Harriet Pattison (1929 - 2023) landscape architect

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Harriet Pattison

Harriet Pattison. Born in Chicago’s North Side to a middle-class family, in 1929, and died on October 3, 2023, at the age of 94 at her home in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.  The Cultural Landscape Foundation, documenting Pattison’s remarkable life, remembers the deep influence of the Chicago World’s Fair, its skyscrapers, and free cultural programming in Lincoln Park, in her life.

She earned her bachelor of arts from the University of Chicago. After graduating in 1951, she enrolled at Yale University’s School of Drama where she studied acting. While at Yale Pattison enrolled in Josef Albers’s color theory course, Interaction of Color.

There, in New Haven, in 1958 was where she met Louis Kahn at the Wahldorf, a nearby New Haven diner. She crossed paths again with Kahn at a dinner party she attended with Robert Venturi, where she says her romantic partnership with Kahn began. Kahn played an instrumental role in Pattison’s life, encouraging her studies in landscape architecture and fathering her son Nathaniel in 1962.

In 1963 Pattison began a year-and-a-half-long apprenticeship in the office of landscape architect Dan Kiley in Vermont then enrolled in the landscape architecture program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Fine Arts. She launched her career in the office of George Erwin Patton, where she worked until 1970. That year, she started to work with Louis Kahn at his office at 1501 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. There she collaborated with Kahn on the design for the grounds of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, then later, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, in New York’s Four Freedoms Park.

After Kahn’s sudden death in 1974, Pattison opened her own landscape architectural practice while still collaborating with Patton on occasional projects. Her projects included landscapes at private homes such as the Haas Residence and a master plan for the Hershey Food Corporation’s Pennsylvania headquarters. In 2016 she was inducted as a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Pattison authored the essay "Maine Landscapes: Design and Planning" on the work of her role model Beatrix Farrand, who similarly paved the way for women in landscape architecture. Pattison’s reflections on her life with Kahn were published in October 2020, during the Covid pandemic, Harriet published, "Our Days Are Like Full Years: A Memoir with Letters from Louis Kahn."

The Cultural Landscape Foundation has a comprehensive Harriet Pattison Oral History interview that can be found here, along with a reflection from her longtime friend and TCLF President Charles A. Birnbaum.

Photograph by Don Hamerman, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation..


Louis Isadore Kahn is born in Pernow – formerly in Russia, but now Pärnu in Estonia – on February 20, 1901 by the name of Leiser-itze Schmulowsky. In 1906, the family immigrates to Philadelphia. His father changes the family name to Kahn in 1915, when the family is awarded US citizenship. Kahn develops his artistic talents early on, and is able to draw beautifully from a young age.

In his early years, Kahn earns money playing the piano at neighbourhood theatres. He keeps this up during his university years, until he graduates in 1924 with a bronze medal for ‘superior excellence’ and starts working as an architect.

In 1928, he leaves on a trip to Europe. In the Netherlands, he learns about modern architecture, such as the functionalist design of Johannes Duiker's Sanatorium Zonnestraal in Hilversum. He also gets to see the architecture of Hendrik Berlage, Michel de Klerk and Willem Dudok.

Family life and work 1930 - 1955
Back in the US, Louis Kahn marries Esther Virginia Israeli, a research assistant in the field of neurology. Five years later, Kahn is awarded the title of architect and starts working from home on his own projects. In 1940, Esther gives birth to their first daughter, Sue Ann. In 1945, Kahn has an office with a few employees. Kahn develops a tough work ethic: he often only rests for a few hours, sometimes sleeping at the office to be able to continue working straight away.

In the office, Louis Kahn and architect Anne Tyng, who is nearly 20 years younger, become entangled in an affair. Because of his attitude towards work, Louis Kahn is often away from home, keeping the two worlds of family life and work strictly separate. In 1950, Kahn leaves on another extended trip to southern Europe and Egypt, where he draws ancient Roman and Egyptian treasures. Kahn describes the beauty of these structures in letters to Anne Tyng. In 1954, Anne Tyng gives birth to Kahn's second child: Alexandra.

International fame: 1955 - 1974
In 1958, Kahn is introduced to landscape-architect Harriet Pattison (born in 1928) at a party. A relationship develops between the architect and Pattison, resulting in the birth of Kahn's third child and only son, Nathaniel. One year later, Kahn attends the conference of a prominent group of international architects, who have come together in Otterloo, the Netherlands, under the name of Team X (Team Ten). This group includes Dutch architects Aldo van Eyck and Jaap Bakema.

In the 1960s and 70s, Kahn finally takes his place on the international stage with designs for government buildings, museums, laboratories, libraries, private homes and religious buildings. One high point is the government building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which is only completed in 1983, years after his death. In the last decade of his life, Kahn visits the Indian subcontinent no fewer than 40 times. On 17 March 1974, returning from one of these trips, Louis Kahn dies in a toilet at Penn Station in New York. For uncertain reasons, he had crossed out his name in his passport, as a result of which he can only be identified a few days later.

21st century: Kahn's legacy lives on
Years after Louis Kahn dies, his son Nathaniel sets out to investigate his father's legacy. His film ‘My Architect’ (2003) earns him an Oscar nomination.




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