Eric Kahn (1956–2014)

Eric Kahn.

SO WE'RE ON A PLANE to the Venice (architecture) biennale, a sort of long overdue honeymoon, so long that it includes our 7 year old son, and my wife is glued to her phone as usual, thumbs flying. Suddenly she is still. She starts weeping. I ask her what’s the matter. By now she is sobbing. She just says: Eric Kahn.

For most of Eric Kahn’s life and career the juxtaposition of his name and her manner would have been unthinkable. He was a god of joy and fierce seeker of beauty—sadness was banished from his presence. But I know by her look what has happened without her saying because over the year and a half preceding his death all that had changed. He had come to the hard realization that Architecture is ultimately a community property and that the discipline is promiscuous. And so his expected eventual legacy of boundless delight has instead become an immediate cautionary tale about the illusion of continuity and the cheapening of the surprise that constancy guaranteed.

Eric was an architect and an artist. Many architects also make “art,” and this is even expected of famous practitioners. Sometimes this material deserves attention on its own merits, but more often its value is determined by the status of its author as an architect and the recognizability of his or her signature. Eric was such an exception to this rule that it is almost impossible to decide the order of precedence in his two practices. In the end, though, after a dark year in the wilderness as a fugitive from the soulless Snapchat favoritism of the academy, and utterly undone by disappointment in a field increasingly drunk on the hard koolaid of easy digital dodges, Eric decided for himself to switch these labels, and declare himself the artist he had always been. He took a trip to New York and visited the studios of artists he admired, like Ross Bleckner, to prepare for the new life he would make for himself, out of architecture. He died a week after this trip.

Eric graduated from Cal Poly SLO in 1981 with a Bachelors of Architecture—a seriously vocational degree—but then he reversed field and went to study in Italy and work for the conceptual architecture firm Superstudio. When he returned to the states he reconciled these poles, working in Los Angeles with Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi on important early works of the Morphosis office. At the same time he began a parallel academic career, teaching at SCI-Arc, his eventual Calvary, remaining there until he just couldn’t take it any more, a year before his death.

IDEA Office, Y House, 2009, Tokyo.

In 1988 he established his own firm with his longtime teaching partner Russell Thomsen and his classmate Ron Golan, and a series of compelling projects followed at intervals over the years, including the Brix restaurant in Marina Del Rey and several residences in LA and New York, culminating with the acclaimed “Y House” in Tokyo. Since 2009 he and Thomsen had been working on an intensely personal conceptual project for Auschwitz that offered a suitable canvas for his passion.

A monograph of their work together was published in 1997. Their work has been exhibited and published internationally, and is part of the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Before his withdrawal from the academy and architecture Eric had been working on another monograph of recent work of the office entitled Driven By Dilemma, and a personal volume he called Proof of Architecture.

While he did fit some conventional labels, with an architectural practice and a partner, a loving devoted wife and dutiful son, as well as lots and lots of students, all whom he loved, before everything else he was a maker. He brought stuff into the world. His manner of bringing was ancient: like the first artist, he discovered his works. He found stuff in the corners of the cave, in the folds of the rock, teased out by the shadows from the torch, and then he tweaked it, buffed it, and presented it as a marvel, something precious to be studied, respected and loved. Eric was astonished by beauty everywhere, at all scales and in all media, whether it came from a ruined scrap of advertising or a shiny new building, a coffee ring or wine stain, the play of light on a newly plastered wall or the sight of my wife, decked out in a flowered sun dress: towards the end he was posting hundreds of instagram photos a week as if he knew time was short.

It was a thrill to watch him work: we are at lunch, he notices a wrinkle on the tablecloth while we are talking. He pulls out a notebook and pencil. He starts with a searching kind of line, feeling out the wrinkle, the pencil held loosely at the end. His hand makes a few passes until the line discovers itself and takes over. Then the hand pulls away to marvel, as if to say: look at this: I bet you didn’t see that coming.

We think of artists as willful but Eric’s practice was more collaborative, a conversation between the emergent piece and the maker. Heidegger describes artists as the ones most attuned to hearing the disclosure of Being, the best at listening and letting beings Be. Eric often referenced “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” in his teaching despite his understandably complicated feelings about the guy. In another lecture, Heidegger characterized art as a “way of revealing,” saying that amidst our general forgetfulness art might be the only reminder of the original sense of Being, as it was experienced in the west by the ancient Greeks who, not yet encumbered by the long history of western metaphysics that they initiated, first witnessed its remarkable appearance. But this awareness can be recovered, Heidegger figured, by those few artists who allowed their work to become a collaborative contest between what they thought they wanted and what the work itself revealed.

The line first appeared to the artist’s hand, which gave meaning to the work in appreciation. As an architect, Eric had always taken that meaning for granted, and felt the challenge was to keep open the space of revealing. But new digital tools were taking over the schools and undermining both that meaning and the hand discovering it. The community—stewards of the discipline—heedlessly followed these tools, institutionalizing the discoveries Eric nurtured into a sterile, meaningless difference, easy and alien. Architecture had stopped being constant and it was too late for art to save him.

Wes Jones is an architect, educator, author, and was a founding partner of Holt Hinshaw Pfau Jones, in 1987, and Jones, Partners: Architecture in 1993.