The symposium began at 3:00 in the afternoon of Friday, October 6, with the unveiling of Alex’s portrait of Lou Kahn in the Kuressaare Town Hall. An Estonian television station filmed the unveiling.

“It was a very emotional thing,” says Nathaniel. “Everybody just gasped at what a wonderful painting it was. Many of us got very teared up about it. There he was: The native son had come home.”

“I thought she caught something that was very special about Lou,” says Anne. “He was always really a very charming person. He had a tremendous appeal for everyone.”

Though Alex was pleased with the portrait, she worried about critical reaction. Finally an architect who had been examining it for some time approached her.

“I felt your father spoke to me,” he said simply.

“Seeing Alex’s portrait hanging there in the Town Hall of Kuressaare, you can’t help thinking of the little boy wandering those streets and wondering what his future would bring,” says Nathaniel. “And you can’t help but think of the wonder of how far one life can go.”

Later that afternoon they walked to the castle, where an exhibition of photographs from the Architectural Archives was opening in a vaulted gallery. That evening, My Architect, complete with Estonian subtitles, was shown.

The talks at the Kuressaare Town Theatre the next day ranged from the personal and professional to the mystical to the scholarly. One was “Louis Kahn’s Contribution to Architecture,” by Anne Tyng. Two panelists spoke about the intense professional relationship between Kahn and his fellow Estonian, the structural engineer August Komendant, who met Kahn in 1956 and worked with him on some of his greatest masterpieces. (Komendant, who later taught at Penn, also wrote a book titled: 18 Years with Louis I. Kahn.) Taken together, the talks were a “really wonderful introduction to Kahn’s work,” says Bill Whitaker.

The panelists had done a lot of research, says Becca approvingly. “They uncovered so many specifics that people had just been hypothesizing about before.” Until then, the image of the island in her mind was “kind of a fairy tale,” she adds. “Now there’s substance.”

“The only thing missing is that I wish my sister Sue Ann was there,” says Nathaniel. “If she had played a piece of Bach on the flute, which my father loved so much, it would certainly have made the celebration complete.

“It would have been nice if the three of us could have walked through the streets together,” he adds. “On some level, I think Lou would have liked that.”

“It would have been a really neat thing if my sister had gone,” agrees Alex. “But she was there in spirit.”

Afterwards, as they walked about Kuressaara and looked at its muddy streets and simple, clapboard houses, something struck Bill Whitaker. For all its northern European-ness, the town looked remarkably like New England, or maybe Nova Scotia. It was not so much a fairy-tale landscape as a quaint maritime village.

“For me, the whole castle thing is interesting, and something that Kahn was certainly taken with,” he says. “But I don’t know if he was that crazy about castles in the 1920s and ’30s. Seeing the landscape of Saaremaa, with the beautiful rolling hills, the very simple houses and very direct architecture, I realized that he had done many, many drawings of similar landscapes in Maine and Canada.”

Nathaniel expounds a bit on Whitaker’s observations: “If you look at Lou’s drawings before his European trip in the early 1950s, many of them were of New England towns and places in Nova Scotia. He has a nostalgia for them, to my mind. They were carefully observed, with a lot of detail, lovingly drawn. But they lack a kind of conviction or ferocity, the monumental simplification that he did in the 1950s—and they were lacking in color. He drew quite a lot of them in a nostalgic way.

“It now makes me see his later drawings from the ’50s in a different light,” he adds. “There is almost a revolt to those drawings, as if he’s saying: ‘I’m putting away those childish things now. I don’t need them. I’ve found my own voice now. I’ve discovered myself through my work, and I no longer need my nice drawings to comfort me.’

“I felt suddenly connected to the little boy that was Lou,” Nathaniel concludes, his voice filled with the same passion that infuses My Architect. “His stories of himself as a little boy were of enormous importance to him, but those were the stories the old white-haired man was telling. And when I was there, I could imagine the little boy who was Lou, staring around in wide-eyed wonder at the castle and the little mud streets—and then leaving this whole world behind.”

 

Back in her studio in Narberth, where her father’s vivid pastel of the Temple of Horace at Edfu, Egypt, hangs on the wall, a question is put to Alex. It’s more of an observation, really: Lou Kahn’s nomadic affections caused no small amount of heartache to the women and children and families he tried to juggle. And yet, had he not surrendered to those affections, Alex and Nathaniel—and Becca and Julian—would not be here today.

“The beauty of that,” she responds after a pause, “is that those situations change from being contained in one person’s problem or secret or whatever it is, to evolving to unlimited possibilities, with the next generation becoming adult and doing what they’re going to do in life. You can take something that was negative and make it totally positive. It informs you, but it can end up being a really positive thing. Because it gives you something, gives you material, gives you a story. Everybody has a story in their life—and you can do with it what you want.”

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