Wendy Lesser is a journalist, author, and the founding and current editor of The Threepenny Review. She has written one novel and nine nonfiction books, on subjects as diverse as the Soviet-era composer Dmitri Shostakovich and murder as a sociological phenomenon. Most recently, she’s turned her attention to the renowned architect Louis Kahn. The resulting book, You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, is an engrossing portrait of both the man and the artist. We asked her about her research process, and the book’s unique structure.
You’ve written about so many diverse topics, including music, murder, the act of re-reading, and the artistic gaze. What made you decide to now pursue architecture?
It wasn’t about finding topic I had not done yet. My current editor wanted me to do another biography [after finishing the one on Shostakovich] and I was resisting, because the Shostakovich book had been so hard. But then I went to the Four Freedoms Park [at Roosevelt Island in New York, designed by Kahn]. I had already seen Nathaniel Kahn’s movie [about his father] so I knew who Kahn was, and I knew he had an interesting life, but something about the Four Freedoms Park spoke directly to me and I knew I wanted to do something on its creator. Little did I know that it would be an even harder project than the Shostakovich one.
Why was the Kahn biography more difficult to work on than the Shostakovich one?
With the Shostakovich book, I was using other people’s materials, and I just left it up to what was already out there, which was quite a lot. With the Kahn book, I had to go back to square one with everything. I talked to people who had never been on the record, I travelled to visit his works all across the world, including in Bangladesh, I sorted through his office papers, journals, letters, and so forth. The level of detail was incredible, and sorting through it all took a lot of time.
What was it about the Four Freedoms Park that inspired you to research its creator?
I was inspired by the narrative impulse behind it. I’m very attracted to artists who I consider to be narrative artists. Even artists you wouldn’t initially consider to be narrative, such as Shostakovich, have an narrative element to their creations. When I walk through the [Four Freedoms] park and follow its path, contained within it is a beautiful landscape trapezoid where you get to ‘the room,’ as Kahn called it. I felt like he’s taking us on a journey and we are meant to have an experience that changes over time, and is meant to surprise us at different moments. That suspicion that that is how he worked in general was confirmed when I started the research.
The structure of your book is very interesting. Apart from starting with his death, which we’ll talk about in a minute, you intersperse the biographical narrative with sections that focus on his most famous creations. What made you decide to do this, and why you do you call them “in situ”?
Those portraits of his work are also narratives. They were originally called interludes, but my editor intelligently pointed out that interludes suggested “small” and “by the way”-type interjections, when actually the works were central to the narrative process. So we decided to change name and came up with the “in situ” because it is an architectural term: Architects use it to say that a design was made on site. I also thought that the name fit because those chapters are written in present tense and the works themselves are presently being experienced by the reader..
Let’s talk a little bit more about the opening chapter of your book. You guide the reader through the last day of Kahn’s life in an almost novelistic fashion, and the incredible level of detail you provide made me feel like I was reading a detective novel. After his death, you return to a chronological narrative, and the “in situ” descriptions of his famous works. What made you decide to pursue this structure?
There’s definitely a forensic quality to the opening death scene. I found so much that was new about the death. I went to the architectural archives at UPenn, and the archivist brought over this huge unopened box that no one had opened before. It contained Kahn’s suitcase from the day of his death and his secretary’s log as they searched for him, xeroxes of obituaries, and so much more that I ended up using in the chapter. The archive didn’t include the police report [from his death] so I went to the police headquarters in New York and tracked it down. There were a lot of rumours floating around about how he died.
While I was writing the book, I was reading a mystery that was very cleverly withholding information. When I first wrote the chapter, I included his death early on, but then I delayed his death until the end of the chapter. That whole structure was inspired by a mystery novel.
Overall, my first thought was to have the book run in complete reverse order, because when I read other books about him, by the time they get to his late period – and in Louis Kahn’s case that’s a very important period – the man himself has started to disappear. I didn’t want to give the impression of a man hiding behind his work.
But when I was trying to write the book backwards, it was just undoable. It was really difficult to introduce important characters and so forth. But I thought I could still put the death first if I did an intro. But I always wanted to end with the little boy who became Louis Kahn. So the last chapter in the book is called “Beginning,” and after writing about Kahn’s [many love] affairs, the last scene shifts back to a moment of innocence when things are possible, things are opening up. That’s how the beginning ended up in the end and the ending at the beginning.
Did you have to do a lot of independent study on architecture while you were researching and writing this book? Was that an additional difficulty for you?
We’re all familiar with architecture. We live amidst it all the time. It affects us, we have reactions to it, we all have some sense of how the physical environment around us shapes us, so it was not so much of a leap for me as music was. Music is a much more ineffable subject than architecture, which just sits there and lets you deal with it on your own time. Some people practice architecture in a very profit-oriented way, as in: “This is my client and he wants a giant skyscraper and I don’t care how it fits with the rest of the buildings around it,” but Louis Kahn wanted to create things that had a relationship to the space they were in. He was very interested in workers’ housing, how streets and public spaces operated in cities, and how a building would affect the buildings around it. He was a public architect in the sense that a lot of the buildings he did were always accessible to the public or were designed for the public good. I found these two little pamphlets that he wrote in the 1940s, and they are all about planning. He writes about how to get together with neighbours and plan how a city’s structure will affect your life. Even in later life, when he was doing more singular structures, he was still very interested in a work’s relationship to the communal good. The Bangladesh National Assembly, for example, is viewed as an emblem of democracy by the Bangladeshis.
Did you learn anything during your research and writing process that surprised you?
I learned that all the women and children knew about each other [Kahn had multiple affairs and children with other women while still married]. The children had met each other, and for all her married life, Esther [Kahn’s wife] knew there were these other two children. The two mothers of the other children knew each other and spent time with each other. It was a weirdly extended family.
Why do you think the women in his life accepted this arrangement?
Well, women said he was an extraordinary man and that he didn’t live a normal life, and you had to accept that. Anne and Harriet [Kahn’s mistresses] were both designers and they had a feeling that they were participating in Kahn’s work. I don’t think they were victims at all. They were participants in this experiment that was a very unconventional way of living. Esther was less willing. She was not a designer, and she supported Louis Khan for a huge amount of his career. My guess is that there was a huge amount of resentment on her part, but she had invested so much in this guy. Philadelphia knew about it. Their social circles knew about it. It was widely known but never talked about in print. It was one of those well kept public secrets.
You visited all of the sites of his most famous works, including the buildings he designed in Bangladesh and India. What was that like?
In Bangladesh, they are very proud of the National Assembly. Even in New York I was meeting Bangladeshi taxi drivers and they knew the name of the person who built their capital building. It’s considered a great symbol for democracy, and when you go into the building there’s a little shrine of him with pictures of Lou, of him both as an old and a young man, as well a model of building and little sketches he made. They’ve spent money keeping the building up, so it’s in very good shape. The sad thing is that you used to see people doing exercises on the lawn, playing sports, and just using the space, but due to security restrictions in Bangladesh, the public is now barred from the grounds of the building. It’s terrible, what was a public building in the way that Lou envisioned it has now become this huge empty thing. The grounds around it are empty.
What were some of the biggest obstacles you encountered while writing and researching the book?
Harriet Pattison [one of Kahn’s mistresses] is the only surviving person he was involved with, and she never agreed to speak to me in person. Anne and Esther were already dead, so I couldn’t speak to them, but I would have loved to speak to Harriet. She did send me emails in response to very specific questions I had, but she is writing her own book about her life with Lou. I wish there was more of Harriet in my book, but it was an unavoidable situation and I worked around it as much as I could.
Was there a certain style of biographical writing that you followed as a model, or a particular biography that served as an inspiration to you?
I’m not frankly much of a reader of biography, but my friends Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan wrote one of Wilem de Kooning [De Kooning: An American Master], which I thought was a wonderful biography. I borrowed their idea of creating separate space in which you could talk about artwork by itself, separate from the life. They did that with the paintings. You have to find new structure for every book that fits its subject matter. For the Shostakovich book, music was my inspiration. In Kahn’s case, architecture was the inspiration.
Did you feel that you had to make a case for Louis Kahn as a notable person, not only in the history of architecture but simply as a notable individual as well?
With Shostakovich I had to make a case for him as an artist as opposed to this “either or” person [as either a supporter or detractor of the USSR]. With Lou it seemed to me that the architecture stood for itself. You can’t go into his buildings and not think that he’s one of the greatest of the 20th century. He’s also such a complicated figure, personally and psychology, that I thought to myself, okay, you better do this [biography] in very hands-off kind of way, you don’t understand him so you have to lay everything out in way that the reader can make up their own mind. But people ended up feeling like they really understood him. At times, when I finished one chapter where he’s involved with all these women, I was in a rage, I was furious at him, and I said to myself, he didn’t do anything to you! I felt really emotionally engaged but I made a purposeful efforts to not use word “I” once. In all my other books, my “I” is all over the place, but not here. I really wanted his life and his work to speak for itself.
Interview by Luisa Rollenhagen