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You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn
Wendy Lesser
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017
Reviewed by Jay Wickersham FAIA

This eloquent biography of architect Louis Kahn begins with his death from a heart attack in the men’s room of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, on his return from a trip to India in 1974. Kahn left behind some of the most ennobling spaces of the 20th century: the ocean-facing plaza of the Salk Institute, the luminous vaults of the Kimbell Art Museum, the top-lit central halls of the Phillips Exeter Academy Library, and the Bangladesh National Assembly. He also left behind a tangle of family secrets. Lesser describes the memorial service in Philadelphia, where his wife, Esther, and daughter Sue Ann Kahn sat up front. Also in the room were his two hidden families: architect Anne Tyng with their daughter, Alexandra, and landscape architect Harriet Pattison with their son, Nathaniel.

In 2003 Nathaniel Kahn revealed these family secrets in his superb film about his father, My Architect. Now Lesser has expanded and deepened the intertwined stories of Kahn’s private and artistic lives. Lesser is one of our best cultural critics, the author of essays and books on subjects as diverse as Degas, Shostakovich, and Alfred Hitchcock. She acknowledges her debt to My Architect, but her book gives us a new richness of detail and a wealth of viewpoints and voices.

She provides the first detailed account of Kahn’s upbringing, from his birth in a remote Baltic province of Tsarist Russia to his childhood as the artistically gifted son of poor Jewish immigrants in the Philadelphia slums. She portrays his struggles in the 1930s and ’40s, when there was very little work for even the most talented architect if he lacked social connections, and when Esther had to give up her own ambition of becoming a psychiatrist to support her husband and family. We see Anne Tyng’s formative role in shaping Kahn’s approach to design. Most moving of all, we see how his children eventually forged their own relationships with one another, despite Kahn’s attempts to keep his three families apart.

Lesser also gives voice to the skilled architects and engineers who sustained Kahn’s practice. They were the ones who worked out the innumerable construction details that make his buildings so deeply satisfying and who appeased clients over the delays and cost overruns caused by Kahn’s artistic perfectionism. (When Kahn died, Lesser tells us, he left his firm and his widow half a million dollars in debt.)

Lesser is not writing a critical analysis of Kahn’s architecture. Those books already exist—from Vincent Scully’s groundbreaking 1962 monograph through recent works by Sarah Goldhagen and Robert McCarter. She has interspersed her biographical chapters with vivid word portraits of five canonical buildings. Her descriptions convey how a visitor experiences Kahn’s spaces, and they contain accounts from the people who live and work there.

This biography gives us the fullness of Kahn’s contradictions. Though his face was deeply scarred by a childhood accident, his physical and sexual energy captivated men and women. He was a nonpracticing Jew imbued with a deep spirituality who designed profound worship spaces for Christians and Muslims. He could be a tender lover and father, but he was ruthless in pursuing his art and heedless of the damage he caused to those around him. And yet they loved him and, most of the time, forgave him.

When I was 15, I was a student at Exeter. For years Kahn’s library had been a slow-rising mass of bricks, shrouded in scaffolding. One November day we formed a human chain to pass boxes of books from the old library to the new. It was the first time any of us had entered the majestic atrium, that great implied sphere of space floating within a cube. Kahn’s library, more than any building I had ever seen, showed what architecture could be. Lesser’s biography conveys the sense of wonder that Kahn’s buildings evoke, and the flawed yet inspiring man who brought them into being.

Jay Wickersham FAIA, of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, law firm Noble, Wickersham & Heart, is an architect, lawyer, and president-elect of the Boston Society of Architects/AIA.

City Squares
Catie Marron, editor
HarperCollins, 2016
Reviewed by Justin Crane AIA

The months following an election are opportunities to think critically about the places we design and how they boost or erode our civic culture. In City Squares, editor Catie Marron has assembled pieces by 18 contributors (including one architect, David Adjaye FAIA), giving us the chance to do so via a collection of well-written essays that leaves one critical of our democratic society’s attitude toward public gathering spaces.

The book is not architectural or plannerly. It is not a how-to manual with comparisons and guidelines, such as Allan Jacobs’ Great Streets. The photographs do not even have captions identifying squares pictured. Instead, the essays provide the opportunity to absorb descriptions by talented writers — the likes of Michael Kimmelman and Alma Guillermoprieto — of the importance and spirit of a place. Every contributor has been given wide latitude to explore her or his subject. Zadie Smith contrasts her experiences living in Rome’s Piazza Della Madonna with being a tourist in Venice’s San Marco; Rory Stewart writes of his failed attempts to create a public square in Kabul.

As the arc of the book becomes clear, something more interesting emerges from the curation of the essays. Organized into three broad categories — Culture, Geopolitics, and History — they cover Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America, and Latin America. Yet, with the exception of Rabin Square in Israel, the geopolitical section focuses on countries with autocratic regimes, from Tiananmen Square in China to Tahrir Square in Egypt.

In contrast to these expressly political essays, the tales of squares in Europe and America tend to focus on genteel expressions of culture—finding quiet and shade in Paris’ Place des Vosges or sipping coffee in Krakow’s Grand Market Square, in Poland. Politics seem to have found expression in these squares only in the past.

Two squares from Anglophone North America are featured. The first is Harvard Square, which Ann Beattie writes about with a folksy, apolitical appreciation for its quirkiness; the kind of devotion—and forgivingness of faults—locals hold for the landmark spaces in their hometowns. The second is Hacker Square, the open-air courtyard located within Facebook’s California headquarters. Gillian Tett contrasts this—a square created by a corporation with the intent of increasing worker productivity—with the virtual squares created by the corporation. Her essay describes a devolution of the public square: As children’s freedom to roam through their neighborhoods has diminished, they’ve taken to the digital world to find independence and opportunities to meet.

The apparent disuse of city squares in North America highlights the importance of George Packer’s question in his contribution: “Is there a civic purpose for city squares where people are already free?” He notes that civic life in democracies happens primarily in government offices, courthouses, TV, and social media, yet polls show that estrangement from political institutions in the US is at record levels. Perhaps the decline of public life in public spaces contributes to this. Commitment toward those in our communities who are not already friends requires real face time; few informal spaces exist for such interactions in our built environment. Election cycles and good intentions alone may not be enough to sustain inclusive civic responsibility. We also need spaces where we can meet, interact, and strive. City Squares provides a timely opportunity to critically consider the role of these civic open spaces in our diverse, democratic society.

Justin Crane AIA is an associate at Cambridge Seven Associates.

The Battle for Home:
The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria

Marwa al-Sabouni
Thames & Hudson, 2016
Reviewed by Nasser Rabbat

An architectural memoir about the devastating civil war raging in Syria for the past six years, The Battle for Home argues passionately for architecture’s pivotal role in shaping social realities. Writing and publishing this book in the current circumstances is in itself a tremendous act of perseverance. Marwa al-Sabouni, a young and ambitious architect still defiantly living in her severely destroyed city of Homs with her husband and two children, uses her own autobiography and architectural sensibility to tell a selective history of her native city, and of Syria more generally, down to the excruciating present.

The story is woven around her direct encounters with architecture, old and new, in Homs mostly but also in Damascus and Aleppo, and her rather limited exposure to world architecture. It has a strong phenomenological bent (although the term seems to be unknown to al-Sabouni), and an even a stronger architectural and social moral that extends to reflecting on famous architects, such as Hassan Fathy or Le Corbusier, and essential conceptual terms, such as vernacular or Islamic architecture.

The gist of the book is refreshingly, albeit naively, idealistic, comparing a romanticized past of socially cohesive communities living in organically evolved cities to a present plagued by corruption, hatred, ignorance, and—the wickedness that the author would not name—sectarianism.

Al-Sabouni starts with a conciliatory stance, praising the imagined past of Syria where communities ostensibly lived together in harmony. But by the middle of the book — when she discusses the tragic fate of Baba Amr, the rebellious quarter in Homs that was leveled in the regime’s brutal retaliation—she cannot help but criticize the differential treatment of various sects by the regime and the vengeful punishment reserved in particular for the Sunnis, collectively identified with the uprising. Still, al-Sabouni tries to preserve an air of impartiality, blaming all sides for the destruction of the country, even if she slyly notes the vaster harm caused by air raids, used exclusively by the regime.

The book is divided into six chapters, each cast as a battle with one of several facets of what is in the end the same enemy: predatory change motivated by greed, bad taste, and misguided Modernism. That detrimental change—which left huge swaths of economic inequality, urban underdevelopment, and ethical privation—directly contributed to the breakdown of Syrian society. However, al-Sabouni’s distrust of Modernism as it seeped into the traditional built environment is not surprising. It is both a topos that is frequently invoked in writing about the disfigurement of colonial cities and a reflection of her being influenced by the traditionalist philosopher Roger Scruton, who is one of the few sources cited in the book and who also contributed its admiring foreword.

Al-Sabouni’s ink sketches in freestyle both illustrate her arguments and subtly push them further. For instance, she uses thick lines in depicting an urban redevelopment proposed by the authorities after the destruction of Baba Amr, which emphasizes the brutality of the intervention. Her own clever project for the same reconstruction, inspired by an organicist reading of traditional architecture, is rendered with various thicknesses that enhance its spatial complexity. A softer touch is reserved for the historical and vernacular examples that al-Sabouni favors. A more attentive editor would have corrected mistakes, such as claiming that the Alawi faith has no link to any Abrahamic religion, calling Michel Écochard a military pilot, or spelling Moshe Safdie’s name Moshi Safadi, as if transliterated from Arabic.

Nasser Rabbat is the director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture in the Department of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.