In 2004 I answered my kitchen phone to find George Braziller on the other end. After seeing Nat Kahn’s film, My Architect, he had called Penn’s Architectural Archives to find out whether there were any Louis Kahn projects in the works that might be worth publishing. As he put it to me, “We published the first book on Kahn in 1961, and we think it’s time we did another one.” Julia Moore Converse, then the head archivist at Penn, mentioned that a junior faculty member from Iowa had been spending a week or two at a time in Philadelphia over the last few summers, seemed diligent, and had what she thought was a unique take on Kahn’s architecture. Would I mind sending a prospectus, George asked? I did, and a few weeks later I found myself sitting in a midtown Manhattan bar with him and his editorial assistant talking about Kahn. Eventually we moved up to his wonderfully overflowing office, where he offered me my first book contract.
About a year later, Louis I. Kahn: Building Art, Building Science landed on shelves.
It was hardly George’s best seller–his original series of ten Masters of World Architecture books had been exceptionally popular in the sixties, and he was even better known for publishing American editions of European luminaries (I occasionally got away with saying I shared a publisher with Sartre). But sales weren’t the point. George was in publishing because he loved books. And along with literature, poetry, and fine art, he loved architecture. His 1961 book included a fantastically literate essay by Vincent Scully. The series’ book on Nervi (!) was authored by Ada Louise Huxtable. To say I barely felt up to the task is putting it mildly. But George had confidence in the book, and he put a stern editorial team on the project. I’ve never seen so much red ink, but every cut, every correction, honed the text and made my writing better. George arranged for a book launch at the National Building Museum, and for talks in Philadelphia and at Prairie Avenue Bookshop in Chicago. I felt like a real author, and I could not have been happier with the book. It was very clear to me that it was good because he made sure it was something he could put his name on.
The New York Times reported tonight that George died yesterday, at the age of 101. It’s hard to feel sad about a life that was so long and that was responsible for bringing so much fine art, literature, and architecture to appreciative audiences, but it’s also hard not to feel like one of the last true believers in the power of words and images isn’t with us anymore. To have a first book published by a company so devoted to quality was an impossibly rare bit of luck, and every time I’ve heard praise for the book I’ve quietly thanked him and his editors and designers who made it what it was.
“His driving goal and ambition,” according to his son, Joel, was “to bring good writers and artists to the American public.” Twelve years later, it’s humbling to think that the Kahn book was a small part of that mission.