Friday, January 22, 2010

Louis Kahn: Visionary

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?


  1. his buildings are just useless art. i dont get what all the hype is. i dont think he was a genius, just another asshole who thought he was.

  2. I agree with the post! This film is a great insight into a visionary architect. I especially like what you write about there being "infinite possibilities of connection in human interaction." Sure, on paper, Kahn might seem to be cold and irresponsible, but I think that his first love was architecture. He clearly loved his work more than any of the women he was with. The women that he bed knew this about him. He seemed to be fanatical about his buildings, the way society (I think) wishes that he had been fanatical about his wife and single, nuclear family.

  3. For me this movie is like going to a concert, a museum and a spiritual event all at the same time, as well as seeing an engrossing story.This documentary is a wonderful experience.

    Those who would think his architecture is useless are simply naive.As the most important architect to emerge in the second half of the 20th century. I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi > They all looked up to Lou.

    Kahn liked to use the simplest materials he could get his hands on, mostly brick and concrete. He shaped them into primitive but powerful geometric forms—a huge square inside a huge circle was a favorite motif. He didn't settle on a style of his own until a revelatory stay in Rome around the time he turned 50, but his signature buildings are graceful and filled with light, with the clean, ornament-free lines typical of modern architecture. They have the presence and the monumentality to stand equal to the best architectural wonders ever built.

    In part, then, the film is a reframing of that old art versus life question—namely, does the great humanism of Kahn's buildings do anything to mitigate the pain he caused the people nearest to him? The pain part is certainly clear enough.

    It can be tough to tell from photographs why women and other architects fell for Kahn as hard as they did. But in the film footage Nathaniel has managed to dig up, the architect's charisma is impossible to miss; even with his scarred face (the result of a childhood accident) and ink-stained fingers, as soon he opens his mouth you understand his appeal right away. He can turn a couple of sentences about a brick arch into a kind of love poem. And the architects Nathaniel meets with to talk about Kahn certainly sound like they're still smitten. The prolific Pei says, almost wistfully, "Three or four masterpieces are more important than 50, 60 buildings. Quality, not quantity." Gehry calls Kahn a "mystic," then says, "My first works came out of my reverence for him."

    Kahn's architecture did have its detractors. Though his powerfully wrought and human-scaled work offered an implicit critique of high modernism, which had grown cold and aloof by the 1960s, Kahn continued to cling to some original modernist ideals, primarily the rejection of ornament. That stance put him out of step as the postmodern notions of contextualism (the idea that buildings should take formal cues from those around them) and historical quotation (the idea that it was OK to use classical columns, for example, on an otherwise modern-looking facade) began to gain momentum in the years just before his death. Still, few could deny that Kahn's work has aged better than that of either the International Style modernists who preceded him or the postmodernists who followed. Very few of his buildings look dated. And the ones that have been taken care of, like the near-perfect Center for British Art at Yale, haven't lost a bit of their power.

    There is something about walking into a Kahn building that makes analysis seem superfluous, if not silly. The best ones just succeed—not simply at keeping out the rain or the cold but at suggesting something important about our relationship with the built world. It may sound too basic, or too sappy, to say that the reason for Kahn's continuing appeal is that he sought an architecture that was more concerned with the timeless than the fashionable. But it's also the truth.