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You Say to Brick

Cover of You Say to Brick

You Say to Brick

The Life of Louis Kahn

Born in Estonia 1901 and brought to America in 1906, the architect Louis Kahn grew up in poverty in Philadelphia. By the time of his mysterious death in 1974, he was widely recognized as one of the greatest architects of his era. Yet this enormous reputation was based on only a handful of masterpieces, all built during the last fifteen years of his life.

Wendy Lesser's You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn is a major exploration of the architect's life and work. Kahn, perhaps more than any other twentieth-century American architect, was a "public" architect. Rather than focusing on corporate commissions, he devoted himself to designing research facilities, government centers, museums, libraries, and other structures that would serve the public good. But this warm, captivating person, beloved by students and admired by colleagues, was also a secretive man hiding under a series of masks.

Kahn himself, however, is not the only complex subject that comes vividly to life in these pages. His signature achievements—like the Salk Institute in La Jolla, the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, and the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad—can at first seem as enigmatic and beguiling as the man who designed them. In attempts to describe these structures, we are often forced to speak in contradictions and paradoxes: structures that seem at once unmistakably modern and ancient; enormous built spaces that offer a sense of intimate containment; designs in which light itself seems tangible, a raw material as tactile as travertine or Kahn's beloved concrete. This is where Lesser's talents as one of our most original and gifted cultural critics come into play. Interspersed throughout her account of Kahn's life and career are exhilarating "in situ" descriptions of what it feels like to move through his built structures.

Drawing on extensive original research, lengthy interviews with his children, his colleagues, and his students, and travel to the far-flung sites of his career-defining buildings, Lesser has written a landmark biography of this elusive genius, revealing the mind behind some of the twentieth century's most celebrated architecture.

Born in Estonia 1901 and brought to America in 1906, the architect Louis Kahn grew up in poverty in Philadelphia. By the time of his mysterious death in 1974, he was widely recognized as one of the greatest architects of his era. Yet this enormous reputation was based on only a handful of masterpieces, all built during the last fifteen years of his life.

Wendy Lesser's You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn is a major exploration of the architect's life and work. Kahn, perhaps more than any other twentieth-century American architect, was a "public" architect. Rather than focusing on corporate commissions, he devoted himself to designing research facilities, government centers, museums, libraries, and other structures that would serve the public good. But this warm, captivating person, beloved by students and admired by colleagues, was also a secretive man hiding under a series of masks.

Kahn himself, however, is not the only complex subject that comes vividly to life in these pages. His signature achievements—like the Salk Institute in La Jolla, the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, and the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad—can at first seem as enigmatic and beguiling as the man who designed them. In attempts to describe these structures, we are often forced to speak in contradictions and paradoxes: structures that seem at once unmistakably modern and ancient; enormous built spaces that offer a sense of intimate containment; designs in which light itself seems tangible, a raw material as tactile as travertine or Kahn's beloved concrete. This is where Lesser's talents as one of our most original and gifted cultural critics come into play. Interspersed throughout her account of Kahn's life and career are exhilarating "in situ" descriptions of what it feels like to move through his built structures.

Drawing on extensive original research, lengthy interviews with his children, his colleagues, and his students, and travel to the far-flung sites of his career-defining buildings, Lesser has written a landmark biography of this elusive genius, revealing the mind behind some of the twentieth century's most celebrated architecture.

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About the Author-
  • WENDY LESSER is the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, which Adam Zagajewski has called "one of the most original literary magazines not only in the U.S. but also on the entire planet." She is the author of several books of nonfiction, including the recent prizewinning book Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen String Quartets, and one novel. She has written for The New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She divides her time between Berkeley, California, and New York City.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    September 19, 2016
    Lesser (Why I Read) doesn’t merely chronicle the life of Louis Kahn, who came to America from Estonia with his impoverished family and gradually
    muscled his way into the pantheon of the 20th century’s most celebrated architects. She also manages to let the reader vicariously experience Kahn’s architecture, interspersing this biography with elegant vignettes in which she walks through his most iconic structures. Her enthusiasm for Kahn’s architecture is infectious. Kahn began his professional career designing housing for destitute workers during the Great Depression, and his subsequent architecture projects (always public: museums, churches, libraries, and government buildings) were invariably designed in the egalitarian spirit of bringing beauty to all social classes. These palatial concrete structures were unmistakably modern, but they nevertheless owed much to Roman architecture, and, like the Colosseum, utilize natural light as a nearly palpable architectural element. Lesser breaks from a chronological narrative, instead beginning with Kahn’s death and ending with his childhood, where she finally divulges the story behind the scars that so cruelly marked Kahn’s face. Exhaustively researched and poetically written, Lesser’s book offers a fitting and eminently accessible tribute to an architect who so ardently sought to bring beauty to the public square. B&w photos.

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