On Saaremaa there is a small crater and on my visit to [the Swedish island of] Gotland I had found a similar, somewhat larger crater lake at Tingstade, an ancient site of a Viking ting or court (from which my name Tyng is derived). I wondered if parts of the same meteorite might have landed, creating both craters. Such a possible cosmic connection recalled the fantasy Lou and I had that our remote ancestors had met somewhere in the Baltic. We imagined that my ancestor, a Viking chieftain, had carried off his ancestor, a Laplander princess. Lou reminded me of a Laplander with his pronounced cheekbones and the upward tilt of his eyes.

—Anne Tyng, Louis Kahn to Anne Tyng: The Rome Letters 1953-1954.

It doesn’t take long to sense the keen mind behind the voice on the phone from California. Now in her mid-80s, Anne Tyng has no trouble recalling the details of her significant contributions to architectural projects, and she has some remarkably intricate theories about the physical nature of the universe that those of us with geometry-challenged brains can barely get our minds around. She doesn’t talk much about her romantic involvement with Kahn, but she’s written about that already.

Tyng was a young woman of 25 when she joined the small Philadelphia architectural firm of Stonorov and Kahn in 1945, having recently received her master’s degree in architecture from Harvard. Photographs from that era make it clear that she was not only very bright but very pretty. Kahn was far from handsome, but he had deep wells of charm, energy, and sympathetic intelligence. Even the scars on his face seemed “part of a natural charisma” to Anne:


His wavy mop of reddish sandy hair was prematurely graying and his blue eyes, which tilted impishly upward at the sides, seemed to be on fire from within, compelling me to look beyond the scars. On swelteringly hot summer weekend charettes when Lou occasionally worked shirtless, it was hard not to notice how unusually broad his lightly freckled shoulders were in proportion to his slim hips. I had never met anyone remotely like him. He generated a profound energy—in his resilient walk, in the lively lines of his drawings, and in his ideas which seemed to take shape as he drew and talked.

—Anne Tyng, Louis Kahn to Anne Tyng.

She had not been working there for long before she became aware of Lou’s “unusually intense” interest in her, a “powerful physical attraction that I immediately realized was mutual.” That attraction was intellectual and architectural, too.

“Very few indeed understand the modern potentialities in the same way we do,” Kahn told her in a letter, and he wasn’t blowing smoke. He later wrote that Tyng “knows the aesthetic implications of the geometry inherent in biological structures bringing us in touch with the edge between the measurable and the unmeasurable.”

In Beginnings, Alex—perhaps not the most unbiased source, but certainly an informed one—writes: “During a time when Kahn was still unsure about expressing himself in words and in his architecture, Tyng recognized his creative potential. Not only did she validate for him the originality of his ideas, but she also encouraged him to set down these ideas in tangible form.”

Kahn and Anne Tyng collaborated on some seminal projects, including the Trenton Bath House, which Kahn considered a watershed in his development as an architect; the futuristic, geometrical City Tower (never built) for Philadelphia; the Erdman Hall dormitory at Bryn Mawr College; and the Yale Art Gallery. The latter’s “ordered geometry reflects the continuing critical influence of Anne Griswold Tyng,” write Penn professors David Brownlee (art history) and David De Long (architecture) in their massive biography, Louis Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture.

She didn’t always get credit for her contributions; such was the lot of women architects in those days. But there is no bitterness in her voice; not for the occasional professional slight, and not for the sometimes-difficult situation in which she found herself on account of her romantic relationship.

“I think that for Lou and me loving each other and working together became integrated and took on a life of its own,” she writes in Louis Kahn to Anne Tyng. “I felt strongly that loving Lou should be an asset and not a liability in our work together. That meant a healthy degree of autonomy with no possessiveness and special prerogatives.”

She got more autonomy that she bargained for when she discovered, late in the summer of 1953, that she was pregnant with his child. Since Lou was in no position to marry her, she decided to go to Rome to avoid the disapproving eyes of family and society.

“I had never felt more alone, uncertain, and filled with misgivings,” she writes of her transatlantic crossing. “Having Lou’s baby was not the breaking-away I was thinking of when I applied for a Fulbright.”

The letters Lou sent her in Rome are a heady blend of passion, tender concern, architectural gossip, and sketches. A few weeks after she informed him by a coded telegram that she had given birth to Alex, he wrote:

She must be certainly beautiful if she looks the slightest bit like you. If she is like me she may grow to become beautiful in other ways. If she has your wonderful ability and courage she will love to live and work in the creative field of the ever fascinating universe.

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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(Above) Anne Tyng and Kahn at 1728 Spruce Street, 1947, and Tyng’s proposal for Kahn’s Erdman Hall at Bryn Mawr College, which was called “the molecular proposal” by Bryn Mawr College’s president.

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