A new, in-depth biography of the noted American architect.
Threepenny Review founder and editor Lesser (Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, 2014, etc.) begins her stellar biography at the end, with Kahn’s death (1901-1974). At the time, the renowned architect, who was “famous for his energy,” was “tired.” He had just returned from a long overseas trip and had a heart attack in Penn Station in New York. Lesser describes Kahn as “affable, conciliatory, and a bit self-mocking,” warm and captivating but secretive (he had two affairs while married). His output was small, but his best buildings were “beautiful in a surprising new way.” Kahn came to America from Estonia in 1906 when he was 5, his young face and hands scarred from a fiery accident. Always a brilliant drawer (he was ambidextrous), he received a good education and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1924. In 1935, he worked on a new workers’ housing project in Washington, D.C., and soon started his own firm. In 1954, “I discovered myself after designing that little concrete-block bath house in Trenton.” Concrete and brick would forever be his favorite construction materials. Lesser punctuates the narrative with five lengthy sections of “ ‘in situ’ descriptions of what it feels like to move through his built structures.” The author visited them all. Included are the Salk Institute in San Diego (1959), with its enormous, distinctive plaza. It would be the “only profitable project that Kahn ever undertook.” Also included is his “most supremely beautiful accomplishment,” the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which was the biggest project he ever took on and “in many ways the most difficult.” Extensively researched, the book is full of quotes from letters and interviews, providing an intimate portrait of his personality and genius.
A splendid biography that penetrates the inner lives of Kahn’s buildings as well as the inner life of their creator.