirt collar open, and he thought the guy looked very pale. So he went over to him and asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?" Kahn told him he didn't feel well, and asked him to find the bathroom attendant and send him for a doctor. The man did this, and the attendant left immediately — and then the bystander left too, because he had to meet his wife upstairs and he didn't think the old guy looked dangerously ill. He had looked "gray," this man later reported, but he also looked in complete control of himself and he was walking around. As the man got up to the main concourse and was about to tell his wife what had happened, he spotted the attendant returning with the police.

* * *

When her husband failed to show up that Sunday afternoon, Esther was not too concerned, because the Air India flight to London was often late and Lou frequently missed his connecting flight. And when he didn't come home that evening, she assumed he might have gone straight to the office, as he had a habit of doing. Or he could have been at Harriet's, for all she knew. So, aside from the fact that he hadn't called her when he landed — which was odd, because he always did, even after a short trip — she didn't think there was anything much to worry about.

By midnight, though, she had begun to feel anxious, and when he still hadn't been heard from on Monday morning, she had his office call India. Kathy Condé, Kahn's secretary, placed calls to both Doshi and Kasturbhai Lalbhai, and then waited for the response. In the meantime Kathy called the airlines and discovered that Kahn was not on the passenger lists for any of the flights coming into Philadelphia from London, nor on any of the other available manifests. (Air India, she learned, did not maintain a passenger manifest for security reasons.) Later that day she heard back from Doshi that Kahn had boarded the plane from Ahmedabad to Bombay in time to catch the Saturday flight. Kathy continued to make calls all evening — to Western Union in order to see whether any cables had been sent either to the office or to Esther; to the Arrivals number at Kennedy Airport; to Pan Am; and again to Air India. By the time she left the office at 12:30 that night, she had begun to keep a log documenting each step taken during the emergency. "It was feared that he had reached London and something happened to him there or he was too tired to call" was her last entry for Monday night.

On Tuesday morning Kathy returned to the office at 7:30 and called the London police and Scotland Yard. Meanwhile, Esther managed to ascertain, through a contact who had an office in London, that Kahn had indeed been on the Air India flight to Heathrow, had missed his TWA connection, and had rebooked on the Air India flight to New York. Esther called Air India and got a supervisor named Mr. Magee, whom she asked to find out anything he could; when he called her back, he was able to tell her that Louis Kahn had gone through Customs and Immigration in New York at 6:20 p.m. on Sunday. On Kathy's advice, Esther then called Mayor Rizzo's office, and two Philadelphia detectives were sent out, first to Kahn's office and then to the Kahn residence. At one point the two detectives, Mr. Magee, and Kathy Condé were all independently checking to see if Kahn might have boarded a helicopter which Air India had made available on Sunday night to those seeking to connect with an Eastern Airways flight from LaGuardia to Philadelphia. They found he had not.

Kathy then called Gracie Mansion and asked for any help the New York City mayor's office could give. Less than half an hour later she got a call back from a woman who told her that Kahn was not in any New York hospital or city morgue. The woman said she was still checking with the police department, though, and she promised to call back if she learned anything.

* * *

The two New York City policemen who had returned with the men's room attendant on that Sunday night at Penn Station were Officer Allen and Officer Folmer. According to the police report that Folmer later filed at the Fourteenth Precinct, they arrived on the scene to find Louis Kahn "lying face up next to the men's room." Officer Allen tried to administer oxygen to the fallen man, but with no effect. The terse, practical report does not say whether Kahn was conscious or unconscious when the two policemen found him, but no mention is made of any speech or movement on his part. He was probably already dead.

Officer Folmer accompanied the body to St. Clare's Hospital in nearby Hell's Kitchen, where Kahn was pronounced DOA by a Dr. Vidal. The police officer then proceeded to go through the deceased's pockets in the presence of the morgue attendant. There he must have found the locker key, because the leather suitcase, the coat, Kahn's passport, and his train ticket all eventually showed up with the body. Folmer's assumption in the police report he wrote later that night — that it was a natural death caused by cardiac arrest — was confirmed the next day when Dr. John Furey, deputy chief medical examiner for New York City, concluded that Louis Kahn had died of occlusive coronary arteriosclerosis.

In the meantime, though, something strange had happened. Though their report correctly identified the body as that of Louis I. Kahn, the policemen somehow got the idea that Kahn's office address, 1501 Walnut Street, was where he lived. That was the home address they put into their report, and that was the address they cabled to the Philadelphia police at 9:50 p.m. "Notify Esther Kahn, 1501 Walnut St., your city, that a white male, 72 years, tentatively identified as her husband Louis Kahn of the same address, is deceased this city," read the teletype that arrived that Sunday night in the operations room of Philadelphia's Ninth District headquarters. Unlike the error in his age, which could have been a mere subtraction mistake (the passport stated that Louis Isadore Kahn had been born on February 20, 1901, in Estonia), this error was not easily explained. There was no address at all listed in the passport itself, but Kahn's vaccination certificate, which was firmly attached to the passport, gave 921 Clinton Street as his home address. Besides, his leather suitcase — logged in by the New York police, and labeled with a strip of masking tape that had "DOA" written across it — bore that permanent tag with his home address typed on it. Perhaps the police, in their first search of his pockets, found a business card or a piece of letterhead with the Walnut Street office address printed on it. Perhaps they looked him up in the Philadelphia phone book, where he was listed at 1501 Walnut rather than at his home address. No matter. The damage was done, and the wrong address was included in the teletype to Philadelphia.

When this cable arrived, it was already late on a Sunday night — and not just any Sunday night, but Saint Patrick's Day. A police car was dispatched to the Walnut Street address, where the officers found only a closed office building. They returned to the station and proceeded to forget about the notification. The cable from New York was left lying in the wrong box, and nobody paid any further attention to it for two full days. By the time the missing teletype was finally rediscovered, it had become obsolete.


Excerpted from You Say to Brick by Wendy Lesser. Copyright © 2017 Wendy Lesser. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



In Situ: Salk Institute for Biological Studies


In Situ: Kimbell Art Museum


In Situ: Phillips Exeter Library


In Situ: National Assembly Building of Bangladesh


In Situ: Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad



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