Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Architects behind the Architects: Anne Tyng dies at 91

photograph courtesy Domus magazine.  You can read Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss's excellent, beautifully illustrated interview with Anne Tyng here.
According to Inga Saffron's fine obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Anne Tyng "struggled her entire career to be taken seriously." Much like Marion Mahony with Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin, she was a pioneer, one of the earliest female architects.  Without a doubt they had a major influence on the now iconic architects they worked with and for,  but their identities were subsumed in history.

At a recent lecture by Tyng at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, dean Mohsen Mostafavi revealed some of Tyng's history by reading from her book, Louis Kahn to Anne Tyng: The Rome Letters, 1953-1954, a collection of letters written during her year in Italy  . . .
I was the only woman to take the exams in 1949.  In addition to the written exam for state registration, an oral exam was required for national certification.  In Harrisburg, one of the three reviewers was so against the idea of a woman architect that he refused to speak to me and actually sat apart and turned himself away so he wouldn't have to look at me . . .  Any misgivings were apparently resolved, because I passed.
They was another complication that may have affected her hostile examiner.  Anne Tyng was a great beauty.  It would have been bad enough if Tyng had been the stereotypical mouse of male fantasy fears - homely, wearing eyeglasses, socially inept, a misfit, a female looking to become a man - but to be razor-sharp, beautiful and ambitious,  that's a toxic cocktail for any male chauvinist to have to swallow.

And there was still one more complication.  She not only worked with Louis Kahn, she was his lover.  (He was married at the time.)  She bore him a daughter.  Awkward.  Not just in matter of personal relationships, but in writing history.  Saffron relates that although Tyng kept all of the letters she wrote to Kahn when in Rome, Kahn destroyed all of her replies.

It was Tyng that turned Kahn on to the possibilities of geometry, resulting in their remarkable 1956-57 proposal for a Philadelphia City Tower.  In an interview in Domus by Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, Tyng relates "The tower is really just something I did . . .  Lou also worked on the base, so he didn't have much to do with the tower either. He didn't really grasp the geometry that well."  The unrealized tower is a stunning "geodesic skyscraper"   "Each level is identical," Tyng told Mostafavi, "and it just rotates in plan as you go up.  It kind of animates the building to some degree, I think, because it looks as though it might be in motion, possibly, if you have enough imagination for that. If you look at it, it almost looks like a women with her hips thrown out dancing . . ."

Kahn basically expunged Tyng as a generator of the design, which Tyng found out when she never received an invitation to a MOMA opening of an exhibition that featured the project.
He's a rascal.  He actually took my name off.  I had put his name on with mine because I thought it might be a gesture he might appreciate. And then he took my name off. So I went into his office and I say, 'Wouldn't it better if you called them than if I called them?' and he did and straightened it out.
Tyng's influence on Kahn is apparent in such projects as the Yale Art Gallery and the recently restored Trenton Bath House.  At the very end of her very long life, Anne Tyng was finally rediscovered, with an exhibition of her work and thought, Anne Tyng: Inhabiting Geometry, which opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia just last January, before coming around to the Graham last April.  I didn't get around to seeing it.  Idiot.
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
It was just last fall that Tyng, age 90,  went to Harvard for that remarkable GSD lecture, which, fortunately, was captured on video, and you can see it below.  (I would recommend you click on the video to view it on YouTube full-size.)

The feminine is more dominant for the moment. There are many women doing things that they never did before or given positions they were never given before or earned before.  They had earned it before, but never got it.

Geometry when you have it in school was never animate in any form, but I think that there are ways of making things that are flexible that have a kind of life of their own.  That aren't necessarily gimmicks, but something that is just basic . . . the kind of things I think architects can discover.  Something that adds function, adds dimension or some sort of quality that hasn't been done before. If you look back at the five platonic solids, we don't really use all of those .  I mean - there they are.  We can use them. The tetrahedrons and the octahedrons fit together.  They fill space.  They're really quite simple . . .  Out of that, you might make all kinds of interesting architecture that almost has a life of its own.


Steven Vance said...

I saw Tyng at the Graham Foundation last April.

Esther said...

The exhibit at Graham was interesting, but Ms Tyng's work was not easy to understand. very much her own unique view of the world.