It was not just the suddenness of his death that made it hard to realize Louis Kahn was gone. Something about the way he disappeared from the world—irregularly, mysteriously, with that strange two-day gap when nobody he knew could find him—left many people unable to take in the facts of his death.

For the California relatives, who learned about Lou’s death through a series of relayed phone calls, there was a persistent confusion about where and how he had died. Decades later, Kahn’s niece, nephew, grandnephew, and two grandnieces all thought he had suffered a heart attack on the way back from Bangladesh; their memories, that is, selected his much-celebrated Dhaka project over the rarely discussed Ahmedabad campus. They knew he had died in a train station, but at least two of them remembered it as Grand Central—again, a more appropriately monumental choice. (These erroneous details proved to be so persuasive that they even entered the historical record, for in a 1993 Toledo Blade article listing the highlights of Louis Kahn’s life, the Ohio newspaper included the line: “1974 – Dies of heart attack in Grand Central Station, New York City, en route from Bangladesh to Philadelphia.”) The West Coast Kahns believed, moreover, that Lou’s body, with its characteristically messy hair and rumpled clothing, had been taken for that of a transient for two days, until somebody finally realized who it was. Part of their distress had to do with this idea of unrecognizability: they could hardly credit that someone as famous as Louis I. Kahn could go unidentified for two days.

Among at least some of the East Coast relatives, a different story prevailed. According to this view, the New York police had included the wrong address in their initial cable because Kahn, for reasons unknown, had obliterated his home address in his passport. Harriet Pattison, a firm believer in this version, was convinced that he was finally intending to leave his wife and come live with her and their son. Nathaniel Kahn, who incorporated this story into his movie about his father, called his mother’s interpretation “a nice myth,” though he believed that the address had indeed been crossed out. Anne Tyng felt that Lou would never have changed his domestic arrangements, but she too credited the altered-passport idea, as did her daughter. “There is no doubt in my mind that the home address was crossed off,” Alex Tyng said, “but why, or what he intended to do, I don’t know. Maybe he had chest pains on the plane and wanted to make some kind of gesture or statement that would be found if he died before he got home. We’ll never know.”

But American passports, then as now, did not have the bearer’s home address printed on them. There was a space at the front where one could, if one wished, write in a home address, but the passport Louis Kahn was carrying on that last trip—the one with the March 16 exit stamp from Bombay’s Santacruz Airport—had nothing written in the home address space. The only address in the passport was on the vaccination certificate attached at the back, and it was completely uncrossed out. “I heard the passport in question has disappeared,” said Alex, but all the while it was in her older sister’s possession. Yet even Sue Ann had not bothered to dig out the document until she was pressed to do so many decades after her father’s death. Some mysteries apparently beg not to be solved.

The myth of the crossed-out passport persisted over the years, surfacing anew with each discussion of Kahn’s death. For outsiders, it was merely a curious feature of an incompletely resolved case. But for the women and children who had been officially excluded from the obituaries and posthumous commemorations, the story seemed to offer the consolation of a private, secret affirmation of their role in Lou’s life. And this is understandable. Whenever people die unexpectedly, away from those who knew and loved them, the survivors will long for a final message from their dead, and when it is not forthcoming, they may have trouble believing it was never sent. With someone like Louis Kahn, who meant so many different things to so many different people, the usual sense of loss and uncertainty would have been compounded by the mysterious circumstances of his death. Lou’s habit of secretly slipping off from one place to another, of being routinely unlocatable for an indeterminate period of time, had gone from temporary to permanent. It was as if he had simply slid through a hole in reality, moved from existence to nonexistence when no one was noticing. Yet if his absence was hard to grasp, it was nonetheless the only fact that could be agreed upon. He was no longer around, bodily, to hold everything together. He was no longer physically present to persuade each friend or loved one, each client or employee, that he was exactly the person they knew and wanted him to be.

This had practical consequences as well as emotional ones. When the funeral was over and the accountants finally had a chance to examine the books, it was determined that his architectural firm, Louis I. Kahn Architect, owed $464,423.83 to its creditors—mostly to engineers and staff, but some of it to outside suppliers and institutions as well. No one had ever considered Lou a good businessman; on the other hand, no one had realized that his financial balancing act was this precarious. Esther had no way of paying off the debt on her own, but after nearly two years of effort by David Zoob and a few other devoted friends, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill authorizing the state to purchase the Louis I. Kahn Collection for exactly the sum needed to pay the creditors. The Kahn Collection, including not only his personal and professional records but also 6,363 drawings he had made over the course of his career, was placed at the University of Pennsylvania, which had agreed to house it in the same building where Kahn had taught.

There still remained the question of his unfinished building projects. Several of Louis Kahn’s trusted associates, led by David Wisdom and Henry Wilcots, kept working on the massive Bangladesh capital project for nine more years, until it was at long last brought to completion in 1983 (the same year, incidentally, that Dacca became Dhaka). Marshall Meyers and his firm, Pellecchia & Meyers, supervised the final design and construction phases of the Yale Center for British Art, which was finished in 1977. Eventually, other architects would do the actual drawings for the Graduate Theological Union’s library in Berkeley, California, the Bishop Field Estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, and a second version of the music barge for the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, all based on initial plans sketched out by Kahn. And nearly four decades after his death, in the wake of numerous arguments, negotiations, and revisions, the FDR Four Freedoms Park would open on Roosevelt Island, in a form very much like the design Lou had unveiled in 1973. But all the other ambitious projects he had undertaken—including the Palazzo dei Congressi in Venice and the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem—came to an abrupt end. There was no one who could complete them as Kahn would have done. There was not even enough of a design, in most cases, for others to attempt to carry on his work. Those grand pieces of architecture, to the extent they existed, existed only in the mind of Louis Kahn, and they died with him.

Still, enough magnificent work remained to justify the storm of acclaim that arrived after his death. It had taken him a long time and a great deal of effort to create his few masterpieces, but their importance to the world—not only the world of architecture, but the world of ordinary people who occupy and use architecture—was never in doubt. Jonas Salk, whom Lou always described as his favorite client because of their fruitful work together on the Salk Institute, gave expression to this general feeling in a poem he wrote shortly after Kahn’s death and read aloud at a memorial event on April 2, 1974. “Out of the mind of a tiny whimsical man,” Salk’s poem began,

who happened by chance,
great forms have come,
great structures, great spaces that function.

Salk praised his lost friend for possessing the words of a poet and the cadences of a musician, as well as “the vision of an artist, / the understanding of a philosopher, / the knowledge of a metaphysician, / the reason of a logician.” Yet even as it commended Louis Kahn’s natural talents, the poem also pointed out how lengthy the road was that led up to his final achievements:

For five decades he prepared himself
and did in two
what others wish they could do in five.

Excerpted from You Say To Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn by Wendy Lesser. Copyright 2017 by Wendy Lesser. Published in March 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.

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