Louis Kahn left Estonia as a little boy in 1906.
A century later, some members of the great architect’s “family through choice” went back
to explore his tangled roots and legacy.
By Samuel Hughes

When Alexandra Tyng GEd’77 set out to paint the portrait of her father that she would take to Estonia, she knew she had her work cut out for her. Louis Kahn Ar’24 Hon’71 had been dead for more than 30 years, and she couldn’t even remember exactly when she had last seen him. For complicated reasons—a wife who was not Alex’s mother, a lover who was the mother of her brother, and a demanding mistress known as work—he had been a mostly absent father, though by no means an uncaring one.

To focus her image of him, she pored over old photographs, eventually selecting two. One was of Lou standing among trees, his hands in his pockets. The other was a close-up, full of clearly defined light and shadow patterns, which she used for his face.

“Any posthumous portrait is much more of a challenge than a portrait of a living person, because you’re piecing together old reference material that is far from ideal,” she says now, sitting in her studio in the leafy Philadelphia suburb of Narberth, the north-facing light picking up her father’s coloring in her skin and hair. “Plus, you’re really invested in making the person come alive.

“I always try to depict the spark of life in my subjects,” she adds. “And, of course, painting my father made that feeling more intense.”

As many people now know, Lou Kahn’s legacy was not confined to his architectural masterpieces. He also had three children by three different women. The first was Sue Ann Kahn CW’61, by his wife, the late Esther Israeli Kahn Ed’27 G’33 (see “Growing Up Kahn,” p. 41). Eight years later came Alex, whose mother is Anne Griswold Tyng Gr’75, a brilliant architect who worked with Kahn and became his lover in the late 1940s and ’50s. The youngest was Nathaniel Kahn, who was borne by Harriet Pattison GLA’75, a talented landscape architect who also collaborated with Kahn and also became romantically involved with him.

Four years ago Nathaniel explored the family’s tangled skein of love and loss, DNA and design, in his poignant documentary, My Architect: A Son’s Journey [“All Things Ornamental,” Jan/Feb 2004]. The film appears to have been, on the whole, a therapeutic one for the family, and it sparked a renewed interest in Lou Kahn’s work.

But My Architect was Nathaniel’s movie. And while Alex spent hours on the phone with him while he was making it, makes a brief appearance in it with her mother and siblings, and admires it, she had her own journey to make. She had already written a book about her father—Beginnings: Louis I. Kahn’s Philosophy of Architecture, in which she noted that during their infrequent meetings, “a deep understanding passed between us,” one whose intensity may have prevented them from ever developing a “relaxed relationship.”

Her last memory of him is one in which she, then in her late teens, was attempting to reconcile the various sides of her brilliant, errant father.

“I remember going to his office to see him, and sitting in his office, trying to ask him a few questions about why he made certain choices in his personal life and getting very little response,” she says. “When someone asked my father a difficult question—one he didn’t want to answer or wasn’t sure how to answer—he would remain silent. Whether the silence was stony or thoughtful, I was never sure. Probably some of both.

“I felt that I was on the verge of getting at least a few answers out of him, and creating a family situation that was more open and honest, privately and publicly,” she adds. “But then he died.”

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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And we, in our presence, are instruments of expression. There is so much sense of it when you are in the presence of a person of beauty, and I don’t really mean necessarily a physical beauty—the beauty of a very old person in which is traceable, you see, the will to live, the will to live forever because of the light … of the promises of expression …

—Lou Kahn, in a 1972 interview with
The Pennsylvania Gazette.

Growing Up Kahn

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