Daily Features

Louis Kahn: A Memoir

By Simone Withers Swan May 11, 2021

In conjunction with our celebration of Louis Kahn’s 120th birthday this year, we are honored to bring you the following very special recollections of Simone Swan, inaugural executive director of the Menil Foundation in Houston, where she helped coordinate the studies undertaken by Louis I. Kahn for a new structure to house the Menil Collection. She was also Kahn’s last residential client.


                                                                      Louis I. Kahn: A Memoir

© 2021 Simone Withers Swan

The memorable moments began in 1967. I was living in Manhattan when the New York State Council on the Arts, one of my clients, assigned me to write up the booklet for its first annual awards of which Louis Kahn was a recipient. I was to meet and interview the ten awardees. Eventually a ceremony would be held honoring them, my descriptive brochure handed out, and mailed to legislators in Albany who funded the council. By 1968, New York State was dedicated to supporting the arts, pressured by Manhattan.

I chose to investigate Kahn first. He was my hero in the contemporary world of architecture. Kahn was the star with students and faculty at Columbia University’s architecture school where I used to lurk and later lectured on Hassan Fathy. It was with intense anticipation that I traveled from Pennsylvania Station to Philadelphia to meet the grand architect for the very first time. At the 4th Street station, a rush of childhood memories came to me: hearing once again the cavernous echo of travelers’ footsteps and voices on the granite surfaces brought me back to the days when I had crossed these halls many times while we lived in Bryn Mawr in the late 1930s just before World War II. The exalting height of the arched doorways and the grandiose scale of the building were a tribute to those who used it. Of this I was aware, holding my mother’s hand as we marched toward our designated tracks, usually headed for New York.

Louis I. Kahn in his office in the 1960s. Louis I Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Mr. Kahn received me gallantly at his office on Walnut Street, at the corner of 15th Street. We sat face to face at a small wooden table covered with a fabric which, from time to time, he smoothed, or he twiddled with a corner or a pattern in the weave. Nothing else was on that table. No paper, no distraction. He focused on the mission I was relating to him, describing the purpose of New York State’s very first annual awards for excellence in the arts, and the brochure we were to produce—one page per winner, with a photo. He gave me a dossier containing a photograph and biographical material with a list of structures built and unbuilt, then escorted me through the offices. Located in a fine brick building, they were modest, with scores of young and older people working at large flat tables and at tilted drafting tables. I felt slightly embarrassed to gaze at so many faces without acknowledging them, without an exchange of word as if walking through a zoo or a hospital. There was no time for amenities, and they were not at all inclined to be interrupted.

I was sensitive to the grace with which Kahn had described his work, including the buildings in Bangladesh and India. New to me were his famous axioms—“the brick says: ‘I want to be an arch,” or “the sun never knew how wonderful it was until it fell on the wall of a building.” At the end of our meeting he saw me off, neither of us realizing we would have many future encounters on a variety of projects. I returned home energized by a momentous meeting with a purposeful being. That trip triggered a consciousness of the enjoyment I derived from my work when offered luminous assignments such as this little foray of discovery. With a small and gifted staff I was running a public relations—or more accurately, a public information—office, centered almost exclusively on the arts. My clients included museums, university art departments, and independent filmmakers. Our sole commercial client was the Alexander Iolas Gallery with its selection of surrealist artists (who became my friends): Tinguely, Ernst, Niki de St. Phalle, Takis, Magritte, and Matta.

Louis I. Kahn with Rice University students, 1967. From Louis I. Kahn: Conversations with Students by Peter C. Papademetriou (Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), Architecture at Rice #26. Reproduced with permission from Rice University School of Architecture. Photo: Maurice Miller

While handling the press for the New York State Council on the Arts, I worked with its director, John Hightower, a bonus. A young, wittily self-deprecating administrator, he, too, enjoyed his work and did not hide his pleasure in learning about art, a new field for him, while managing staff and projects. On a wintry day upstate, we had visited Kahn’s large First Unitarian Church in Rochester with its elegant ambulatory and poured concrete walls. Soon after, an architect friend guided me on a leisurely tour of Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery addition on Chapel Street in New Haven. Its halls, and especially the triangular steel staircase in the cylindrical well, left me profoundly moved. I was being sensitized to quality—fast.

No new visit to a Kahn building occurred for several months until film director Roberto Rossellini and I, as envoys of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, founded by the de Menils, called on Jonas Salk at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. The Rothko Chapel was then formulating a symposium entitled “Human Rights, Human Reality.” Rossellini, who served on its ecumenical board as our one agnostic, admired Salk as scientist, activist, and thinker. He was to be one of the two stars of the eventual conference along with Dom Helder Camara, the Brazilian archbishop of Recife and Pernambuco, fighter for the rights of his parish of one million people. Salk, elegant, precise, and suave, shepherded us through the buildings he had so closely and lovingly worked on with Kahn. I perceived at once that Salk considered the collaboration and the result his life’s triumph. The Middle Eastern influences in Kahn’s work were becoming apparent to me at the labs, at first in the acequia (from the Arabic al-Saqiya), which originates in Persia —where the word for garden means Paradise—the narrow and shallow rill of water running the length of the courtyard to pour its contents, so precious to desert dwellers, into a lower basin, here facing the vast horizons of the Pacific. Eventually I read that Louis Kahn considered Islamic architecture the summit of perfection. Later I learned that the labs were one of Kahn's rare profitable commissions.

Louis Kahn speaking at the University of St. Thomas, November 2, 1967. Dominique de Menil in lower right corner and Simone Swan at Kahn’s hand. Photograph by Hickey Robertson, courtesy of Menil Archives, the Menil Collection, Houston.

Back in Houston, one day in April 1967 I learned by chance that Kahn had lectured on that date at the Rice University School of Architecture. I called. It was early evening. Mr. Kahn was out and leaving the next day. Could I please be informed where he was staying? By happenstance, luck, and persistence, I reached him, identified myself, and asked if he had dinner plans. He did not! No one was attending to him, sitting at his feet, drinking in each word? No, the lecture was over, it was exam time, he was free. I had the good fortune to take up the slack and we went out for dinner (Vietnamese, I think). Ebullient, Kahn told his tales in a gentle tone while I, like a child granted its wish, listened. A few weeks later he lectured at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, invited by the Menil Foundation, where I served as Executive Vice President. He was sitting on the edge of a platform, the reverent audience standing and sitting around him. A still photograph of this moment flits by in his son Nathaniel's film My Architect. Later, walking on the grounds of the university’s fine arcades, designed by Philip Johnson at his Miesian best, a student was overheard complaining that Kahn’s poetic lecture struck him as unintelligible—“I couldn’t connect the verb with a subject.” I smiled. Lou’s talks and writings mystified those just discovering his picturesque, unorthodox mode of imparting his feelings and convictions.

On this occasion, Lou Kahn had a jovial dinner at the Menil home with the habitués, a working tribe of luminary transients or students shyly accepting John de Menil’s enjoinment to hang out. These were the unforgettable days when the late Houston congressman Mickey Leland tended to drop by the house; when those dinners made of us family—certainly a community—academics, activists, ecumenists, artists. Lou was fortunate to experience some of those very rich hours in Houston.

John de Menil, Andy Warhol, Simone Swan, Fred Hughes, Dominique de Menil, and Howard Barnstone in Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome for Expo 67, Montreal, 1967. Courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston. Photographer unknown.

The inauguration of Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum was celebrated on October 4, 1972. The Menils could not go, but I checked into a Fort Worth hotel and prepared for the gala opening and dinner. The event, catered under tents in the gardens, was resplendent with lights and entertaining guests, some dazzling, from all over the country. Mr. Kahn, spotting me, said, “I want you to meet Esther,” and led me to his wife. He was in his twinkling element that night. After dinner I wandered into the halls of the most splendid museum I had ever seen anywhere in this country or abroad. Travertine walls, light-guiding vaults overhead, seductive courtyards spied from room after room of the Kimbell’s collection. I gleaned a few memories of the building that would serve me thirty years later in the Chihuahuan Desert of southwest Texas.

Kimbell Art Museum. north portico. Photo: W. Mark Gunderson © 2021

A year or so after, John and Dominique de Menil discussed the need to appoint an architect to create a museum for their art collection in Houston, now designated the Menil Collection. Strongly and without doubt, I suggested Lou Kahn and offered to approach him. Soon they were persuaded he was the man to meet. My next Kahn-related adventure was to invite him to Houston. He promptly agreed to visit the Menils and the site despite his constant trips to Bangladesh and India where he was working on the creation of the capital complex in Dhaka and the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.

I met Kahn at the airport and drove him to the de Menils’ house, built of local rose-colored brick and designed by Philip Johnson in 1950, the year after his Glass House in New Canaan was completed. Kahn was ushered to his room, then to the dinner table where he met John and Dominique. They hit it off. Unexpectedly, Mr. Kahn’s eyelids lowered halfway like shades and he nodded over his plate. He was sent off to bed with parental sympathy and told to rise only when he felt like it. The next day, he was in the kitchen at dawn, ready to explore. The four of us strolled to the future museum site at the corner of Branard and Sul Ross in what became known locally and in some jest as “Doville” (“Do” being short for Dominique).

In November 1972, I went to Philadelphia to retain Louis I. Kahn formally to design the Menil Collection. His first sketches are dated March 1973. In the modest neighborhood intended for the Menil Collection’s museum the Menils had bought eight blocks worth of properties, on Branard Street on the south, Sul Ross on the north, east to Yupon and west to Mulberry. Here they had convinced the owners to sell their bungalows, the Houston vernacular of well-built frame structures of the 1920s and ’30s, some older, some newer, offering prices so tempting that all but two families went along readily, and the holdouts gave in before long. The houses were renovated and uniformly painted the whitest white inside, and outside a gray chosen by Houston architect Howard Barnstone, with white trim. Eight blocks then boasted spiffy sister houses with some adjoining lawns, under canopies of the ineffably elegant horizontal branches of Houston live oaks. Some bungalows had been torn down to make space for the Rothko Chapel erected in 1970, others made way for the future museum, plus a half block of green park.

When we walked the area with Kahn in the spring of 1973, the building site consisted of two blocks of bermuda grass and no trees. Immediately he spoke of balancing, if not uniting, the chapel’s existing structure with the museum. He found the doorway to the chapel confining, the lintel too low, and the doors not offering a wide welcome. No matter, he would render the chapel more majestic by creating an axis from its opening southward, through the reflecting pool honoring Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, across the street—Branard—to a future gathering place, cafeteria, or bookstore. Immediately east of the Rothko Chapel where a lawn extending to the sidewalk still exists, Kahn proposed planting a grid of tall royal palms, which, with frond tips meeting gently in the breeze like hesitant fingers, would create umbrellas of shade, or shelter from rain. He did not decide that day exactly the siting of the museum, whether just west of the chapel, or in the next block, where the Renzo Piano creation now stands. I remember his speaking of rooms for guest scholars with courtyards between them, roof-deck balustrades consisting of plants in large terra-cotta pots, and, stuck in my memory, is his impish notion that the doorbell lights be of blue neon. I have ever since had a predilection for blue neon. Kahn’s eventual design for the Menil is described in the splendid, timeless book by Patricia Cummings Loud, curator of architecture at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, entitled The Art Museums of Louis I. Kahn (1989).

As Kahn was leaving after his first visit, in the hallway John de Menil handed me a check for $5,000 made out to Louis Kahn for his first consultation. John had to repeat that I was to hand it to Mr. Kahn. I found the gesture of extending money startling, as if a touch of indelicacy had entered into the picture.

Louis Isidore Kahn, Menil Foundation Museum Project, Houston, Texas. Schematic Site Plan (Menil #15),1973. Graphite, colored pencil, and charcoal on yellow trace paper Sheet: 17 7/8 × 38 7/8 in. (45.5 × 98.8 cm). Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston. The Rothko Chapel and Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk are visible at center right.

Dominique had the clear vision of placing exhibition spaces below the storage— an astute resolve as Houston’s lack of soil percolation causes frequent, destructive flooding. This relatively recent cataclysmic phenomenon is due to the overbuilding of skyscrapers that invite the rain down from clouds, which otherwise would skitter away at high altitudes north from the ship channel. Flooding was also a result of paving sprawls that had replaced rainwater-absorbing soils with impermeable parking lots, blacktop streets, and looping highways. Developers have altered the climate sharply and detrimentally since the 1940s and ’50s when Houston, built on a “mosquito-infested swamp,” according to the Allen Brothers who created Houston more or less as a real estate scam in an effort to pull the rug out from under the power brokers in Galveston. The Houston boys offered shippers cheaper rates to sail up the channel to Houston to load railroad cars there instead of in Galveston, convincing big business that it was safer to dock upstream due to Galveston's vulnerability to hurricanes. Until mid-century, downtown Houston bore no buildings over fifteen stories; swamps had been filled recklessly for the quick multiplication of development housing; and pollution from coal-powered plants fueling air-conditioning systems was not yet spewed by the metric ton into the atmosphere to raise urban temperatures and sharply damage environmental equilibrium. Dominique therefore wanted no storage underground, but only above the first floor.

Her brilliant innovation in museum design also required that works stored, whether oils or drawings, sculpture or posters, be identifiable upon crossing a threshold. One enters a large space where the legible labeling of drawers plus the hanging of works on walls, often with frames so close they touch, Florentine-style, inform you immediately that this is the Magritte room, adjacent to areas containing Matta, Ernst, and the other surrealists in the collection. Kahn proposed that a balcony from above allow one to look down upon the open storage rooms. I recall his words uttered casually and the look of wonder in his eyes, “This is a treasury space.” Dominique called it the treasure house, not quite remembering Kahn’s statement. Kahn threw himself into this jewel of a project, acting on the Menils’ commitment and devotion. Lou Kahn was visibly moved by his new clients. He told of his joy with this work when I would drive him to or from the airport. His reaction to the de Menils was not new to me at all. One of the charms of working with them as a couple was to fathom the spirit of their intentions, wordlessly, often humorously in a conspiratorial gaze or gesture.

On one chauffering trip, Mr. Kahn suddenly asked me, “What will you do with the piece of land at the beach?” I owned two acres of waterfront on what is called the North Fork of Long Island (Edward Albee calls it the “north tine”), a wooded bluff facing Connecticut across the Long Island Sound, that I was thinking about building on. I had questioned several architects, without satisfaction, but was not ready to make a decision. So I told him, “One day, perhaps soon, I will build something small and modest.” To my amazement, I heard Louis Kahn say in that car on the road from the airport, “Why don’t I do it?” I nearly drove onto the shoulder and into a ditch. Kahn do my house? Shocking thought, so unimagined that I tactlessly replied, “But I really want a very modest house!” He said—and this is word for word—“By a man who I hope can be modest.” I kept the thought with me, and slowly came to the realization that Lou Kahn was the architect of my first house on my first piece of land.

Louis I. Kahn. Sketch for Simone Swan House, Southold, New York, 1973–74 (unbuilt). Henry Wilcots Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.

The next time I met Kahn arriving at the Houston airport was June 4, 1973. He strode through the gate, his trench coat thrown across a shoulder, his mop of white hair bobbing as he approached with the energy of a man ready to throw himself into whatever came his way. On the highway, I told him that John had died the day before. The news was not yet in the media. After a long pause he whispered, “I should not have come. You should have called me to not come.” I reassured him that Dominique and I had discussed this meeting, and we had agreed that John de Menil would want us to proceed together with the museum; that John would have balked at any delay whatsoever. In the darkness of the car I heard how Kahn’s voice was choked and his words rasping. I could dimly see the road through tears so like a torrential Houston rain. As we gathered in the dining room, always a workspace outside of meals, he was much affected by the moment, yet I believe edified by our resolve. Kahn entered John’s room to pay a last farewell. We stood at the foot of the bed where he reposed, so still, his hands crossed on his chest, delivered from months of pain, his features once more serene.

And so we kept on working with Lou Kahn the next day. I think François de Menil was with us, the son who was to become an architect of great purity. He seemed deeply affected by Kahn’s presence as we soberly came to a few decisions before I drove Kahn back to the airport for his flight home. On the way he spoke of the death of his mother. He had received a call while in India that she was in grave danger. He had hopped a flight to Los Angeles, and, he told me haltingly, arrived too late. He never saw her alive again. “I was her favorite child,” he confided, “And she had decided to pass on to me the knowledge of the Jewish songs marking great events in life like death and birth. But I never heard her sing them. It was too late. She never got to pass them on to any of her children.” We walked slowly to his gate, and parted with a hug of solace, each suffering in a private way. Then, brightening, he called out “Next is your house on the Sound!” and promised to call me the following week.

Simone Swan in Presidio, Texas, c.1993–94. Photo: Enrique Madrid, used by permission of Simone Swan

I returned to New York, to my apartment overlooking the Guggenheim Museum’s rotunda and the reservoir in Central Park. Kahn called to make a date to see my land the following Sunday. It was a hot summer. My daughter, Vicky, and I went to Southold early Saturday to receive the grand architect. The ninety steps down the bluff to the beach of white pebbles had not yet been built. Land and bluff were scruffy with brambles of sinewy long-stemmed black locusts and choke cherries. I showed Kahn the top of the bluff, reaching it with the help of a machete. The view caught his breath as we gazed over the sea dotted with colorful sails to the coast of Connecticut ten miles beyond. He thoroughly approved and proposed to send his engineer to do a topographic sketch of the site. We had a picnic sitting on long grasses in a clearing. Kahn was wearing a dark suit, it was searingly airless in that northeastern jungle where concord grapevines grow a foot a day. We were slapping mosquitoes and flies. Overall, the picnic was lackluster, and even the photographs developed out of focus. But Mr. Kahn, cheery as ever, wrote us a charming note on a small piece of paper that I keep though it has thoroughly faded. That summer Vicky and I thwacked through the undergrowth. My son, Eric, sculpted negative spaces among the trees to reveal the view, one opening to the northeast, the other to the northwest, leaving a clutch of graceful, twining locust branches in between. I had an inkling to place the house not on the edge of the bluff but some hundred feet back. Toward the road, Eric had tamed the wilderness, yielding a fastuous acre of vegetable garden, which Dominique later admired emphatically. Kahn’s engineer came the following month, measured the land, and stayed for lunch. He said he could tell beforehand what Mr. Kahn would design and offered to do it himself. I registered a certain incredulousness and drove the man to his train.

On a clear cold day in February 1974, Kahn came to my New York apartment. He had traveled from Philadelphia to meet Eric who had come down from Boston for the occasion. Eric had suggested we collect sun and wind energy to become self-reliant and independent of the oil energy crisis, which, at the time, caused long lines at the gas pumps. Mr. Kahn had called the meeting, saying “I can learn much from your son.” We sat at the round oak claw table in the dining corner, the sun flooding in, white seagulls dotting the choppy navy blue waters of the reservoir below. Kahn doodled a wood tower designed to hold batteries, topped by a windmill. I still have the paper. He departed saying he was leaving for India and would have preliminary sketches ready on his return. I told him I was planning to spend a week in Haiti and asked, “Should I go while you’re in India or wait until you return before taking my little trip?” He answered, “Go now. We’ll have a post-India and post-Haiti reunion.” I had no inkling that this would be our last visit.

In the Hotel Splendide, overlooking the bay of Port-au-Prince in Haiti, the phone rang in my room. “Are you sitting down?” my secretary asked. Wild thoughts of my children raced through mind and body. She said, “Mr. Kahn died.” It was a moment of immense loss. Dreams of exciting collaborations building my house dissolved into grief. Columbia University’s architecture school held a memorial for Kahn attended by the architectural community. Everyone, slumped in sadness, mourning a grand architect of the century, seemed to have known him well. At the University of Texas architecture school, San Antonio architect Stephen Colley attended a similar service where a banner was draped over the door of the architecture building. He reminisced that this was the only time he had seen any adornment on the building.

Lou Kahn had become productive and known late in life, as happens often with architects. He died at age seventy-three. He used to say, “The more you spend energy, the more you gain.”

Simone Swan’s adobe house with its Nubian vault roof structure in Presidio, Texas. Photo by permission of Simone Swan

It wasn’t until a visit to Mrs. Kahn, Esther, at her house on Clinton Street in Philadelphia that I learned of the circumstances of her husband’s death. Esther, instantly friendly, offered me tea in rooms carpeted with the finest orientals, filled with books, and a piano at the far end of the living room. No art, no drawings. She told me of the tragic events. “He was to fly into Kennedy Airport on Air India to catch a train to give his morning course at Penn.” I cannot imagine why no student, friend, or fellow teacher was there to meet his flight. Or why was there not a limousine to pick up the exhausted traveler. “But he didn’t appear at school so I called Air India only to find out he had indeed been on the scheduled flight.” She said they were not in the habit of worrying about Lou since changes of plan occurred regularly. “After three days I called Mayor Rizzo saying enough is enough: Lou must be found!” Mr. Kahn’s body had been held in the public morgue in New York City. The police had taken note of his address from his passport, which listed the office on Walnut Street. No home address. They knocked at the doors on a Sunday, when the offices were closed, and a notice to that effect was filed at the police station, but misplaced. That is how Mrs. Kahn learned that her husband had suffered a heart attack in the bathrooms of that most ungainly of buildings, Manhattan's Pennsylvania Station, the new, low-ceilinged mediocrity, a barbarous replacement for the splendid halls of the station designed in 1911 by McKim, Mead and White.

My trip back to Manhattan contrasted sadly with the day I had first met Mr. Kahn in his office on Walnut Street. I saw Esther again, one last time, at the 1991 opening of the Kahn retrospective In The Realm of Architecture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Soon after the death of her father, I met Sue Ann Kahn, Esther and Lou’s daughter, a fine flutist and engaging young woman, straightforward and amiable. She enveloped me like family, inviting me to her concerts, trios, which I attended always with a lift of discovery at her choice of music. Sue Ann brought her half-brother, Nathaniel, to my apartment one day. He introduced himself as a filmmaker with plans and no money. Touched to meet Kahn’s son, I related a few Houston anecdotes. Nathaniel spoke of his days at Yale where I was then applying for admission as Special Student. He told me, “You must go.” So I did, enrolling in, among other courses, the history of modern architecture with Vincent Scully, who so loved Kahn. My second encounter with Nathaniel Kahn, twelve years later, was his triumph on the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Kimbell. There, in the elegantly narrow auditorium, he screened the premiere of his first film, entitled My Architect. Nathaniel, having known his father until age eleven through occasional visits and glimpses, reconstructed a vision of the work and life of Lou Kahn the architect. He interviewed cabbies in Philadelphia (Mr. Kahn did not drive), workers, students, women in his life, clients, and colleagues in India. Nathaniel’s film (which deserved its three Oscar nominations and should have won) is a chef d’oeuvre technically and poetically. I have seen it many times and now possess its DVD.

And so we celebrated Kahn at that October 2002 anniversary weekend in Fort Worth. It was a two-day love-in, especially at festive meals, all poignantly bound to each other by our affection for the man. Mark Gunderson, the Fort Worth architect and Louis Kahn scholar and archivist, caught my breath when he said that, on the flight home from India, Lou had been designing my house. My architect indeed.

View Simone Withers Swan’s full biography.

Thanks to W. Mark Gunderson for his assistance.

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