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Louis Kahn was already 50 years old when he designed the Yale University Art Gallery — his first-ever major building. Yet as author and art critic Wendy Lesser explained in a lecture at the Yale Center for British Art on Wednesday, Kahn’s creativity blossomed during the last 20 years of his life, when he innovated with familiar materials like concrete and experimented with traditional concepts of space.

The lecture, titled “Louis Kahn as Artist and Collaborator,” touched on Kahn’s life as an immigrant from Eastern Europe, the growth of his interest in art as a child and the personality traits that enabled him to thrive in a cooperative environment. Lesser was invited to the center, which Kahn designed, to discuss her recent book “You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn,” and she spoke to a crowd of about 40 members of the New Haven community.

“The title of the book comes from a story Louis Kahn loved to tell,” Lesser said. “It goes like this: You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ The brick replies, ‘I want an arch.’ But you say, ‘An arch is too expensive; I could build a concrete lintel for much cheaper.’ The brick says, ‘I want an arch.’ To me, this story really shows what Kahn was like.”

In her talk, Lesser used Kahn’s approach to designing the Salk Institute in San Diego, California to illustrate his most compelling characteristics. She recounted that while Jonas Salk worked with Kahn to plan the complex, Salk had second thoughts about their final plan just before construction began — the gardens were too narrow and the buildings too wide, he said.

But instead of objecting to Salk’s criticism, Kahn saw the truth in his comments and agreed to halt construction to start planning all over again.

“Kahn was always very gracious,” Lesser said. “He said [starting over] gave him the opportunity to build an even greater building.”

The Salk Institute also exemplifies Kahn’s attitude toward his building materials, she said, calling it a state of “constant communion.” Salk and Kahn decided to use concrete to build the institute, but Kahn’s method of implementing the material was unique for its time. Together with one of his colleagues, Kahn figured out a way to perfect the pouring process to create slabs of concrete that felt like marble.

Kahn also wanted evidence of the process of manufacturing concrete to be present in the final product. Using the lecture hall’s walls as an example, Lesser pointed out the small, evenly spaced holes on every slab — remnants of the ties used to secure the concrete onto plywood. The same holes, along with ridges left by the plywood during the moving process, were also present at the Salk Institute, she said.

Lesser also emphasized that Kahn’s experiences with art as a young boy in Philadelphia were essential to his future as an architect. As a child, she said, Kahn saw that drawing was knowledge, a way to grasp the world.

“When he was in fourth grade, he was enrolled in a program for children with artistic talent consisting of art classes taught by J. Liberty Tadd,” Lesser said. “Tadd once said to his class that one who accurately draws a bird, or a skeleton, or a flower, or a mathematical problem has a more complete mastery of that topic than could be gained in almost any other way.”

Melissa Fountain, an attendee of the lecture, said that these descriptions of Kahn as a boy were some of her favorite parts of the talk. In the past, she added, she had never considered the relationship between architecture and other artistic pursuits, like drawing and painting.

Lecture attendee Daphne Kalomiris ARC ’12 noted the ways in which Kahn, who taught at the School of Architecture for 10 years, and his approach to design are still present in the school today.

“I remember as students we would come to the Center for British Art and draw,” she said. “To me, I think the way Kahn thought about space is his lasting impact.”

In an interview with the News, Lesser reflected on the lessons that developing artists and young people could learn from Kahn.

“For people still finding themselves, Kahn’s life says to do something you’re passionate about,” she said. “Selfishness can become a form of generosity.”

Kahn’s office was located in Philadelphia.

Will Wang | will.wang@yale.edu