The Fight To Save Louis Kahn’s Boat

A Last-Minute Pitch by Yo-Yo Ma May Help To Res­cue Louis Kahn’s Ves­sel

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Talya Zax

“How im­por­tant is your thumb on your right hand?” Richard Saul Wur­man asked, be­fore he an­swered his own ques­tion: “It’s not as im­por­tant as your whole arm, or your lungs.”

“Lou’s rep­u­ta­tion as a great ar­chi­tect will live with­out this boat. But it’s re­ally nice that it is rec­og­nized.”

Wur­man, an au­thor, ar­chi­tect, and founder of the TED con­fer­ence, was speak­ing with me about Louis Kahn’s mu­sic boat, “Point Coun­ter­point II,” which Kahn built for the Amer­i­can Wind Sym­phony Orches­tra.

Kahn, the Philadel­phia-based Jewish ar­chi­tect best known for Dhaka’s Par­lia­ment Build­ing in Bangladesh, the south­ern Cal­i­for­nia Salk In­sti­tute, and the Yale Art Gallery, passed away in 1974. The boat, which cap­tain and con­duc­tor Robert Boudreau com­mis­sioned from Kahn in the 1960s, has hosted per­for­mances across the waterways

‘This thing’s from Mars!’

of the United States and Europe, as well as in the Baltic, Ir­ish and Caribbean seas. Now, as Boudreau en­ters his nineties, he needs to find the boat a new home, or it will face destruc­tion.

Those facts might have re­mained hid­den had it not been for cel­list Yo-Yo Ma’s im­pas­sioned plea, in the New York Re­view of Books, for the boat’s sal­va­tion. “It sails as a pow­er­ful, liv­ing tes­ta­ment to Amer­i­can cre­ativ­ity and to the el­e­men­tal role that cul­ture plays in hu­man life,” he wrote.

Wur­man has a unique ap­pre­ci­a­tion for that tes­ta­ment. After all, “Point Coun­ter­point II” had, as he said, “an older brother.” Wur­man, al­most im­me­di­ately upon en­ter­ing Kahn’s em­ploy­ment in his early twen­ties, over­saw that ear­lier boat’s construction.

That boat, which Wur­man said went

un­named, was built for Eng­land’s River Thames. Also con­structed as a plat­form for the Amer­i­can Wind Sym­phony Orches­tra, it played host to con­certs from London’s Bat­tersea to Ox­ford’s Christchurch Meadow.

“The boat pulled up to the shore, and you were on the land and heard the con­certs,” Wur­man said. “I thought it was fine. We had a good sound­ing board and good light­ing. And a wind sym­phony has re­ally good sound from it; it’s not sub­tle.” But “Point Coun­ter­point II,” which he be­lieves he saw first in New Haven, was “much bet­ter, much more beau­ti­ful, much more com­plex, lovely.”

“To me this boat has two ma­jor sig­nif­i­cances in Louis Kahn’s life,” said Wendy Lesser, the lit­er­ary critic and au­thor of “You Say To Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn,” pub­lished ear­lier this year. “One has to do with boats, and the other has to do with mu­sic.”

Kahn’s ven­tures as a ship­wright were con­strained to his two mu­sic barges. But his early life was shaped by boats and wa­ter. Born on the Es­to­nian is­land of Ösel, he was, Lesser said, con­stantly in con­tact with boats.

At 5, Kahn im­mi­grated to the United States. On a ship from Liverpool to Philadel­phia, Lesser said, he drew pic­tures of the other boats that passed.

“The cap­tain ap­par­ently liked his pic­ture so much that they got or­anges for the rest of the trip.”

Kahn’s mother was a harpist, and while Kahn him­self never learned to read mu­sic, “he could re­pro­duce al­most any tune that he heard on the pi­ano,” said Lesser. As a teenager, he em­ployed that skill as a mu­si­cal ac­com­pa­nist at Philadel­phia movie theaters, earn­ing much-needed in­come for his fam­ily. And, Lesser said, he per­formed at so­cial gath­er­ings, tak­ing to the key­board at din­ner par­ties un­til “the month be­fore he died.”

In the 2003 doc­u­men­tary “My Ar­chi­tect,” Nathaniel Kahn, one of Kahn’s three chil­dren (by three dif­fer­ent moth­ers, a story for another time) vis­its Boudreau on “Point Coun­ter­point II.” The boat was sleek, fu­tur­is­tic, pat­terned with vast round win­dows: “Peo­ple say ‘this thing’s from Mars!’” Boudreau ex­claims. Mu­si­cians oc­cupy the ship like a jun­gle gym, some prac­tice in in­door prac­tice rooms, and the rest on any free sur­face avail­able on its deck. Later, as they give a con­cert from its opened stage, pur­ple lights il­lu­mi­nate the face of the barge, and fire­works capped the per­for­mance. There is some­thing of the pageant to it, a free-spir­ited en­ter­tain­ment that feels, de­spite its Euro­pean ori­gins, en­tirely Amer­i­can.

Luck­ily for fans of the boat, it may yet sur­vive. After Ma made his plea, of­fi­cials and ac­tivists in Kingston, New York, which has a thriv­ing arts com­mu­nity on the banks of the Hud­son River, con­tacted Boudreau about buy­ing the boat. An ini­tial meet­ing went well, the Kingston Daily Free­man re­ported – although the city’s path to pur­chase has been com­pli­cated. Boudreau’s boat, which he thought might be an un­sellable bur­den, has be­come a hot prop­erty: Bids for “Point Coun­ter­point II” have risen to over 3 mil­lion dol­lars.

For Kahn’s ad­vo­cates, the in­creas­ing like­li­hood that “Point Coun­ter­point II” will avoid the scrap­yard is good news.

“It’s very, very im­por­tant to save ev­ery piece of Louis Kahn’s ar­chi­tec­ture that still ex­ists, be­cause he didn’t fin­ish many things,” Lesser said.

And Wur­man, who thinks the boat’s English pre­de­ces­sor rusted — “that boat died,” he said — sees the boat as a sym­bol for Kahn’s place in the canon of Amer­i­can ar­chi­tec­ture.

“I think the story is a won­der­ful story be­tween ar­chi­tec­ture and mu­sic,” he said. “I think it’s a won­der­ful story about the tra­jec­tory of Lou Kahn in the last ten years, from be­ing mostly un­known for his whole life — mostly un­known even after his death — that his star is start­ing to rise.”


SHIP HAP­PENS: So far, $3 mil­lion has been raised to save Point Coun­ter­point II from the scrap­yard.


ROUGH PAS­SAGE: In 1996, Kahn’s boat man­aged to sur­vive flood­ing on the Al­legheny Wharf in Pitts­burgh.

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