My Architect: A Son's Journey


Louis I. Kahn,

whose strong forms of brick and concrete

influenced a generation

of architects and made him,

in the opinion of most

architectural scholars,

America's foremost living architect,

died Sunday evening

apparently of a heart attack

in Pennsylvania Station.

He was 73 years old.

Besides his wife, Mr. Kahn

leaves a daughter, Sue Ann.

When I first read that obituary,

I have to admit I was

looking for my own name.

I was his child too, his only son.

I didn't know my father very well.

He never married my mother,

and he never lived with us.

But I can still remember every detail

of the few times we spent

a whole day together.

On this afternoon, we had a picnic.

He painted with watercolors,

and my mother snapped these pictures.

He died when I was 11.

The circumstances of his death

have always fascinated me.

He was bankrupt and alone on

his way back home from India.

He collapsed in the

downstairs men's room

in Penn Station, New York.

The police couldn't identify him,

because, for some unknown reason,

he crossed out the

address on his passport.

They took him to the city morgue,

where he lay unclaimed for three days.

What was he thinking at the end?

Had he seen anyone?

Had he talked to anyone?

Had he really decided to leave his wife

and come and live with

us like my mother said?

For years, I struggled to be satisfied

with the little piece

of my father's life

I'd been allowed to see.

But it wasn't enough.

I needed to know him.

I needed to find out who he really was,

so I set out on a journey

to see his buildings

and to find whatever was

left of him out there.

It would take me to the

other side of the world

looking for the man who left

me with so many questions.

My father had been dead 25 years,

so there wasn't much time left

if I wanted to meet

any of his colleagues.

I figured I'd start at the top:

the guy with the glasses.

- Mr. Johnson.

- Good to meet you.

- Oh, it's a pleasure to meet you.

- You're Lou's son?


Generations go by quickly, don't they?

I've just decided Lou was

the most beloved architect of our time.

- Really?

- Yeah... Well, think of anybody else.

Frank Lloyd Wright was

too cantankerous to love.

Mies van der Rohe wasn't...

you couldn't talk to him at all.

Corbusier was mean.

But Lou, now, there was a man.

All my buildings don't add up

to what his three or four buildings,

because he, when he

did get a client...

however he ever got any

clients is a mystery,

because artists don't get jobs.

Every time I've tried to do art,

I've ended up with a...

I've made much less.

Nothing to be ashamed of, naturally.

I do it the other way.

I do it by numbers and...

and public fame and all that.

But Lou did it by being an artist.

He'd sit and work on art, see?

And I always wished... I think he

did too... wished he knew me better,

and I always wished I knew him better.

- Why?

- Well, you know,

there's some things

that don't go into words.

It's animal


his mind, really,

because his person...

to look at him wasn't much a pleasure.

- It wasn't?

- It couldn't be.

See, he was so scarred.

Funny, he never talked to me

as directly as he should have.

- Who?

- Lou.

He never came here, though.

- Didn't he ever come here?

- To the glass house?

That's strange, 'cause

I built it in '49.

Possible. Possible.

Do you think Lou would

have liked this house?

- No.

- Why?

Oh, rigid boxes, you know. He...

He was his own artist.

He was free compared to me.

The first time I'd gotten

a real sense of Lou's legacy

was when I was a student up the road

at Yale University.

My father was only 5'6"

but he cast a long shadow in New Haven.

He built his first and

last major buildings here:

the Yale Art Gallery in 1953;

and right across the street,

the British Art Center,

finished after his death.

I used to wander around in

those buildings on weekends.

They were silent and mysterious,

and I half expected Lou to just appear

from around the next corner.

There were rows of books

about his work in the library.

He hadn't built very many buildings,

but apparently they had changed

the course of architecture:

the Salk Institute,

the Kimbell Art Museum,

the Exeter Library,

the Capital of Bangladesh.

My art history

professor, Vincent Scully,

had been a friend of Lou's,

but he always talked about him

like some long-dead ancient hero.

It was unsettling.

From the very beginning he was after

symmetry, order, geometric clarity,

primitive power,

enormous weight...

as much as he could get,

like this great monster that stands

in the middle of this space.

You know as I said too, I think, before:

enduring monuments.

He wants his materials to kind of last,

which is a permanent work in the world.

That's what he's after.

You know, it was such a wonderful thing

to be close to somebody

who really was changing everything.

You said at one point that

he wanted to make everything right.

- He wanted to make it perfect.

- Perfect.

You know, in Jewish mysticism,

which I know almost

nothing about, but...

God can only be known

through His works, right?

And since the messiah

hasn't come yet, hmm,

the works of any Jewish architect

might be the works of God.

And you take those pictures of Louie

when he's looking into the light

and when he's enjoying

silence like this,

it's... it makes

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Nathaniel Kahn

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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