Even Kahn’s death was wrapped in mystery. His entangled heart gave out in a men’s room at New York’s Penn Station, where he was about to catch a train to Philadelphia after a whirlwind trip to India. Because he had scratched out his home address in his passport, it took three days before the police and the world figured out the identity of the body in the New York morgue.
In My Architect, Harriet Pattison tells Nathaniel that the crossed-out address confirmed her assertion that Lou had finally agreed to leave his wife and come live with them. Nathaniel calls that theory a “nice myth.” She asks him, with a trace of annoyance, what his explanation is. He doesn’t answer her. He admits now that “one can never know” what the real explanation is.
Having a father whose private life is of public interest can be difficult enough in the best of circumstances. When the private life is as complicated as Lou Kahn’s, his children have to fuse their loving memories with some hard realities.
“When people have a child out of wedlock, something that doesn’t go along with society’s norms, they think it’s their problem,” says Alex. “It is to begin with, but once they’ve produced children, the problem or situation ceases to belong to them. It takes on its own life. And as the children grow older, it takes on dimensions they couldn’t expect, and couldn’t possibly predict.”
Becca Tyng Kantor C’08 is sitting at a conference table in the Architectural Archives, looking pretty radiant and cheerful for someone who has only had three hours of sleep. Her rich head of reddish-brown hair is framed by the large photograph of her grandfather’s spectacular Dhaka capital complex in Bangladesh that hangs on the wall behind her. She doesn’t have an architectural background, apart from the double helix of her DNA (her mother is Alex Tyng, and her father, Stephen Kantor, is the grandson of Lou’s brother, Oscar). But although she’s an English major and her forte is words, she feels very much at home in the archives, where she has a part-time job as a work-study student.
“I’m not an architecture major, so in some ways I don’t fit in, but that’s made being here all the more fascinating,” she says. “They’re the only ones who understand when I say I’m going to a conference in Estonia and it’s all about Louis Kahn.”
The archives were in the process of re-housing all of Lou Kahn’s drawings when she began working there.
“It was really interesting to see the charcoal and pencil drawingsthey’re really personal and rough,” she says. “I got to see all these different stages; it was like seeing history unfolding. It even had his childhood drawings. There were pictures of boats, which was interesting because he came over here on a steamship and boats had a real fascination for him.”
It is a testimony to her family’s efforts to make peace with Lou Kahn’s legacy that she can simply enjoy her genetic inheritance and the literary possibilities it represents. She has been writing short stories about her grandfatherincluding his early childhood in Estonia and his return there in 1928for Max Apple’s fiction-writing class, and it has proved to be a rich vein.
“Just writing the stories has been a real challenge and reward for me,” she says. “Just trying to imagine his mindset has helped me to understand him, and helped reconcile different things I had heard about his personality.”
“I hope she finds out lots of stuff that none of us knows,” says Nathaniel, “because it will be fun to read those stories.”
It was Nathaniel’s film that gave a group of Estonian architects the idea to organize a symposium about Louis Kahn, who was born Leiser-Itze Schmuilowsky in the Estonian town of Pärnu. (His parents changed their name to Kahn in Philadelphia.) They wanted to learn more about the famous native son who had left for America in 1906, and late in 2005 they contacted Bill Whitaker GAr’96, the Architectural Archives’ collections manager, and began discussing plans to visit Philadelphia and organize a symposium. It would be held in Kuressaare, the main town on Saaremaa, where Kahn’ s family lived for several years. The island’s misty, primal landscape and eclectic Old World architecture were thought to have held a special place in his heart and mind.
When Whitaker mentioned that three of the Estonians would be visiting Philadelphia, Becca was intrigued, to say the least. She told her mother, who “got really excited.”
“Estonia had always been a fairy-tale land for her,” Becca explains. “She had heard my grandfather’s stories about it,” so her image of it was filtered through that lens. Nathaniel was interested as well, especially since they wanted to screen My Architect and have him lead a discussion about it. Sue Ann also wanted to come and perform a piece of music, but the timing would prove impossible.
The EstoniansIngrid Mald-Villand, Vilen Künnapu, and Toivo Tammikarrived in Philadelphia last spring. Nathaniel came down from New York, and he, Alex, and Becca took them out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Center City. Later, they walked around Philadelphia together, taking in the architecture; Künnapu bought a tri-corn hat and wore it along with his Le Corbusier glasses.
Though the Estonians didn’t have much money for their symposium, says Nathaniel, “once the three came to Philadelphia, we realized, ‘Wowthey’re doing so much work; let’s make it fantastic.’”
It was around then that Alex offered to paint a portrait of Lou. This wasn’t just a sentimental gesture from a daughter who dabbles in oils. Over the years Alex has become a serious portrait artist, garnering second honors in the Portrait Society of America’s recent international competition for one portrait, while another“Becca in her Prom Dress”was an Artist’s Magazine finalist. She recently began organizing Portraits for the Arts, an exhibition of her work depicting 25 artists with Philadelphia roots who have made a “significant impact” on society, a group that includes Robert Venturi Hon’80 and Denise Scott Brown GCP’60 GAr’65 Hon’94 and a filmmaker named Nathaniel Kahn. Now that group would include an architect named Lou.
The Estonians were delighted. “One of the things about Alex is, she’s extremely generous,” says Nathaniel. “It’s not about money. It’s about the reach of art, and the ability of art to draw people together. She decided, ‘I’ll make this painting.’ Her sum-total payment was a plane ticket to go.”
Afterwards, Alex called her mother, Anne, who taught in the architecture department at Penn for 27 years and recently moved to California. She had been to Saaremaa once before, as a faculty member of the Baltic Summer School of Architecture and Planning, and had more than a passing interest in the place where Lou Kahn spent his early childhood. Would she be interested in going? She would.
COVER STORY :
Portrait by Alexandra Tyng GED'77
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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette