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Wendy Lesser’s Louis Kahn–a Must Read WINS THE $10,000 MARFIELD PRIZE!

Louis KahnThis review contributed to the momentum among Arts Club of Washington volunteer readers and referrals of excellence to the judges.  Lesser’s book was awarded the 2018 Marfield Prize.

Wendy Lesser has done a masterful job in “You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, presenting Kahn– “the man” and “the architect”.  Her portrayal is highly engaging as she draws the reader in to explore the fullness of Kahn’s world and his achievements designing buildings which won him acclaim as one of the great architects of modern time.

In animated biographical vignettes—chronicling his own exploration of his childhood past, his family’s adjustment to life in America, his education, relationships and early challenges—we follow Kahn as he finds his footing and pursues his enduring passion for the field he loved. We meet Kahn, the philosopher, who was powered by a zeal for creating meaningful forms and public spaces. He was often-remote, complex and admired. Those who knew him spoke of his eccentrically indomitable energy, which propelled him from one project to the next, through to his very last hours.

Lesser has written an intimate narrative; indeed, while grounded in research –with final “End Notes” and “Further Reading” — her book reflects a profoundly personal reverence for Kahn and his work.  She chose a useful format featuring 8 “life” chapters from Prologue to Epilogue, interspersed with one chapter each devoted to 5 of his seminal buildings–among others the famous Salk Institute and the Kimbell Art Museum.

Her rich use of language and evocative descriptions of Kahn’s built spaces, feels almost romantic; her sensory perceptions decode and elevate each building’s environment. For example, Lesser’s description of experiencing the sunlight bathing the Salk Institute building at different times of the day is mesmerizing; she alludes briefly to Stonehenge. Exquisitely observant, she conveys textures, patterns and angles and how the various buildings she visited breathe and feel—particularly to the humans who work and visit within their walls.  Kahn was acutely tuned-in to the impact of structures on the human experience of space and as Lesser transports us from one building to the next, we are captivated by a powerful sensation of being there in person.  Whether she is sitting outside on a bench contemplating the Salk Institute’s views of the Pacific Ocean and its stylistic attributes, or describing the structural innovations and brilliant use of space which harmonize both scientific collaboration and practical maintenance, we are both learning and “seeing”.  Lesser conveys her sense of awe in a way that feels intensely real.

I highly recommend this book as it is both beautifully written and richly informative. From his family foundation to his architectural achievements, Lesser opens wide a window to the life of Louis Kahn, illuminating her chosen 5 buildings in all their glory and allowing us a detailed peek into the fascinating life of this quixotic, intense artist who left a surprising legacy in revealed secrets and enduring structures.

I submitted this review to the Arts Club of Washington in nomination of author Wendy Lesser ‘s book to receive the annual Marfield Prize.  The Prize, also known as the National Award for Arts Writing, recognizes the author of an outstanding nonfiction book about the visual, literary, media, or performing arts. This $10,000 prize is designed to recognize excellence in arts writing for a broad audience and is one of the highest monetary awards for a single-author book.



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