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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

You Say to Brick

The Life of Louis Kahn

Wendy Lesser

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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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.

* * *

About twenty minutes after hearing that Kahn was not in any hospital or morgue in New York City, Kathy Condé got another call from a different woman in New York, who informed her that Louis Kahn was dead. Kathy was told that the body had been taken to Missing Persons, located in a blue-brick building next to the Medical Examiner’s Office on First Avenue, and she was given a number to call. She called the number and gave Kahn’s description to the man at the other end; he confirmed that the body was there and that a telegram stating this would be sent to Mrs. Kahn, but he also said someone would have to come in person to make a positive identification. The office, he told her, would be open until 5:00 p.m.

“Of course I went to New York to get Lou and here it was again confusion compounded upon confusion,” Esther wrote in a letter several months later, describing this series of events to an Italian friend of Kahn’s, “but I was assured he suffered only a very short time and he looked simply wonderful. If anyone can be said to look wonderful in death, he did.” She also noted in the letter that “Lou died in the arms of two policemen who were members of the rescue squad”—possibly Missing Persons’ kindhearted elaboration of the police report’s bare facts, or perhaps just Esther’s own version of the death as she pictured it.

That Tuesday evening, Esther called her daughter at Bennington, where Sue Ann spent one night each week so as to teach a regular music class. Sue Ann was about to turn thirty-four. She was a professional flutist, married, living in New York, well aware of at least some of the difficulties in her parents’ marriage—an adult, in other words, not in immediate need of a father’s care. But the news was so upsetting and so unexpected that she barely retained a sense of the surrounding circumstances. “It was quite a shock,” she recalled nearly four decades later. “It was a long time before I came to grips with the fact that he was really dead.” Later, upon reflection, she modified her recollection: “I had a premonition. I remember at Christmas dinner he had turned very red”—but then she reversed herself again, adding, “It was a shock because everyone thought he was so vigorous.”

There were still two other children to be notified, and Esther naturally did not consider this her job. Late that Tuesday afternoon, Kathy Condé called Harriet Pattison’s house. Calls had been going back and forth between Kathy and Harriet since Monday, because Harriet Pattison, in addition to being a landscape architect who worked with Louis Kahn’s firm, was known by everyone in the office to be the mother of his eleven-year-old son. The fact that Lou went out to Chestnut Hill practically every week to see the two of them, have dinner, and maybe spend part of the night was an accepted part of his routine; even Esther knew about the relationship, and would report to Sue Ann that Nathaniel was now taking violin lessons, for instance, or that Harriet was driving Lou crazy. So when Kahn didn’t show up at the office that Monday morning, Harriet’s was one of the first places Kathy had called. Now, however, she had to make a different and much harder call.

Nathaniel was standing in the kitchen with his mother when she picked up the ringing telephone. “Is he dead?” Harriet asked. Then she quietly put the receiver back in its cradle. “She didn’t need to tell me,” Nathaniel said many years later. “I knew he was dead.” The two of them went outside and stood on the lawn near their neighbors’ house. It was almost spring, and the days were getting longer, but they could still feel a chill in the air as they watched the sun go down over the hill. “Will happy times ever come again?” Nathaniel asked.

Nobody at Kahn’s office thought to call Anne Tyng. She hadn’t, after all, been working there regularly since the early 1960s. But Anne and Lou had stayed in close touch long after their sexual relationship had ended—in part because their daughter, Alexandra, brought them together, but also because they liked and respected each other. Even after Alex went away to college, they would occasionally see each other. Just recently, for instance, they had been looking at something together on the Penn campus, where both of them taught in the architecture school, and Lou had patted her affectionately and commented, not for the first time, “You never stop loving someone.”

Now, on that Tuesday night, Anne got a phone call from the news director at a major Philadelphia radio station, a man who was the father of one of Alex’s high-school friends. News of Louis Kahn’s death had gone out over the wires, and this man, knowing of the family connection, wanted to make sure that Anne Tyng heard about it from him before she saw it on the television news or read about it in the next day’s paper. As soon as Anne got off the phone, she called Alex, who was a junior at Harvard. “My mother called me and I rushed home,” said the grown-up Alex Tyng, a painter, thinking back on these events nearly forty years later. “I just remember lying on my bed and thinking: Your father isn’t sick a day in his life and now he’s dead.”

* * *

The March 20 edition of The New York Times carried a front-page obituary by Paul Goldberger as well as an appreciation of Louis Kahn’s work written by Ada Louise Huxtable. Headlined “Kahn, a Blender of Logic, Power, Grace,” the Huxtable article singled out the Phillips Exeter Library, the capital buildings in Bangladesh, the Richards Medical Laboratories at Penn, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth as examples of Kahn’s “strong and subtle” spaces. The Philadelphia Inquirer obituary that appeared that same Wednesday focused more on the strange circumstances surrounding his death, with a follow-up article on March 21 headed “Police Here Failed to Notify Wife of Kahn’s Death”; but the Inquirer also published an elegiac editorial in Thursday’s edition entitled “Louis Kahn, Fundamental Genius.” The Times obit listed only Esther and Sue Ann as Kahn’s survivors, while the Inquirer added in Lou’s sister, Sarah. Nowhere were the other two children mentioned.

The office was deluged with phone calls, while telegrams addressed to Esther Kahn began to pour in at both the home and work addresses. Among them was a cable from the White House that began “It is with the deepest sense of grief that I learned of the passing of your husband Louis I. Kahn, one of America’s truly great architects” and ended with the signature “Richard Nixon.” Teddy Kollek wrote from Israel (“Deeply shocked. Louis’ death a tremendous loss to Jerusalem and the world”) and Isamu Noguchi from Japan (“The world shares your great loss”). Telegrams came from Nancy Hanks, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, and from Aaron Copland and John Hersey, in their roles as president and secretary of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as from a wide range of Kahn’s fellow architects, including I. M. Pei, Kevin Roche, Carlo Scarpa, José Luis Sert, and Bob and Denise Venturi. The lengthiest and most detailed cable was from Buckminster Fuller, who wrote, among other things: “I first knew him when he was struggling through Depression days designing homes for the ILGWU. I watched him grow and grow as an architect and a philosopher … So long as any of his buildings stand, and most will stand for a long, long time, Lou will be speaking directly to the living humans whom he loved and who all loved him.”

Meanwhile, plans went forward for the funeral, which had been announced for 10:00 a.m. on Friday the 22nd. Traditional Jewish law requires that the body be buried as soon as possible, preferably within twenty-four hours of death, but such speed is rare in the modern world, and Judaism allows its adherents to adapt to unusual circumstances. In this case, Louis Kahn was to receive a Jewish burial five days after he had died and three days after his body had been identified. He had never been a practicing Jew, but he had been married by a rabbi, and both his parents had been buried by rabbis; it was assumed he would have wanted the same for himself. So a Society Hill rabbi who had never even met Lou was enlisted to conduct the service. A small list of pallbearers and a much longer list of honorary pallbearers were drawn up, and invitations were issued to the great and good of Philadelphia and beyond.

The funeral was held at the Oliver Bair Funeral Home, a large neoclassical building located at 1820 Chestnut Street in the heart of old Philadelphia. The service itself was on the second floor, in the largest available chapel, with a side chapel reserved for the overflow crowd. Over a thousand people showed up at Bair’s on that Friday morning and mounted the grand staircase that led to the second floor. Most of them managed to crowd into the big main room, where Rabbi Ivan Caine—assisted by a Roman Catholic pastor, Monsignor John McFadden, who had actually known Lou—presided over the service. At the front of the room, the simple oak coffin rested on a pedestal covered with red velvet. Esther and Sue Ann sat in the first row. Around and just behind them were relatives and close friends, followed by the people who had worked at Kahn’s office and his colleagues from Penn. Dignitaries and architects from all over the world had arrived to pay their respects. But there were also numerous other guests who had no official standing and were simply drawn by their affection for Lou and his work. “There was this group of conservative old Jewish people and then there was a huge crowd of students, sort of hippie-ish, and they weren’t exactly dressed to the nines,” observed Ed Richards, a man who had worked in Kahn’s office for a few years in the early 1960s. “It was a very big crowd. I thought it was great, all the students.”

Another of Kahn’s former employees, David Slovic, also remembered how crowded it was, and he even thought he recalled a slight scuffle—but whether that resulted from an attempt to keep someone out, or was simply due to competition for scarce seats, he couldn’t be sure. “I was kind of an outsider, no longer in the office,” he said. “I was not aware of the tensions: Esther trying to prevent them coming, and all the things I found out later.” But Jack MacAllister, a longer-term employee who had managed the Salk project for Kahn and had remained close to him even after starting his own practice in La Jolla, knew of the potential difficulties. “I was asked to go to the funeral, and I wisely did not go,” he remarked. “I saw it as a place where the vultures would be descending—all the people who wanted a part of him, or a part of the business. I heard that various members of the family didn’t want other members there.”

A close friend of Esther’s named Anne Meyers—who was not only the wife of Kahn’s colleague Marshall Meyers, but also Esther Kahn’s informal financial advisor—said that Esther gave her rather explicit instructions in this regard. The other two children and their mothers were to be treated with respect if they insisted on coming to the funeral, but she did not want them sitting “in her line of sight.” So Angel Meyers, as she was called, tried to make sure that these unwanted guests were steered to the side chapel, from which the coffin was not visible but to which the speakers’ voices could be piped in.

“I remember seeing a number of people seated up front, and knowing we were not going to be sitting there,” said the grown-up Nathaniel Kahn, reflecting back on the eleven-year-old self who had been through these experiences. “When you have these different families, there’s this sense that everyone is isolated in their own particular grief. And there’s this awkward sense that you’re being watched, that you’re not really supposed to be there. Somehow there’s this memory I have of being told to go into the side room. I remember not being able to see. There was a loudspeaker, a kind of walnut-cased cloth-covered speaker, through which I was hearing the proceedings. So there was this really disconnected sense—there was this random rabbi, who was saying really nice things but that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the father I knew.”

Much more pertinent, from the young Nathaniel’s point of view, was the comment of the taxi driver who had brought his uncle Willy from the airport to the funeral home. When Willy Pattison (who, according to Nathaniel, “was definitely no fan of Lou’s”) met his sister and nephew at the top of the staircase inside Oliver Bair’s, he told them about the conversation he’d had in the cab. “Oh, you’re going to the funeral of the professor,” said the driver, adding: “We all knew him. He was a great man.” Nathaniel felt this opinion was confirmed by the line of taxis he had seen waiting outside the funeral home. They were “paying their respects,” he recalled, “like they wanted to be part of it: the taxi drivers all knew Lou, because he didn’t drive.” Inside the chapel, by contrast, there was only the disembodied voice of Rabbi Caine, telling anecdotes about the famous man he had never met. “It was like the voice of God coming through the speaker. It was surreal,” Nathaniel reflected. “It was kind of the beginning of having him taken away.”

Alex Tyng, who was nearly nine years older than Nathaniel, handled the situation differently. Alex had always possessed a strong personality. It was she who, at the age of sixteen, had sought out both her younger half-brother and her older half-sister, forging enduring connections between the previously isolated families. Alex had also insisted on being present at various public occasions involving Lou, often bringing her little brother with her, as if to demonstrate that they too were part of Kahn’s life, despite all the subterfuges and concealments. And now, at her father’s funeral, she was not going to submit to being put in her place.

“The funeral was actually on my birthday—I was twenty,” recalled Alex. “The same woman who was always trying to make us go to the back—she was the wife of someone who worked for him—tried to usher us into the side room. Actually, let me back up: she called our house before the funeral. I heard my mother talking to her and saying, ‘How could you tell us not to come?’ She was furious. So that kind of set up this anxious feeling in my stomach, since I knew I would have to contend with this force that would try to prevent us from sitting where we wanted to sit.”

When Angel Meyers was unable to persuade Alex and Anne Tyng to go to the side room, she sat them at the very back of the main room—“even though my mother had worked in the office for years,” Alex pointed out. Anne Tyng remained at the back for the duration of the service. But Alex marched up to the front, where she was hailed by Harry Saltzman, Sue Ann’s husband, who was sitting in the second row.

“When my sister came in, she came up to the front,” Sue Ann observed. “She’s not one to take any guff. My husband said to her, ‘Come sit with me—this is where all the good people are sitting.’ I went to find Harriet and she was in a side chapel.” Alex, too, went looking for Nathaniel at the same time.

“Alex said did I want to come sit up front with her, but I wanted to stay with my mother,” Nathaniel recollected, and Alex remembered the same thing: “He felt he wanted to comfort his mother, which was really sweet. I felt a little guilty that I wasn’t sitting next to my mother and comforting her, but I knew she could take care of herself. I knew I would be really angry if I sat in the back, so I didn’t.”

None of this family drama impinged in any noticeable way on the stately proceedings. “Rabbi Caine drew a similarity between Louis Kahn and the prophet Moses,” ran the fulsome report in that Friday’s Evening Bulletin, while “Kahn’s wife, the former Esther Israeli, sat in the front row in the ornate funeral parlor … surrounded by friends and relatives.” (“Esther was there as if she should have gotten an Academy Award” was Ed Richards’ unkinder take.) When the eulogies by Rabbi Caine, Monsignor McFadden, and Kahn’s old friend and fellow architect Norman Rice had been delivered, the coffin was solemnly carried out by the official pallbearers. The young Nathaniel was very impressed by the sight: “I remember seeing all the men from his office carry the casket down the steps on their shoulders”—though in fact only one of the pallbearers, David Wisdom, actually worked in Kahn’s firm. The others included Dr. Bernard Alpers, the neurologist who had employed Esther as his medical technician for most of her working life; David Zoob, Lou’s lawyer; Norman Rice, who had known Lou since their boyhood; Charles Madden, a Philadelphia artist; and four other local dignitaries. Together they carried the plain wooden box down the sweeping staircase and out to the waiting hearse.

About fifty cars followed the hearse to the Montefiore Cemetery in northeast Philadelphia. The Evening Bulletin was impressed not only by the number of vehicles, but by their variety: “Immediately behind a shiny black Mercedes was a well-used Volkswagen bus,” the reporter noted. Sue Ann and Alex rode separately but met up at the graveyard. “I remember Sue being upset,” said Alex. “She was holding my hand. I don’t know who was comforting who.” They didn’t let go even when they reached the grave itself. “We were supposed to put earth on the casket,” Alex recalled. “I had never been to a Jewish funeral before, so I didn’t know what to do, but she kind of showed me. We held hands and did it together.”

Nathaniel didn’t go to the cemetery to see his father buried. He watched as the coffin was lifted into the hearse, and then he and Harriet left town immediately, going straight from the funeral home to stay with relatives in Boston. “My mother had decided that she didn’t want to go to the graveside,” he said. “I remember several years later wishing that I had.”

He was not the only one left with a feeling of incompletion. Sue Ann had chosen not to look at her father’s body in its coffin, though her mother had offered to open the casket so she could do so. “I wish I had,” she said many years later. “Then I would have known he was dead in a way that took me months to realize. Normally I wouldn’t see him for months, and it just seemed like that at first.”

* * *

It was not just the suddenness of his death that made it hard to realize Louis Kahn was gone. Something about the way he disappeared from the world—irregularly, mysteriously, with that strange two-day gap when nobody he knew could find him—left many people unable to take in the facts of his death.

For the California relatives, who learned about Lou’s death through a series of relayed phone calls, there was a persistent confusion about where and how he had died. Decades later, Kahn’s niece, nephew, grandnephew, and two grandnieces all thought he had suffered a heart attack on the way back from Bangladesh; their memories, that is, selected his much-celebrated Dhaka project over the rarely discussed Ahmedabad campus. They knew he had died in a train station, but at least two of them remembered it as Grand Central—again, a more appropriately monumental choice. (These erroneous details proved to be so persuasive that they even entered the historical record, for in a 1993 Toledo Blade article listing the highlights of Louis Kahn’s life, the Ohio newspaper included the line: “1974 – Dies of heart attack in Grand Central Station, New York City, en route from Bangladesh to Philadelphia.”) The West Coast Kahns believed, moreover, that Lou’s body, with its characteristically messy hair and rumpled clothing, had been taken for that of a transient for two days, until somebody finally realized who it was. Part of their distress had to do with this idea of unrecognizability: they could hardly credit that someone as famous as Louis I. Kahn could go unidentified for two days.

Among at least some of the East Coast relatives, a different story prevailed. According to this view, the New York police had included the wrong address in their initial cable because Kahn, for reasons unknown, had obliterated his home address in his passport. Harriet Pattison, a firm believer in this version, was convinced that he was finally intending to leave his wife and come live with her and their son. Nathaniel Kahn, who incorporated this story into his movie about his father, called his mother’s interpretation “a nice myth,” though he believed that the address had indeed been crossed out. Anne Tyng felt that Lou would never have changed his domestic arrangements, but she too credited the altered-passport idea, as did her daughter. “There is no doubt in my mind that the home address was crossed off,” Alex Tyng said, “but why, or what he intended to do, I don’t know. Maybe he had chest pains on the plane and wanted to make some kind of gesture or statement that would be found if he died before he got home. We’ll never know.”

But American passports, then as now, did not have the bearer’s home address printed on them. There was a space at the front where one could, if one wished, write in a home address, but the passport Louis Kahn was carrying on that last trip—the one with the March 16 exit stamp from Bombay’s Santacruz Airport—had nothing written in the home address space. The only address in the passport was on the vaccination certificate attached at the back, and it was completely uncrossed out. “I heard the passport in question has disappeared,” said Alex, but all the while it was in her older sister’s possession. Yet even Sue Ann had not bothered to dig out the document until she was pressed to do so many decades after her father’s death. Some mysteries apparently beg not to be solved.

The myth of the crossed-out passport persisted over the years, surfacing anew with each discussion of Kahn’s death. For outsiders, it was merely a curious feature of an incompletely resolved case. But for the women and children who had been officially excluded from the obituaries and posthumous commemorations, the story seemed to offer the consolation of a private, secret affirmation of their role in Lou’s life. And this is understandable. Whenever people die unexpectedly, away from those who knew and loved them, the survivors will long for a final message from their dead, and when it is not forthcoming, they may have trouble believing it was never sent. With someone like Louis Kahn, who meant so many different things to so many different people, the usual sense of loss and uncertainty would have been compounded by the mysterious circumstances of his death. Lou’s habit of secretly slipping off from one place to another, of being routinely unlocatable for an indeterminate period of time, had gone from temporary to permanent. It was as if he had simply slid through a hole in reality, moved from existence to nonexistence when no one was noticing. Yet if his absence was hard to grasp, it was nonetheless the only fact that could be agreed upon. He was no longer around, bodily, to hold everything together. He was no longer physically present to persuade each friend or loved one, each client or employee, that he was exactly the person they knew and wanted him to be.

This had practical consequences as well as emotional ones. When the funeral was over and the accountants finally had a chance to examine the books, it was determined that his architectural firm, Louis I. Kahn Architect, owed $464,423.83 to its creditors—mostly to engineers and staff, but some of it to outside suppliers and institutions as well. No one had ever considered Lou a good businessman; on the other hand, no one had realized that his financial balancing act was this precarious. Esther had no way of paying off the debt on her own, but after nearly two years of effort by David Zoob and a few other devoted friends, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill authorizing the state to purchase the Louis I. Kahn Collection for exactly the sum needed to pay the creditors. The Kahn Collection, including not only his personal and professional records but also 6,363 drawings he had made over the course of his career, was placed at the University of Pennsylvania, which had agreed to house it in the same building where Kahn had taught.

There still remained the question of his unfinished building projects. Several of Louis Kahn’s trusted associates, led by David Wisdom and Henry Wilcots, kept working on the massive Bangladesh capital project for nine more years, until it was at long last brought to completion in 1983 (the same year, incidentally, that Dacca became Dhaka). Marshall Meyers and his firm, Pellecchia & Meyers, supervised the final design and construction phases of the Yale Center for British Art, which was finished in 1977. Eventually, other architects would do the actual drawings for the Graduate Theological Union’s library in Berkeley, California, the Bishop Field Estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, and a second version of the music barge for the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, all based on initial plans sketched out by Kahn. And nearly four decades after his death, in the wake of numerous arguments, negotiations, and revisions, the FDR Four Freedoms Park would open on Roosevelt Island, in a form very much like the design Lou had unveiled in 1973. But all the other ambitious projects he had undertaken—including the Palazzo dei Congressi in Venice and the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem—came to an abrupt end. There was no one who could complete them as Kahn would have done. There was not even enough of a design, in most cases, for others to attempt to carry on his work. Those grand pieces of architecture, to the extent they existed, existed only in the mind of Louis Kahn, and they died with him.

Still, enough magnificent work remained to justify the storm of acclaim that arrived after his death. It had taken him a long time and a great deal of effort to create his few masterpieces, but their importance to the world—not only the world of architecture, but the world of ordinary people who occupy and use architecture—was never in doubt. Jonas Salk, whom Lou always described as his favorite client because of their fruitful work together on the Salk Institute, gave expression to this general feeling in a poem he wrote shortly after Kahn’s death and read aloud at a memorial event on April 2, 1974. “Out of the mind of a tiny whimsical man,” Salk’s poem began,

who happened by chance,

great forms have come,

great structures, great spaces that function.

Salk praised his lost friend for possessing the words of a poet and the cadences of a musician, as well as “the vision of an artist, / the understanding of a philosopher, / the knowledge of a metaphysician, / the reason of a logician.” Yet even as it commended Louis Kahn’s natural talents, the poem also pointed out how lengthy the road was that led up to his final achievements:

For five decades he prepared himself

and did in two

what others wish they could do in five.


Copyright © 2017 by Wendy Lesser