Washington, D.C. — The Embassy of Estonia hosted a book signing for Architecture Week in Washington, D.C. honoring architect Louis I. Kahn. He made tremendous contributions to 20th century architecture, designing such famous buildings as the National Assembly in Dhaka, Bangladesh; the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California; and the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
Kahn is remembered much more than a mere architect. In his book, “Louis I. Kahn – Architect: Remembering the Man and Those Who Surrounded Him,” author Charles E. Dagit, Jr. describes Kahn as one of the giants, not only of architecture, but of thought. Dagit, who knew Kahn personally for the last dozen years of his life, was an undergraduate at Penn, a member of Kahn’s famous one-year master’s studio, and an architect in the office of Aldo Giurgola before founding his own firm, Dagit-Saylor Architects, in 1970.
Although most of the book concentrates on fleshing out Kahn, Dagit also focuses a spotlight on Penn’s other prestigious faculty members, including Mario Romanach, Robert Le Ricolais, and Aldo Giurgola.
Dagit is an entertaining storyteller with his vivid recollections from his experiences with Kahn. The book is a series of stories. He writes about Kahn the architect, but he also notes this is the first book that speaks of Kahn as a teacher and philosopher. “The book is about revealing this genius to you and relating to you as a human being,” Dagit says.
Estonian researchers, Karin Paulus and Olavi Pesti, published an article about the origin of Kahn in 2006. H.E. Mrs. Marina Kaljurand, the Estonian U.S. ambassador, says various reference books suggested that Kahn was born on Saaremaa, the largest island of Estonia. However, she said no trace was found of the Kahn family, neither in archives nor people’s memories.
It took almost a century, she observed, to discover that it was not the Kahns who arrived in the New World at the beginning of the 20th century, but the Schmuilowskys. They changed their name to Kahn a few years later.
Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky was born in Estonia on February 20, 1901, by the old calendar, which is actually March 5, 1901, on today’s calendar. Although Kahn left the island at the age of 5, Ambassador Kaljurand said he left with strong memories that influenced him and his work for the rest of his life.
She said that August Komendant, another Estonian, structural engineer and long-time coworker of Kahn, spoke about Kahn’s connection to Estonia: “He still remembered the magnificent white nights, stony beaches and meals of little red potatoes and flounder. He often mentioned that he had at least 25 percent of ‘good Estonian blood’ in him and always said his country of birth to be Estonia [and not Russia as is sometimes mistakenly noted].”
“We knew already that he is one of the top architects of the 20th century,” Ambassador Kaljurand said. “Thanks to Charles [Dagit] we know now that he was also a fascinating teacher.”
Dagit is an award winning architect who taught at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Drexel University, where he is now a thesis advisor as well as conductor of a seminar on American Architectural History.
His book is available in hardcover from Transaction Publishers or as an eBook from Google. Also see his PCN TV interview.