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Harriet Pattison on the Creative Process of Louis Kahn and Making History

Harriet Pattison on the Creative Process of Louis Kahn and Making History

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Nathaniel Kahn’s 2003 documentary, My Architect, was at its beating heart a son’s search for his father. The film, which was nominated for an Academy Award and will be re-released later this year, explored the complicated domestic life of Louis Kahn: three children, by three different partners, all of whom were kept largely in the dark about the existence of each other. But the film was as much about the work of Louis Kahn as it was about his personal life. And, as a result, it ignited a renewed interest in his buildings, both in the mainstream culture and across architectural academia.

Last fall, Harriet Pattison, Nathaniel’s mother, released a gorgeous new book, Our Days Are Like Full Years: A Memoir with Letters from Louis Kahn. The 92-year-old Pattison has had a long and distinguished career as a landscape architect. She apprenticed with the legendary Dan Kiley in the early 1960s, studied landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, and worked on a broad range of projects with George Patton and Kahn. After Kahn’s death in 1974, she opened her own practice. In 2016 she was inducted as a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. To celebrate the 120th anniversary of Kahn’s birth (February 20), I talked with Pattison, from her home outside of Philadelphia, about the book, her contributions to some seminal Kahn projects, and the enduring legacy of the great architect.


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Martin C. Pedersen (MCP): This is really a beautiful book. Congratulations on that. What’s the origin story of it?

Harriet Pattison (HP): My box of letters from Lou that I describe at the beginning of the book. I really had not looked at them for quite a time. And then when so many books came out about Lou Kahn, I zeroed back in on the letters and began studying them.

MCP: Did you read all the books?

HP: No. And the last one that came out, a biography, I didn’t read on purpose, until after my book was finished. There were biographies and wonderful books that collected his talks, but Lou had never written a book about himself, as Wright and Corbu had. But I realized that in his letters he was expressing his most personal, private self. They had value and uniqueness that nobody else had access to. They revealed his personality in wonderful ways.

MCP: You said you hadn’t looked at the letters in a while. Were you afraid to look at them? Had you forgotten about them?

HP: I hadn’t forgotten about them at all. I knew they were there, and I felt comfortable knowing that, because I had read them at the time, devoured them, and then put them aside, and just got on with my life. But it was when so many books came out about Lou that I began to feel disturbed, even annoyed, because of the image, the myth, that they made of him. 

MCP: Myth in what sense?

HP: Well, they took a dim view of his accommodation, of his domestic life. They were critical of it. That annoyed me because they took sides and were judgmental. And they couldn’t possibly reach to the inner thoughts that he had. They were also missing, in some important way, why we still care about him. The letters of the 15 years that I have, which were the most creatively productive of his life, followed projects from the beginning and carried them straight through to the built stage. None of those books did that. 

MCP: A lot of really accomplished architects came through his office: Moshe Safdie, Bob Venturi, Renzo Piano, among others. I remember them talking about Kahn, but not so much about his process.

HP: No, because they wanted to talk about their process, compare the routes that they had taken, which were different and veered off from Lou’s work. But I must believe that they were constantly comparing themselves to Lou’s work, even though they didn’t mention him much. 

MCP: You take each letter and narrate the context, working your way through it all chronologically. When did you get the idea that you were going to use the letters as the spine of the book?

HP: When I began looking at the letters, I realized that practically none of them had dates. They were scrambled, and it took me a long time to assemble them chronologically and get coherence. That’s where my narration came into the picture, because I initially planned to make it just a book of letters. But I found that I had to intervene to make connections, to give it a form. It took a lot of research at the Penn archives to establish the chronology and put them together in book form, in part because there were no answering letters of mine. They had disappeared. I have no idea if they still exist.

Dormitories of the Indian Institute of Management / Louis Kahn. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu
Dormitories of the Indian Institute of Management / Louis Kahn. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

MCP: I’m surprised that your letters weren’t there.

HP: Lou had kept them in a secret place in his office, and they disappeared. We have no idea what happened to them. But at this point, I hope they don’t turn up. 

MCP: You probably wouldn’t have written the book if your letters had been in the archives. 

HP: No, I wouldn’t have. A book of letters usually has two correspondences, so by necessity this book became a hybrid. It turned into something of a biography for Lou, covering those 15 years. In researching the book I discovered Lou’s life advanced in roughly 15-year timeframes: when he was an immigrant; when he found his career; when he entered marriage and domestic life; when he had a relationship and partnership with Ann Tyng; and then when we met. Each of those periods were about 15 years, which surprised me. I think the last 15 were by far the most exciting. He had abundant opportunities. At one time there were about 16 projects going on in his office, which had a maximum of about 20 people. It was a frenzied period, when he was at the highest pitch of his creativity.

MCP: Which projects was he working on in that period?

HP: Many of the seminal works: Richards, Rochester, Salk, Bryn Mawr, Exeter, Kimbell. But one of the things that the book does is look at some of the unbuilt projects that I think have great significance. For example, the consulate in Angola, the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem, the Palazzo dei Congressi in Venice, a project for an entire city in India, and the monument for the 6 million Jewish martyrs in New York, which was an extraordinary work of art. These were all projects that I was able to comment on because they come up in the letters. They present tremendous opportunities for further study. At the same time, Lou was working on the capital in Bangladesh and the wonderful—I call it a City of Brick—in Ahmedabad, India, which is now under threat of partial demolition. And then, of course, there was the beginning of the Salk project. I was involved in that. Also the Kimbell, which I worked on directly for two years with Lou, and the FDR Memorial.

MCP: Let’s talk about that project, because Four Freedoms Park opened in 2012, 39 years after it was designed. What was that experience like?

HP: That was very exciting to see. I worked on that with Lou from the very beginning, the first day, which was wonderful. We worked for over a year on that project. 

MCP: Landscape plays an important role in that project.

HP: Yes. I was the landscape architect. And right from the beginning Lou made that clear, when he brought the project into my office and said, “We’re on it together.” It was actually on his birthday, February 20, 1973. He laid out the plan, the topographic map, and photographs of the site. And we began making sketches. It was his final statement as an architect. Early on he did a small drawing of the Washington Monument and he said, “It’s 555 feet high.” And then he drew the Roosevelt Island site, in the middle of the East River, which was 555 feet long. And he said, as he pointed to the obelisk and the memorial, “This has got to equal that, only horizontally.”

He wanted to make a uniquely American memorial. Nothing like the memorial that had been designed for the First World War by Paul Cret, his teacher. Lou’s whole approach to it was architectural, but the landscape was definitely part of the inspiration. He didn’t want great formal alleés with a statue of a leader on horseback, facing people and gardens. He wanted an approach that gathered people.

We had hoped to have a grove of trees in front of the wonderful ruin of the smallpox hospital, which still exists. It was built in 1846. We had hoped to utilize that ruin, and to have a great entrance court of trees. And then I raised the profile of the island triangle, which ends at a point, where Lou wanted to put a structure. When I raised it, I brought to him an image of the hundred steps at Versailles, which was to create the expectation of monumental glory. But when you got to the top of the steps, which were a hundred feet wide—there were not a hundred steps—instead of looking down at a garden and seeing the statue of a man on horseback below, you encounter an American green surrounded by trees, where people could gather, meet, fly kites, have picnics. It would just be an American scene. They could also walk under orchard-like trees along the promenades.

Lou originally conceived a large structure made of stainless steel for the tip of the island, but when that first plan proved much too expensive, he in a short time came up with the plan that was ultimately built. It went through many changes, but at the end of this arrow that pointed towards the river was Lou’s monument, his “Room,” which is made up of massive granite blocks that both surround you and open out to the flowing river, going out to the harbor, the sea, and to infinity.

At the end of the green, Lou placed the memorial to Roosevelt, which was not a standing statue. It was his head, an enormous, marvelous bust of Roosevelt that faced the crowd in the green, the way he appears on our dime. The bust doesn’t focus on his disability. He just squarely faces us. But then you go beyond that sculpture into the room, where suddenly you’re confronted with a river view of the U.N., of the bridges beyond, and the sky. But you’re shielded in that room. You’re left by yourself, and it’s a kind of discovery that one makes at a memorial. In a way it all depends on you—when you’re confronted with reality, with infinity, and what your task as a citizen is. And then there’s the return, which is a different experience. The whole memorial is an extended journey, and it evokes contemplation, movement, and awareness of the natural world. It’s a different experience from what you might have when you stood by the obelisk in Washington. But I think it’s very moving. 

MCP: The book offers a real look into Lou’s process. His drawings are so evocative. Did all of his ideas start with a sketch?

HP: Lou would draw a lot. He’d make very quick sketches, using charcoal or a soft pencil. And there were a multitude of those drawings in the archives. You can see where we worked on the drawings. I would also draw, and Lou would mark up the drawings. It’s interesting: He was careful when someone was working on a project. He would very carefully take a roll of his yellow trace and lay it over and draw over the person’s drawing. He never spoiled someone else’s introductions. But he took off from there. He was respectful of our input and work, but would immediately adapt an idea and go with it, taking it beyond what you had imagined. That was the exciting part of working with Lou on a project. 

MCP: And were there an infinite amount of drawings and iterations?

HP: Oh, infinite. Most of them tossed into the wastebasket. Fortunately, people in the office would rescue many of Lou’s drawings. He didn’t treasure anything, because the drawings were his dialogue with himself. When he put a pencil down, it was his thought that came out on paper, and once he had it he moved on to the next phase. 

MCP: Would he sort of draw his way around the building, including details?

HP: He worked on details infinitely. Some of his detail drawings are fantastic. The slightest thing—a boat, a tree, a bird, a very small detail—would inspire him. There wasn’t anything too small for him to tackle. But he almost always started with a plan in mind, and then he would begin working from the plan and eventually get to details. From beginning to end, he was always drawing and conceiving, the smallest detail, and he was very conscious of scale.

MCP: When I think of Kahn, light is what I think of.

HP: Yes. The action of light, the movement of time, the change of seasons. You can actually see it in his drawings.

MCP: What was it like, emotionally, to go through all this material, to read the letters again, to remember again, to see all the drawings?

HP: Well, it was rather joyous to uncover works that people didn’t know anything about. I wanted people to know about these works, almost more than anything. But putting it together was hard, because I didn’t want to write about myself. I didn’t want to examine my life.

MCP: You were somewhat reluctant in Nathaniel’s film. He kept prodding, and you wouldn’t go there. It seems like the book goes there more. 

HP: Yes. For the book Nathaniel prodded me again, and so did Bill Whitaker—he’s the director of the archives. Both of them. They said, “You have to write about yourself!” I didn’t want to at all. It was pulling teeth to do it, but I’m glad that I did. So it turns out that the book is a biography of Lou and an autobiography of me, covering the most important 15 years, I think, in Lou’s life and in mine.

MCP: It had to have been an interesting experience emotionally just to go through all of this material.

HP: Oh, it was! It was thrilling, sometimes, to look at Lou’s drawings and to understand what he was trying to get at. That was very exciting. I also found a new perspective on the 20th century that I had grown up in. It certainly was a different era with different expectations, entirely, and much of that just burst open. Remembering all the things that happened in my long life gave me strength to recognize how things can change. For example, in my family there were six children. My brothers were given middle names, but none of the girls had middle names because the expectation of our lives was that we would move on to a new identity and have a domestic life and raise children and look after a husband. That was it. The idea of a career for us did not seem possible. There were very few young women who were really emerging at the time. And the ones that did were true heroines. It was not easy for women to discover how their lives could differ from the limited expectations that their parents and their society gave them. 

MCP: Were you aware during those years that you were participating in something historic? It’s an easy thing to see now—Louis Kahn is part of the pantheon, along with Wright. Were you aware of that, or were you too busy doing the work?

HP: I was aware I was in the middle of it. I adored Wright as a child, loved looking at his houses and always admired his work, and was fascinated with architecture. I don’t know why I didn’t dream of becoming an architect. But I knew what Lou was into, what he was doing. Very much so. From the very beginning I wanted to be in the arts, but I didn’t know how or where I could fit in. And that took a heck of a long time to discover. Lou helped me find my way to landscape architecture, and I was fortunate to play a part in his work.

MCP: What do you make of Lou’s continuing importance? He transcends eras, styles. Classicists admire Kahn, Modernists revere him. What do you think accounts for that?

HP: He’s an example of courageous undertaking and belief: that if you have something original, then you have to find a way to resist all of the currents that would deny you the full possibilities. When he was seized with an idea, he would not give up. Every job he took was always a search for the best possible solution, for everybody. Lou recognized the value of time—of ruins even, of what had been done before—and then building on that and cherishing it.

About this author
Cite: Martin Pedersen. "Harriet Pattison on the Creative Process of Louis Kahn and Making History" 05 Mar 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/958034/harriet-pattison-on-the-creative-process-of-louis-kahn-and-making-history> ISSN 0719-8884

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