Friday, January 22, 2010
I recently watched this documentary about the life of Louis Kahn, filmed by one of his children, Nathaniel. At Yale, I was in the midst of some of Kahn's most beautiful buildings, and had a friend at Exeter who showed me his library when I was a freshman.
Louis Kahn had three families, one child in each one. So one wife, and two mistresses. When his two mistresses got pregnant, he did very little to support them. In the movie, both women state that this surprised them, that they expected Mr. Kahn to do something, like leave his wife or acknowledge his children once they got pregnant. But he didn't. And yet, on the flim, both women appear to still be in love with Mr. Kahn, and harbor little if any bitterness towards him. His first mistress, Anne Tyng, actually says she believes all of Kahn's children and loves are part of a large family.
Throughout the film, almost everyone that Nathaniel interviews tells him what a spiritual and visionary man Louis Kahn was. It's times like these that I wish it was traditional to speak only honestly of the dead, but it's repeated so many times it seems it must be true. The most heart wrenching moment comes in the end, when Nathaniel visits the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, and is told, in so many words, that his father brought democracy to Bangladesh.
On paper, Kahn's personal life seems like a despicable sham. Neither of the women he had affairs with ever remarried, and they both live alone. And yet on screen, they at least appear content. They seem to love him and be satisfied with the relationship they had with him. I certainly believe that social standards for what an individual should do in the archetypal relationships: mother, father, wife, husband, child, are extremely confining and inadequate to describe the full range of love relationships that are possible between human beings. The standards don't allow for the infinite possibilities of connection in human interaction. Perhaps Louis Kahn, and other visionaries who led seemingly horrendous personal lives were just living their personal lives with the way the lived their working life: bravely and boldly bucking societal pressures and to fully live in their idealized world.
I'm not saying that everything Louis Kahn did in his personal life was greatness. Rather, I'm suggesting that it's easy to immediately discount the relationships visionaries engaged in as incongruous with their output as creators, when really it could be our own social standards that limit our understanding of his relationships. What if societal conventions about love relationships were loosened and relaxed, and love was defined not by sexual commitment but by deep and honest connection over intellectual and spiritual interest? What would we think about Louis Kahn's life then?