Thrown in My Path

11 07 2010

There are no accidents whatsoever in the universe.

–Ram Dass

When I got the small book in the mail from my daughter, I was delighted. “Light is The Theme” is a compilation of photographs, architectural drawings and quotations about the design and construction of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, published in 1975. It struck my heart and mind in so many places and from so many directions.

As a photographer, I have taken a number of images of the Kimbell — it cries out to be photographed because of its texture, angles, curves and the way the light plays among those elements. It is really like a playful child, impossible to capture in a single image. But now to reach some of Lou Kahn’s thoughts gave me a sense of connectedness with the great architect.

“A great American poet once asked the architect, ‘What slice of the sun does your building have? What light enters your room?’
— as if to say the sun never knew how great it is until it struck the side of the building.”

Louis I. Kahn

When I first started reading (more like devouring) this small book, I posted something on Facebook about it and how appreciative I was that my daughter had sent it to me.  An online friend made a comment about Kahn that included a reference to his three families.  I didn’t know anything about Kahn’s personal life and hardly anything about his professional life, so I started to research him.

I found a movie, My Architect:  A Son’s Journey, online via Netflix.  The filmmaker is Nathaniel Kahn, the bastard son of Louis I. Kahn and product of Kahn’s liaison with Harriet Pattison, a landscape architect who worked with Kahn on several projects, including the Kimbell.  It took me the better part of an entire day to view this film because of various interruptions.  But I was stunned by what I learned about Louis I. Kahn.

First, the office of his firm was less than a block from where I had worked for a number of years.  I probably passed him on the street any number of times.  If I had passed him, I most likely wouldn’t have noticed him.  He was only 5′ 6″ tall, wore thick glasses and his face had a pocked appearance due to scars from burns he suffered as a small child in Estonia.

First Tangent:  One of the things I love about the building at the Kimbell is the unvarnished appearance.  One of the interviewees in the film said that they believed one of the reasons Kahn left the “raw” concrete in his buildings was because of the scars on his face.  How perfect is that?

The name of the book is Light is The Theme.  What is a photograph?  Merely the capturing of light on the media, whether it be film or a digital memory card.  A photograph can be edited, i.e., altered by changing the amount of light.

“Photography depends on light. Therefore, an understanding of light, what it is, how it behaves and how you can learn to use it, is essential to creating superlative photos.  Because the character and quality of a photograph can be altered by the character and quality of light, even the most-seasoned photographers puzzle over how a scene should be lit, what lighting angles to use for good results, and what exposure settings will bring out the best detail and tonal shading.”

(from “Light Photography – Writing with light” at http://www.photographytips.com/page.cfm/157)

Kahn is an artist, using light as an integral element of his buildings, not just an accidental play of nature.

I could easily list each of Kahn’s projects here and discuss the play of light on the angles and curves.  There are not many projects.  While he bid on many large projects, he was only engaged on a few.  A list can be found here:  http://www.greatbuildings.com/architects/Louis_I._Kahn.html   But there is really no point in that.  The point is that he was a deeply spiritual man who lived what society of the time deemed a morally bankrupt life.  He died $500,000 in debt, with a widow and daughter, two illegitimate children and their mothers mourning him.  But his buildings live in the light.

Second Tangent: I visit the Kimbell often.  I’ve been a member since I moved back to the DFW area in the late 80s.  There is an intimacy in the building that lets me feel comfortable, like going to a private place, whenever I’m there.  After my father died and my mother moved to Virginia, we would talk often on the phone.  On the occasions when I’d tell her that I was planning to visit the Kimbell, she would invariably tell me “That’s the last place your father and I went out to eat before he died.”  (Quite frankly, I wouldn’t mind my last meal on earth being from the little buffet at the Kimbell.  I’ll have the large plate, with the soup, salad AND quiche, please.  Oh yes.  I would like the gingerbread for dessert with a dollop of REAL whipped cream, thank you.)   So now when I visit the Kimbell and have lunch, it’s like my father and my mother are sitting there with me — under the wisteria if the weather is nice.

For me, the most moving part of the film was the last sequence where Nathaniel visited The National Assembly in Dacca, Bangladesh.  This was Kahn’s final project.  He died before it was complete.  It was built primarily of materials found near the site with local labor.  It is truly a building OF the people.  Nathaniel interviewed architect B. V. Doshi in the building.  Mr. Doshi asks how much time will be devoted to this project in the film.  When Nathaniel tells him he can only allow 10 minutes, Doshi weeps.  He says that the story of the building and the importance to the people of Bangladesh cannot possibly be conveyed in that brief time.  To me, Mr. Doshi’s tears told the story in only seconds.

Doshi tells how Kahn could “go into silence” and how among architects he is a guru.  It is really one of the most moving parts of a very touching film.

Third Tangent: My parents were seekers.  One path they took was the practice of yoga.  In 1971 they traveled to Rishikesh, India to their guru’s ashram.  When they came back they started making plans to move to India to live.  Because of some business concerns, they never did move to India, but my mother in particular always held the hope of ashram life in her heart.  After my father died in 1991, she moved to an ashram just outside Charlottesville, VA.  Now that I’m doing the calculations, she was 62 at the time — my current age.  After a brief time at the ashram she left — she said if she never peeled another carrot in her life again it would be a day too soon.  But where do I go now where I feel the greatest connection with my parents?  To the Kimbell.  A structure designed by the guru of light.

Light is The Theme, Comments on Architecture by Louis Kahn, Compiled by Nell E. Johnson, Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, Texas, 1975.

My Architect:  A Son’s Journey, a film by National Kahn

Photographs by Julie Delio, 2010, all rights reserved.

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