Tirade as the sincerest form of flattery.
By Charles E. Dagit, Jr. | In the fall of 1968, Penn’s School of Architecture was probably the most preeminent that one could enroll in. The prestige came from a stellar faculty and also the presence of one man, Louis I. Kahn Ar’24 Hon’71. Although not that widely known or admired by most architects—and unknown by the general public—Kahn was recognized by academics as a revolutionary thinker and an extraordinary, and perhaps perplexing, architect.
I was fortunate to be a student in the Lou Kahn Masters Studio that year. I was in an unusual position because, although coming back to Penn after two degrees was not unusual, fresh graduates from the architecture program were often not immediately admitted. I had also entered the class the previous January rather than in September, which made me even more of an oddity.
So it was that when September of 1968 came around I had already been Lou Kahn’s student for the previous semester. I was also working 40 to 50 hours a week for Aldo Giurgola, who was probably the most influential contemporary Philadelphia architect besides Lou. Complicating matters further was my wife’s delivery of our first son on August 28.
Alice had moved straight from the delivery ward to our new home in West Philadelphia over Labor Day weekend, and I decided to spend the early part of the first class day painting the apartment—architect’s white, naturally. I left for campus without changing out of my paint-speckled clothes. I had, as usual, let things go later than I should have. But then Lou wasn’t that prompt either. Plus, it was only the first day of class. What was going to happen? Lou would come in and give out the problem—no big deal—and then I could go home and finish painting.
It was a beautiful September day and I walked the 12 blocks to the studio proud to be a father, proud to have a great place to live, and certainly grateful that the painting was almost done.
When I walked into Furness Library, I encountered George Yu GAr’69, who also worked at Mitchell/Giurgola, along with several other Penn graduates and a collection of newcomers. We waited for several minutes with all of these strangers milling about, getting to know each other. The Penn students eyed the newcomers and gossiped among themselves, like wary animals sniffing and snarling to test each other. This anticipation raised the nervous tension in the room.
“Do you know who that is over there?”
“He’s from Sweden, I think. Pretty good designer I’ve heard.”
“How about that guy over there? Looks like a nerd, engineer type. Must be from one of those architectural-engineering programs.”
“What about him over there with the blond hair?”
“I heard that he had worked in Saarinen’s office for about a year. Then he worked for Pei, and that was before he went to architectural school.”
And so the conversation went.
We nervously waited, and waited, until suddenly the room fell silent as if on cue. Norman Rice Ar’24 ascended the staircase. Rice was one of Lou’s associates in the program. He had been the first American architect to work for Le Corbusier, the renowned French architect. Then along came Robert LeRicolais, a Frenchman and self-proclaimed geometrist who ran the experimental structural studio that we all took. He climbed the stairs with Lou thoroughly animated, perhaps telling him about some amazing geometric intricacy. Lou was nodding and smiling. The students, in loose groupings, stood in awe. It was like having Mohammed, Jesus, and Buddha all come to call.
Having known these people from the previous term, and watched them at juries for the last seven years at Penn, I was probably more sanguine. Certainly I was dressed that way.
Lou entered the hushed room. He walked with a sort of an understated Charlie Chaplin side-to-side swaggle. He constantly fingered his bulky glasses, adjusting them on his nose. The lenses were as thick as the bottoms of Coke bottles. He wore a black suit with a black bowtie; the bow knot was bigger than the remains of the tie that were leftover. His hair was white with a few streaks of black, and rather stringy looking—as if unwashed. The suit appeared unpressed, as if he had just flown from India in it, which, quite possibly, he had. Although he looked tired, he had a sort of Santa Claus twinkle in his eyes that was constantly alighting on the room and on the students.
Rice filed in on his left-hand side and LeRicolais took up position to his right. Then, Lou moved to the center of the room. He stood motionless for a moment, looking up, with his hand on his chin, deep in thought. Behind him, on axis with the room, were three large, simple oak tables. The room was tall, horseshoe in shape, with a gallery that encircled it. At the gallery were windows that surrounded us and flooded the room with light.
Lou, still gazing into space, approached the central table and, flanked by the holy entourage, sat with his back to the wall. Rice and LeRicolais then took their prescribed places at the tables to his left and right.
Lou placed his hands on the table palms down, fingers spread wide. Slowly he began to rub the table. He just sat and stroked, again and again, deep in thought, absorbing the grain of the oak through his fingertips. It seemed like an eternity. The students were gathered on the other side of the table in a closely pressed U, anticipating. But he did not look up. He continued stroking the table in total silence.
I have never seen anyone hold a group of people like that before or since. The tension in that room was charged. Here was one of the greatest architects of our time—one of the greatest thinkers of our time in our very presence—and he said nothing. He just sat there caressing the table.
Meanwhile Rice and LeRicolais remained motionless, as if they had been coached as to what was to take place.
Lou stopped. Slowly he looked up. The class by now was nervously fidgeting. Finally, he appeared ready to speak. At last: the great words of wisdom that students had flown from around the world to hear.
He asked, “What have you been thinking about all summer?”
There was a collective gasp.
He looked around the room and those twinkle eyes alit on a student.
“You there, what have you been thinking about this summer?”
Oh, my God, he is going to ask us all that question. He can’t. He will run out of steam. But I know that he never runs out of steam. I am doomed.
The student nervously cleared his throat and began to answer meekly. “Well … I, uh, was, uh, thinking about, uh, low-cost housing and that, uh, we needed to be, uh, thinking about, uh, low-cost housing.”
“Low-cost housing, hmmm,” Lou said in his high-pitched voice. “Low-cost housing, ye…ss, hmm,” stroking his chin. “Ye…ss. That is a good thing to be thinking about. You there, what have you been thinking about?” he went on.
I backed up to allow people to hide me. Oh God, I haven’t thought about anything this summer. What the hell am I going to say?
And then, with a gesture to another student, “You there, you.”
“Well … I, uh, was thinking about structure and how it impacts on the plastic characteristics of form-making and the geometric relationships that are inherent when using structure and the social implications of that geometry.”
“Ye…ss, structure, structure, ye…ss. That is good to think about. You there, what have you been thinking about?”
He continued around the room. Each student responded—some embarrassed, some shy, some ridiculously erudite, others pompous. One after the other went down with not more, but certainly not less, than a “Ye…ss, that is good to think about.”
Every so often Lou would stop and engage a student’s answer, sometimes refuting the thought or sometimes praising it as if there were substance to it. If the thought had real merit Lou would spend time elaborating on it, as if it were new to him, although you sensed that he had already been there many times before.
Hours went by. We still had not been given the project that Lou was thinking about for the semester’s work. I was not going to finish the painting.
Now the reality hit me; I was going to be the last. He would be left with my inane answer, and if I didn’t come up with something quick I was dead.
“Dagit, you there, what have you been thinking?”
It was even worse than I feared. He knew my name. I couldn’t believe it. How could he have remembered my name? I swallowed deeply. Not having a thought, I decided that I would respond to his question by asking a question. Always a clever gambit, right?
“I was in Cleveland during the summer visiting some friends and I drove back to Philadelphia. And on the way I stopped at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. I have been all over Europe and I have seen the cathedrals. When I visited the house I had an experience and a reflection and that was that maybe I was in the cathedral of houses. What do you think?”
“Fallingwater, Fallingwater, hmm, ye…ss. Fallingwater, ye…ss,” Lou began, ominously. “How does the stream feel now that it has a roof over it? How do the rocks feel now that they have been drilled into to support those cantilevers? How does the tree feel now that it has a beam curling around it? Do you think it will live? And that stair down to the water suspended on rods. He won’t touch the water but he puts a roof over it. And he cuts the rock to put a sheet of glass through it so that the window looks like it goes through the rock.”
Angrily, with almost a shout of pain in his high voice, he continued, “Do you think you can make a rock a window mullion? A rock is made from the stars, and he makes it into a window frame.”
This was not going well. This could be the semester. I’d known that Lou disliked Wright before I asked—but the house was not that bad, was it? A lump in my throat grew and my mouth went dry.
Lou kept going.
“He leaves the rocks poking out of the stone floor, clever isn’t he? But the rock was outside and now it is inside. The rock would walk out to the outside if it could. And the canopy from the guest house, Wright called that an arch? It is not an arch!” He slammed his hand on the table.
“It can’t be an arch. It is cantilevered from an angle that wants to pierce its thin concrete skin. You can’t hold up an arch like that. Arches are too grand; they need no one’s help.”
Lou stopped. He went absolutely silent, pondering, looking at the table as if somehow I had failed him. Or maybe Wright had failed him. He seemed drained.
I felt doomed to oblivion, as though I had just committed the ultimate transgression, and now I would be shunned, or worse. The other students would avoid me like some sort of outcast. I had just committed the gravest of sins. I had asked Lou what he thought of a Wright building.
The expression on my face gave all of that away: a mournful look, as if I had just lost forever a dear and cherished friend.
But Lou was looking at me with an impish grin on his face. His eyes alight with that twinkle. I had no idea what he was thinking. Had he just condemned a criminal? On top of being publicly humiliated, I was now completely puzzled.
His grin, however, grew.
With great enthusiasm he continued, “But you know what?”
A long pause.
Then in a very high-pitched voice, “It’s pretty damned good, isn’t it?”
Charles E. Dagit, Jr. C’65 Ar’67 GAr’68 lives in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. This essay is adapted from Louis I Kahn—Architect by Charles E. Dagit, Jr. Copyright 2013. Reprinted with the Permission of Transaction Publishers. A former Chair of the American Institute of Architects’ National Committee on Design, Dagit was recently recognized and honored for his career in architecture with the AIA Pennsylvania Gold Medal of Distinction.