In Which An Architectural Giant Turns Out To Be For The Most Part A Tremendous Bastard

He Ain’t Our Architect

by Alex Carnevale

Awesome article by Michael J. Lewis, the noted professor of art history at Williams College, about the new biography of Louis Kahn by Carter Wiseman.

Kahn also led a disordered personal life, fathering three children by three women, only one of whom was his wife. The three families were dimly aware of one another; but not until the death of his long-suffering wife were they able to meet. This is what gave My Architect its bittersweet poignancy, as Nathaniel Kahn found in the company of this ad-hoc family and of his father’s friends a surrogate for the attention he never received as a child. Were its subject not so famous (or its maker so forgiving), it might have been titled, Lou Kahn, Deadbeat Dad.

Kahn went to Penn, but lied about his origins quite often.

He was indeed born in 1901, the son of a Jewish paymaster in the czarist army—but not on the Baltic island of Saaremaa as he claimed but in the somewhat less romantic venue of the Latvian mainland. Nor was he born Louis Kahn, but rather Leiser-Itze Schmuilowsky, an evidently embarrassing name, unknown until recently, that was changed in 1915, a decade after the family’s emigration to Philadelphia.

Wiseman is also lamentably incurious about the politics of his subject in the highly politicized decade of the Popular Front. Nothing that in 1933 Kahn designed a monument for Vladimir Lenin, which would have loomed over the harbor in Leningrad, he does not observe how assiduously the architect later effaced that item from his resume. (It was unknown to scholars until discussed by me in 1992.)

Lewis is the master of the sweet putdown. He actually likes Kahn’s architecture. I sort of do, too, it reminds me of a bathroom I’d really like to deuce in.

We do not see, for example, the great effect of celebrity on Kahn, especially after the appearance of a 1962 monograph on his work by the architectural historian Vincent Scully. Prior to its appearance, he had been careless with his drawings; afterward, he lovingly and self-consciously signed and dated even the most hurried sketch. His prose, already famously tortuous, now reached heights of metaphysical pretense, as when he pronounced to a 1967 audience in Boston that “I sense Light as the giver of all presences, and material as spent Light.”

Exeter library

Lewis’ insta-classic survey:

American Art and Architecture.

With others, on the travel sketches of Louis Kahn.

From all evidence, Kahn was a bastard.

By the start of the 1960s, Kahn’s architectural language was fully realized, at which point Beyond Time and Style loses its dramatic momentum. As the works of Kahn’s late maturity follow in train, Wiseman does justice to the convoluted design history of each but the story is much the same: a laborious gestation period as Kahn subjects his designs to revision after revision—a process that continues even after construction has begun, with dire financial consequences. Invariably, and often after the project has already grown disastrously over budget, Kahn’s exasperated clients would assign a manager to rein him in.

Not that Kahn himself made money. To the contrary, he perpetually teetered on the brink of insolvency, and when he died in 1974—in a men’s room at New York’s Pennsylvania Station—his office was for all intents and purposes bankrupt.

Kahn and his son.

This is a familiar meme–douchebag who creates great art. I know Molly doesn’t like Death of a Salesman, but I see it as the male Vagina Monologues. After reading Molly’s post, I don’t ever want to see it staged again. Bob Creeley was a dick most of his life. Diane Williams is awesome, we can pretty much assume she’s killed someone. Raymond Carver was an alcoholic and could be unpleasant.

Architecture is also impossibly male. Putting these buildings up everywhere is the equivalent of a phallus-measuring contest. Can we please tear down some first? I don’t like the Ernst & Young building, let’s start there.

Why do I feel like I am now going to be on a CIA watchlist? Sigh.

Alex Carnevale is probably the editor of This Recording. He lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.



La Jolla

Erdman Hall at Bryn Mawr



Michael writes over at Contentions, which takes its name, as I recently found out by reading Midge Decter’s autobiography, An Old Wife’s Tale, from her newsletter of the same name.

More on Kahn from MJL.

Lewis on the Washington D.C. mall.

Lewis on Philip Johnson’s glass house.

I once write Professor Lewis an e-mail about Holocaust museums, he was really gracious and I quoted him in my now classic paper that some bastard gave an A-. I also e-mailed Mary Jo Salter about Amy Clampitt. Little did these people know they would be immortalized forever in blog history.

Lewis on Thomas Eakins.

What was American about American art?

MJL on Louis Sullivan.

Lewis on the friendship between Frank Lloyd Wright and Lewis Mumford.


Personal ads are a tough business.

Absolutely the greatest Craigslist post ever.

Tess had a Carrie Bradshaw moment, I can’t believe Chris Noth marries her in the movie, ew.

3 thoughts on “In Which An Architectural Giant Turns Out To Be For The Most Part A Tremendous Bastard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s