Did the famed Louis I. Kahn design a house in Fox Chapel? | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Did the famed Louis I. Kahn design a house in Fox Chapel?

click to enlarge Mystery in a box: Did a famous architect design this house in Fox Chapel?
Mystery in a box: Did a famous architect design this house in Fox Chapel?

Filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn's 2004 documentary My Architect is a study as much in lost patrimony as in found architecture. The film examines the buildings of the director's father, Louis I. Kahn, an acknowledged master of mid-20th-century architecture whose works combine the rigid restraint of modernity with a more timeless and poetic sense of ancient ruins. Nathaniel Kahn was born out of wedlock in a relationship that Louis Kahn kept hidden from his friends, associates and acknowledged family. Accordingly, the younger Kahn barely knew his father, who late in life was internationally famous. The film explores the relationships among Lou Kahn's families, associates and clients, all of whom were invariably deeply affected by both the man and his designs.

So perhaps it's no surprise when a mysterious question of Kahn patrimony emerges in the Pittsburgh suburbs, not as a person, but as a house. Among the Fox Chapel area's increasing profusion of bloated McMansions, one residence from the late 1960s presents an elegant, compact and rectilinear alternative. In fact, with its distinctive, T-shaped windows in front and expansive glass in back, the building looks very much like Kahn's Esherick House, outside Philadelphia, an acknowledged virtuoso design. The details and material palette of the local structure are less refined, but the resemblance is unmistakable.

Indeed, a real-estate ad from several years ago, a recent local newspaper article and numerous recent word-of-mouth descriptions have all named Louis Kahn as the architect -- even though the house (unlike his other designs of that era) did not appear in any nationally published books or magazines. Regardless, reattributing the design of previously unidentified buildings to a revered master is a staple activity of architectural historians. Surely the man who concealed his offspring might also have lost track of a project or two over the years.

Not so fast, says William Whitaker. As curator of the Louis Kahn archives at the University of Pennsylvania, Whitaker compiled, in 2004, a definitive project list of the architect's works for publication. Kahn may have had an odd personal life, but Whitaker did extensive employee interviews and archival research. In our region, Kahn's verified works include the Tribune Review printing plant in Greensburg, and the barge for the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, which was formerly docked on the Allegheny River, Downtown. However, says Whitaker, "There is no Kahn house from the 1960s in Western Pennsylvania."

No matter. The house's current owner, 42-year-old Jay Good, bought the residence for the architecture, not the attribution. An Internet consultant with a background in painting and philosophy, he delights in the design's directness. "It is just a cube in the middle of the woods. There is nothing more modern-slash-minimal-slash-Thoreau." The structure had been an unloved, unsympathetically altered rental unit for a few years when Good purchased it relatively cheaply. He has gradually restored both building and landscape as a showcase -- for socializing, contemplative living and a collection of vintage electric fans: more quirky mid-century artifacts.

So where does the house come from? In the 1960s, original owner Ed Byrnes was a recent college graduate. His experience with his family's food-industry company gave him skills in construction. "I always liked homes and architecture," he says. "I was looking around for an interesting style." He saw images of the Esherick House in a magazine and decided to build one of his own. He was sufficiently confident in his construction skills that he hired masons, carpenters, plumbers and electricians to build a house under his direction as general contractor. All he needed were drawings. He hired "a guy who was head of the architecture department at CMU." It wasn't Paul Schweikher or Delbert Highlands, who chaired Carnegie Mellon's department at that time. Perhaps it was Robert Burdett, the assistant head in the late '60s? Byrnes, who moved out of the house in the 1970s to start a family, says he needs to dig up the original drawings to be sure.

So this is not a Kahn house at all, and that raises a number of questions about the nature of the connections between the architect, the client and the design of a house.

Who is the real father?

Regardless, the austere conception and compelling spaces still make an eloquent statement about Modern architecture. Perhaps the real lesson is to maintain a healthy suspicion about the sometimes blinding power of brand names in architecture.

Says Good, "This is not a true recreation of anything. It is an inspired house and it has inspired me."

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