anne tyng 1920-2011

I’m in Philadelphia this week, doing some research on engineer and philosopher Robert Le Ricolais for an upcoming museum show.

When I was finishing up work here on Louis I. Kahn: Building Art, Building Science, I was fortunate to have an afternoon with Anne Tyng, who was Kahn’s most important collaborator during the 1950s.  Tyng died last week, at age 91, and she was actively lecturing in support of a traveling retrospective of her work over the last couple of months.

For better or worse, many architects know more about Tyng’s personal relationship with Kahn than about her influence on him.  She arrived at his office in the late 1940s after working for Konrad Wachsmann, and she brought what would be a life long interest in geometry, organic form, and structural efficiency with her.  Her tetrahedral competition scheme for an elementary school formed the conceptual basis for the Yale Art Gallery and the City Tower projects, and she was a key influence on the deceptively simple Trenton Bath House, which Kahn regarded as the foundation for later, more sophisticated projects such as the Salk Institute and the Kimbell.  After winning two major grant awards in the early 1960s, she forged her own career as an architect and teacher, continuing her obsessive interest in mathematics and gently reminding subsequent generations of Kahn scholars of her influence and the importance of natural geometry and mathematics to his development.

My afternoon with her was spent talking about Yale.  Fifty years after its construction, she was able to elaborate on its complex tetrahedral structure and its detailing.  She was delighted when I pulled out the time cards from its time in the office, which showed that she had indeed spent nearly twice as much time as anyone else (except, of course, for Kahn himself) working on its development.  And while she complained about being slowed down by age, her mind was ferociously sharp.  It was easy to see what Kahn had seen in her as an architect and as a partner, and the afternoon was–by far–one of the most rewarding moments on that project.

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