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You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn Hardcover – March 14, 2017
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"Wendy Lesser's You Say to Brick is easily the most complete narrative of Kahn's life and career, magnificently researched and gracefully written . . . Her account is packed with insights, of both the architectural and psychological kind . . . Kahn died far from the light. With Lesser's biography, the illumination is restored." ―Inga Saffron, New York Times Book Review
"Lesser writes beautifully and engagingly . . . What Lesser adds to the Kahn narrative isn’t simply a pragmatic understanding of his personal life. She allows the women in his life to emerge as far more than mere satellites to a great male ego . . . The success of this biography lies in the author’s fundamental acceptance of the messiness of human life." ―Philip Kennicott, Washington Post
"[Lesser] has an innate feel for Kahn’s architecture . . . Her biography is not the first we have of Kahn, but it is notable for its warm, engaged, literate tone and its psychological acuity." ―Dwight Garner, New York Times
"[An] excellent new biography of Louis Kahn . . . Wendy Lesser has done the architect a great service with her compelling and even-handed biography, honouring [Kahn's] belief that much can be learned if one takes the time to listen to the materials at hand." ―Jessica Loudis, Times Literary Supplement
"[Lesser is] too smart a writer to waste her time tilting against the windmill of celebrity architecture. Instead, she plays with the form of architectural biography to create a narrative that at once seems to accept the realities of our time and to transcend them . . . Lesser has accomplished something very important here . . . She has helped us feel the powerful emotional connection to space and form and light and materials that Kahn himself felt, and that is far more than most architects’ biographies manage to do." ―Paul Goldberger, The Nation
"Fascinating . . . This remarkable, readable and humane book pairs painstaking research with poetic interpretations. No detail is too small, as long as it sheds light on one of the 20th century’s most admired, influential architects." ―Claude Peck, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[A] monumental new biography . . . Lesser is a keen observer . . . In You Say to Brick, her subtle interpretations of conversational remarks by Kahn's intimates, and especially of Kahn's written ephemera, are luminous and deep." ―Thomas de Monchaux, n+1
"[You Say to Brick] offers an impressively complete profile of Kahn . . . This volume joins the 2003 film My Architect, directed by Kahn's son, Nathaniel, as an essential document of the architect's life." ―Julian Rose, Bookforum
"[A] superb new biography . . . A careful historian who also has a keen sense of the big picture, [Lesser] bores deeply into Kahn’s complicated life, ultimately describing his architecture with as much sympathy and sophistication as she brings to her analysis of his relationships with colleagues, clients, and family members. . . Lesser, throughout, makes astute and sometimes surprising connections between the details of Kahn’s personal history and his architecture." ―Christopher Hawthorne, Architect Magazine
"The book is superbly researched . . . Ms Lesser captures the charisma of Kahn." ―The Economist
"Lesser's book is lyrical and personal . . . Lesser builds a truthful, appreciative profile of Philadelphia's most prominent modernist." ―Philadelphia Inquirer
"Wendy Lesser has ingeniously organized her book . . . Her research . . . approaches the monumentality of Kahn's best buildings. Biographers who write about architects sometimes err when it comes to the treatment of the work but not Lesser." ―Jack Quinan, Buffalo News
"If [You Say to Brick] inspires us to do more, whether to seek out deeper study of [Kahn's] works on our own or to see the world with wider, more curious eyes, then Lesser has done something that the best biographers can hope to do but which only a portion of them achieve. That she does so with a voice that can appeal to the uninitiated as well as the scholar makes You Say to Brick all the more impressive, and a deep source of inspiration." ―Spectrum Culture
"[You Say to Brick is] a riveting account of Kahn's life . . . Lesser’s biography, at once reverential and bracingly candid, serves as a powerful epitaph to Kahn’s achievements." ―Julia Klein, The Forward
"[Lesser is] a critic of unusual scope . . . [A]n intriguing speculation about the inner drives that propelled [Kahn] to brilliant design and to numerous affairs, illegitimate children, and chaotic business practices." ―Harvard Magazine
"Stellar . . . Extensively researched . . . A splendid biography that penetrates the inner lives of Kahn's buildings as well as the inner life of their creator." ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"[A] supremely enlightening and involving chronicle of an avid and complicated creative life . . . Lesser tracks with clarity and drama each demanding phase in Kahn's evolution as an ardent and magnetic architect and teacher" ―Booklist (starred review)
"Exhaustively researched and poetically written, [You Say to Brick] offers a fitting and eminently accessible tribute to an architect who so ardently sought to bring beauty to the public square." –Publishers Weekly
“Louis Kahn has long eluded serious attention. He needed careful, fierce, and passionate study to bring alive his remarkable life and work. In Wendy Lesser he has found the perfect interlocutor. This book is a triumph.”―Edmund de Waal
“Louis Kahn was in many ways the philosopher king of American architecture, and the masterful buildings he produced exert a hold on us that is even more powerful now than at his death more than four decades ago. Wendy Lesser’s You Say to Brick combines a compelling narrative of Kahn’s unusual life with a sensitive and knowing analysis of his extraordinary architecture. Few architectural biographies manage to be engaging, thought-provoking, and uplifting at the same time, but this one does.” ―Paul Goldberger
“We are always intrigued, with great artists we respect, to learn how and what about their personal lives inspired their work. Wendy Lesser’s You Say to Brick succeeds in realizing Kahn’s long journey from his youth in Europe to his late recognition as one of the great architects of the twentieth century.” ―Moshe Safdie
“The American architect Louis Kahn was a luminous man, full of secrets, who made some of the most beautiful buildings of the modern era. He was powerfully drawn to the romance of beginnings (in his love affairs no less than in his art), but he also understood modern concrete. In You Say To Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, Wendy Lesser knows that she has an important but also wonderfully tricky subject on her hands. She brings to life the public art and the private man in ways that do admirable justice to both.” ―Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
"I was very pleased to read this wonderfully written book. It took me back to the memories of my time and conversation with Lou. I must add that this book has indeed recorded and documented his life very well, and it brings the history of Kahn's work and life alive." ―Balkrishna Doshi
About the Author
Wendy Lesser is the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review and the author of a novel and several previous books of nonfiction, including Why I Read (FSG, 2014), which garnered rave reviews from coast to coast. She has written for The New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. To complete this biography, she was awarded one of the first National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar awards, the only one given to a Californian in 2015.
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She masterfully blends his complicated life and personal relationships (a marriage, a child by that marriage, and at least two extra marital affairs and two children from those affairs) with a thorough examination of four of his masterpieces; the Salk Institute, the Kimbell Art Museum, the Phillips Exeter Library, the National Assembly Building in Dacca, Bangladesh, and the Indian Institute of Management in India. She also analyses his two Yale art museums; describing the Library Court in the British Museum as “the acme of a gentlemen’s-club perfection . . .[punctuated] by a massive concrete cylinder… a giant piece of the ancient world plunked down in an upscale London interior.” Lesser is humorous, rhapsodic and even reverential in personalizing one of this country’s artistic geniuses.
This book will send you scanning the Internet for videos and images of his works and watching his son’s mesmerizing movie “My Architect.” This is biography at its finest.
Where the book falls drastically short is its evaluation of his accomplishment. If you picked up this book and had never seen a Louis Kahn building in any other context, you would be seriously befuddled as to what the fuss was about. The project descriptions are impressionistic recounts of the experience of walking through the buildings – which works well on occasion, such as her evaluation of the Salk Institute, and then at other times such as the capital complex at Dacca should not have even been tried. Although there is some discussion of Kahn’s contemporaries, there is really nothing here about what formally set Kahn apart from the work of his time. In the same respect, making simple claims that he was influenced by Roman ruins is not at all useful without demonstrating how and to what effect.
Although Lesser clearly admire’s Kahn’s work, she unfortunately lacks the gift to convey and share what it is that Kahn accomplished. There is barely any photography, the photographs that are there are fairly terrible, and no plans or sections of his buildings are included. It’s not much of an exaggeration say all of this would be as head-scratching as a biography of Picasso, for instance, that discusses his life but for his art included only a handful of grainy black and white images.
Fortunately there are good books out there such as “Louis I Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture” which correct this balance – having excellent discussions of the buildings as well as careful visual documentation. Without pairing this biography with an additional work such as that, the story of what Louis Kahn accomplished would be left here incomplete.
Recommended to anyone who is interested in art, architecture, collaboration in a creative spheres.