Architect, writer and publisher Robert Kahn talks about balancing a busy architecture practice, a publishing house he runs with his wife and his family life. Kahn set up his own practice in 1986 when he left James Stirling, Michael Wilford & Associates in London. He is a fellow of the American Academy in Rome, and has received numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Kahn is also the creator and editor of the City Secrets series. His wife, Fiona Duff Kahn, is the managing editor of Fang Duff Kahn Publishers, which they founded together in 2009. They live in New York with their daughter, Kiki Fang Duff Kahn.
While your firm is based in New York you work life has taken you around the world, including a stint in London as senior designer at James Stirling, Michael Wilford & Associates . How has working in Europe informed the design decisions you make here in the States? I had the good fortune to receive a Rome Prize in Architecture from the American Academy in Rome. I spent a year and half in Rome, in a lovely villa on the Janiculum hill, with 25 other fellows, each more interesting than the other. For most of that time, I walked around and absorbed the architecture, history and daily life all around me. It was the first time I had been to Europe (at the age of 32) and I was, dumbstruck. That experience informed my life in many significant ways, but in terms of the history of architecture and culture, I received a practical education like non other. James Stirling, who had been my professor at Yale was a visitor at the Academy for sixth months, and that is where we became friends. I moved from Rome to London where I worked for him for two years. Jim was larger than life, personally and professionally. His work inspires me to this day, and, if I looked carefully, I would find a bit of Jim in every building I have designed.
Your residential work – especially the Brooklyn Heights townhouse exudes a warm modernism. Hard lines and surfaces are broken by soft organic forms – in the case of the Brooklyn Heights house it’s the winding form of the stair and the way it plays against the strong grid of the floor to ceiling black-paned windows that form the back wall of the building. Are you consciously exploring a common design language in you residential work or do you find each project – and client -takes you in new directions? If I had to describe my sensibility for residential work, I’d say warm modernism, which was much more prevalent in the early days of modernism that many imagine. I have, however, renovated traditional homes and found it both educational and interesting. That’s not to say that I don’t lean on my clients a bit to incorporate modern elements. I enjoy a challenge, and we start at square one with each project. Certainly, there are elements that carry through from one project to the next, but every client and every site is different and, frankly, starting over each time is much more interesting for me.
The Palo Alto Hill House has a beautiful home office (below). Are you finding home work spaces are much in demand these days? Absolutely. Is there anyone who doesn’t work at home, at least some of the time? The Palo Alto house is a project in which I learned a lot because one of the clients uses a wheelchair. The house was on three inaccessible levels so the challenge was to tie it all together. I like to think that the solution not only solved a problem but made for a much more interesting house in the end.
With architectural projects that span the country and the globe and your work as creator of the City Secrets guides how do you strike a balance between work and the rest of your life? I spend a great deal of time with my family. My wife is the managing editor of our publishing company, Fang Duff Kahn Publishers. My daughter often comes to the office in the afternoon to do her homework, and if I need to work late, I can work from home. I do have to travel but I am pretty efficient about it.
What inspires you in your work? In our publishing business it is the desire to create curated content while lauding the overlooked or under-appreciated, whether they be sites, books or movies. We have a remarkable list of contributors that include, among hundreds of others, eleven Pulitzer prize recipients, ten Oscar winners, one Nobel laureate, six MacArthur “Geniuses,” two poet laureates, one race car driver, Miss Manners, Mario Batali, Frank Stella, Martin Scorsese, Ed Koch, and Pete Seeger.
In architecture, I am inspired by trying to solve — in the most fluid and elegant way that I can — the intricacies of the project created by the reality of the program, the site, the budget and most importantly, those more ephemeral hopes and ideas that my clients often find hard to articulate. I take it as a compliment when someone looks at the finished product and assumes that there was no other solution. The architects that inspire me are Borromini, Stirling, and Corbusier. As different as they may appear to be, they are the same in so many ways. Their influence has less to do with the style of their work and more to do with the way they so beautifully resolve all the pieces that make up a building.