I can’t remember my father without white hair. The image of Louis Kahn as a wise old man has become so strongly etched into my mind that sometimes I have difficulty imagining him as young and inexperienced, with most of his dreams and ambitions unfulfilled, lacking the mystique that enveloped him in later years.

—From Beginnings: Louis I. Kahn’s Philosophy of Architecture, by Alexandra Tyng.

The two black-and-white photographs of Lou that Alex chose as her guides shared a certain consistency of light. They also presented a problem: He wasn’t facing the same way in both. She had to flip the one of him standing among the trees, then adjust the position of the head.

Figuring out a way to bring the spark of life to her canvas was a little trickier. She needed models, preferably ones whose bodies bore at least a passing resemblance to her father’s. For that she enlisted her husband, Stephen Kantor, and their son, Julian—both Kahn-family descendants. (Her first choice was Nathaniel, her half-brother, whose body structure is the closest to Lou’s, but he was out of town.)

They posed for her in charcoal-gray suits and one of her father’s bow ties, which Sue Ann had given her.

“For the hair, skin color, and hand, I used photos of myself,” she recalls. “Everyone had to pose outside with the light coming from the same direction so I could get accurate color and value information.

“The biggest challenge was the face,” she adds. “I had to get the color correct and the values correct—photos distort the values of light and shadow.” And the biggest challenge within the face was the patches where the pigment was washed out from his burn scars. That, and capturing his inner twinkle.

“The goal was to end up with a painting that is not a copy of a photo, but a work of art that is more than the sum of its parts and, hopefully, takes on a life of its own,” she says.

There was one more piece of the puzzle: where to place him. Alex decided to portray him standing in front of the Dhaka capital complex in Bangladesh, even though it wasn’t completed until nearly a decade after he died. In the painting, the complex seems to be surrounded by water—which, as Bill Whitaker observes, suggests an island, an appropriate touch for a painting that would soon reside on the island of Saaremaa.

“There’s a dramatic contrast between Bangladesh and Estonia,” says Alex, “and I was thinking how, as a boy, he had no idea how far he would travel and how far his influence would reach. I also wanted to avoid putting him in a specific time frame. The capital complex wasn’t finished when he died, so in reality he could never have stood there. So the portrait represents a whole range of time from his childhood to the end of his life and beyond.”

The process of painting her father was “emotional, in a quiet way,” she admits. “I wasn’t painting with tears running down my cheeks, but there was a lot of internal emotion. It’s very hard to describe. But I felt very connected to his image.”

What are the elements of a fairy tale?

Start with the atmosphere, which should hint at something supernatural: clouds, mist, light, shadow, maybe a rainbow. Saaremaa—“one of the most mystical sites in northern Europe,” in Nathaniel’s words—has a boat-load.

As they approached the island on the ferry, “there were dramatic shifts in the weather,” Becca recalls. “Through the low clouds, you could very intermittently see the stream of sunlight, almost spotlighting the ground. Suddenly the sun came out and it started to drizzle; then, as we were pulling up into the town, there was a rainbow.

“There is this kind of surreal, mystical atmosphere about the island,” she adds. “The ground gets really misty; there are these amazing cloud formations low to the ground. It’s very beautiful but very stark, and it has a really remote feeling.”

Adding to its mystery is the crater of Lake Kaali, formed by a meteor some 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. In a short story for her fiction-writing class, Becca imagined her grandfather being told about the crater when he returned to Saaremaa in 1928:

“But you would like Lake Kaali. Of course”—he let one hand fall in a resigned downwards arc—“it’s not a building, so maybe you will not be interested. But it’s a sacred place. A sacred place to the people who live here. It was made when a piece of the sun fell down, how would you say—”

“A meteor,” said August.

Lou said, now: “I think I might have been there before.”

 

At the center of the fairy tale is the castle, an image that surfaces repeatedly in Lou Kahn’s work. In addition to the Dhaka capital complex, his unbuilt design for the Mikveh Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia has a castle-like quality, as does the Erdman Hall dormitory at Bryn Mawr and his model for a chemistry building at the University of Virginia.

“Kahn’s fascination with castles was not limited to their interesting plan typology,” write Brownlee and De Long. “A lover of fairy tales, he was not immune to the power of these—and all—historical monuments, and he very movingly explained to several audiences in the mid-sixties how art outlived the particular circumstances of its making and exerted an enduring influence over human experience.”

“Lou absolutely loved castles,” says Nathaniel. “He gave me two books on castles when I was a boy. One sort of wonders: Where did that come from?”

No one can say for sure. But it’s impossible to ignore the stark, stern, medieval castle that still dominates the town of Kuressaare.

“It has a very bloody history,” says Nathaniel. “It’s definitely a fairy-tale castle, but it’s not a jokey fairy-tale castle. You can imagine them dumping pots of boiling lead off the battlements. It’s not prettified at all—it’s very archaic, and very appropriate to Lou.”

“Certainly, the castle, when you see it as a little boy, you’re never going to get that out of your memory,” says Anne Tyng. “The scale of the castle is very impressive. Nothing else in the town is anywhere near that.”

Which is another reason Alex painted him standing before the Dhaka capital complex.

“The massive forms of the mosque and capital building at Dhaka are to me like a modern castle, square and stark with corner towers, very much like the medieval castle at Kuressaare,” she explains. “I wanted to establish this link to his origins, since the portrait was to hang in Kuressaare.”

Key to the fairy tale is the test: some sort of crucible that the boy must pass through in order to emerge as the hero.

The story of Kahn’s burns lies somewhere between Greek myth and a Bruno Bettelheim-approved fairy tale. It also happens to be true. One day at his home in Kuressaare, the three-year-old Leiser became fascinated by the light of glowing coals in the open hearth, and shoveled them into his pinafore apron. It quickly caught fire. The flames seared his face and the palms of his hands. The pain must have been terrible, and there was little his distraught parents could do to soothe it. His father suggested grimly that it might be better if he died. But his mother said that he would become a great man because of it.

That Promethean event surely, at some level, shaped Lou Kahn. But like all such events, what matters is how the person who experienced it interprets it.

“For years he told me stories about his life as a little boy in Estonia, about the place where he was burned taking coals out of the common hearth into his apron,” says Nathaniel. “He also told me about what he said were Cossacks in the streets of his town, about his father being in the military and the military people stationed on the island, and then of course the amazing story of his crossing the Atlantic on a steamship—he did drawings for the captain, and because of that, his mother, sister, and brother were promoted from steerage to a slightly better cabin.

“All of those stories—to me it was as if they were images dancing on the wall. They had a place in my imagination where they loomed very large, very mysterious, and very otherworldly. Then you go back and it’s just a place—yeah, there’s a castle, and a street, but what’s important is what the human mind does with that.”

COVER STORY :
Journey to Estonia By Samuel Hughes

Portrait by Alexandra Tyng GED'77
Photos courtesy of the Anne Griswold Tyng Collection and the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania

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Self-portrait, 1946.

(Top) The medieval Bishop’s Castle in Kuressaare seems right out of a very Grimm fairy tale. (Above) With his Dhaka capital complex in Bangladesh, Louis Kahn created a spectacular modern castle.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/07