One was born in humble circumstances in an obscure corner of the globe. The other came into the world destined to rule one of the most powerful and sophisticated civilizations of his era. Three millennia—and much else—separate Estonian-born Louis Kahn Ar’24 Hon’71 and ancient Egypt’s King Akhenaten, but the influential architect and Penn icon and the “heretic” pharaoh who created his own religion share some traits in common as well.
This issue’s cover story, “Journey to Estonia,” by senior editor Samuel Hughes, and frequent contributor Beebe Bahrami Gr’95’s feature, “The Radical and the Restorer,” present a striking study of two individuals who remain stubbornly enigmatic despite considerable efforts to unlock their mysteries and, perhaps above all else, insisted on making and living by their own rules.
Both men profoundly affected the built environment of their respective eras. The pharaoh had the edge when it came to bringing his ambitious visions to fruition, being pretty much all-powerful and so able to accomplish by decree things like constructing a new city from scratch, while Kahn had to contend with pesky obstacles like meddling clients, limited budgets, and bill collectors.
On the other hand, Kahn has gotten a much better shake from his immediate descendents. When Akhenaten’s presumed son, known as Tutankhaten as a boy, became pharaoh, he moved the Egyptian capital back to Thebes from his father’s city of Amarna and abandoned Akhenaten’s sun-disk deity, the Aten. He even went so far as to change his own name to honor the most prominent of the old gods, which is why he comes down to us as Tutankhamun instead.
By contrast, the three children Kahn fathered with three different women have each contributed to the preservation and burnishing of his legacy. Sue Ann Kahn CW’61 threw herself into blocking an expansion of Kahn’s signature Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, but the best known example is probably Nathaniel Kahn’s affecting documentary, My Architect: A Son’s Journey. In particular, the film’s stunning images of Kahn’s buildings helped spur renewed international attention—including a conference devoted to his architecture and thought on the Estonian island of Saaremaa, where Kahn’s family lived. It was this conference, attended by some members of his “family through choice,” that provided the starting point for Sam’s article as well as the occasion for a riveting portrait of Kahn by his other daughter, the painter Alexandra Tyng GEd’77.
Looked at another way, Akhenaten’s current revival—through a fascinating exhibition at the Penn Museum—also owes a good deal to his son. The anticipated opening of the international traveling exhibition, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, at the Franklin Institute was the impetus for the Penn Museum to mount its companion show, Amarna: Ancient Egypt’s Place in the Sun, drawing on artifacts gathered in excavations going back to the museum’s earliest days on up through the 1920s that relate to Akhenaten’s reign and the Amarna period.
This is also the issue in which we offer our annual Homecoming Coverage. In addition to our usual photo album and the Alumni Award of Merit Citations, we include a report on two panel discussions that marked the conclusion of a year-long commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the graduation of Penn’s first African-American alumnus, James Brister D1881.
—John Prendergast C’80