In Search of Anne Tyng

David and I weren’t sure we were going to be able to get on the bus. We had waited too long to reserve our spots for the Tyng Tour, an ICAfield trip to look at houses architect Anne Tyng worked on in and around Philadelphia. I had seen the models, drawings, and photographs in ICA’s exhibition Anne Tyng: Inhabiting Geometry—which anyone who hasn’t visited should run out and see this weekend before it closes on Sunday, March 27. But I had never been inside a building she’d designed, or even stood outside one. I was willing to tag along in the Volvo behind the bus, but luckily for us one couple didn’t show up. We were in.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning as we drove along the Schuylkill River out of the city, then through the hilly fields of Valley Forge Park toward the Wharton Esherick studio in Paoli. Esherick, the extraordinary sculptor and wood craftsman, died in 1970, and his daughter and son-in-law, Ruth and Bob Bascom, have made his studio/home into a museum. What had been his workshop they turned into a house for themselves, not open to the public, but through their generosity open today to us.
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Bob Bascom chatting with Tyng tourers in Esherick”s former studio. Photo: Chris Taylor

The house is extraordinary. The ceilings rise and angle, and the beams “chase each other around,” in Bob Bascom’s words. Colored glass bottles line the sills of the enormous windows that look out over the countryside. Masks and paintings and Esherick wooden trays hang on the blue walls, and a couple of chairs are lashed to the ceiling. You can see old tool marks on the floors. The wood to build the place and its furnishings came from the local forest; Esherick is reputed to have said, “If I can’t make something beautiful out of what grows in my own backyard, I should quit.”
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Bathroom in the Esherick studio. Photo: David H. Cohen

“The roof is three hexagons,” Mr. Bascom, an architect himself, told us. “The hexagons gave flexibility to how to put the building on the site. And each hexagon is the upper half of a dodecahedron.” That sounds like Anne Tyng, who saw the world through geometry, and particularly through the five Platonic solids: tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, icosahedron.

Now Bill Whitaker, Penn’s Architectural Archivist and a co-curator, with ICA’s Ingrid Schaffner and architect Srdjan Weiss, of the Anne Tyng show, talks. “A lot has been said about Wharton Esherick and Lou Kahn,” he says.

Stop a moment. I would have liked to write this piece without mentioning Lou Kahn, who is so often spoken of by way of explaining Anne Tyng: who she is, what she did, what her work means. The show at ICA, however, is about her: her work, her intellectual passion for geometry and architecture, her vision. But Tyng did not build a lot of houses, and many of the ones she did work on were collaborations with Kahn whose office employed her and who is the architect of record. That is the situation with three of the four buildings we will see today: the Esherick workshop, the Erdman Hall dormitory at Bryn Mawr College, and a private home. Only the final house, in Fitler Square, was designed by Tyng alone.

An hour later, we stand in the cold bright day in front of Erdman Hall, a warren of square forms connected at the corners. At the core of each square is a public space—a cube—with bedrooms around the edges. The design of Erdman Hall is based on Anne’s ideas about geometry, but the plan she herself drew for the building ultimately wasn’t used. “This is a sad period in Lou and Anne’s relationship,” Bill says. “There are some real tensions between them artistically…Lou is working in one part of the office, and Anne is working in another.”
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The group outside Erdman Hall. Photo: Jenna Weiss

We don’t go in. This is a dormitory after all, young women are living in there. They come and go in twos and threes, ignoring us. Probably groups stand out here all the time, looking. What do these girls know about this building, about the people who designed it? What would they think of Anne Tyng, graduate of a sister school, who forged an extraordinary life for herself through the force of her will and vision, decades before feminism or employment discrimination protections or the pill?

(The next day, by fate or coincidence, I will run into a woman who lived in Erdman Hall as a student a decade ago. It was cold, she’ll say. Her room was in the basement. She’ll tell me Kahn was famously reputed to have said that the slate and concrete materials might be cold, but the bodies of the young women living there would warm the rooms.)

The next stop on the Tyng tour is warmer, a family home on a bluff in a nearby suburb. The original owner, who commissioned the house in 1958, still lives here, and she shows us around. “Anne Tyng and Lou Kahn were both short,” she says as we duck through the front door. “The problem here is that it’s hard for tall people.”

This house, like Erdman Hall, is made up of cubes arranged in a kind of L. The ceilings of the crowded dining room rise from the four walls toward the middle, forming half an octagon. The big windows look out over a creek. “There isn’t a lot of space here, but it’s nice space,” the owner says. “We have thirteen doors to the outside! When we change the locks, we have to change all thirteen of them. We had three designs for this house, and we built the third. We couldn’t afford the first two. Lou Kahn gave a lecture afterwards saying he would never again build a house where price was an object.”

Kahn didn’t come by much after the building started on the site. He wasn’t much interested in the realization of the project—it was the design that obsessed him. But Tyng came. And later, after Kahn had died, she came again and built an addition for the family: a final square. The Tyng wing.
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Tyng tourers in front of our bus. Photo: Chris Taylor

The last stop on the tour is Anne Tyng’s own house, the one she lived in with her daughter Alex beginning in 1955. It’s a cramped Philadelphia row house, on the top of which Tyng designed an airy aerie under the mansard roof, with a seating area and a sleeping loft with triangular windows. It’s stunningly beautiful. I sit on one of the built-in seats and listen as Bill Whitaker points out the details: how the bevels on the edge of the windows “make the room feel quite open, because the corners disappear”; how the heating registers are cleverly placed and hidden; how the ends of the central closet drop down, one to reveal an ironing board and another a double mirror. “She looked for a cabinet maker who was willing to build a house like a cabinet,” he says, as we take turns climbing the steps to peer at the high bed, and ask questions of the current owner, and rest gratefully in the late afternoon light. Bill points out where Tyng had her drafting table, where she found space for a tiny bathroom, how every detail was lovingly considered. This space isn’t cold in any way. It feels personal, assured, particular, alive. I don’t know what its geometry is—what Platonic solids shape the space I’m sitting in—but for the moment I don’t care. It’s peaceful and yet vibrant up here among the tree tops, a space unlike any I’ve been in before.

And now I remember something Bob Bascom said hours ago: “I got into architecture because it’s the only profession people go to when they’re happy. You go to a dentist when your tooth hurts, you go to a lawyer when you’re in trouble. But you go to an architect when you want to build something, and you have a little money in your pocket.”
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Anne Tyng”s house. Photo: David H. Cohen

Anne Tyng never had much money in her pocket. She became an architect when the profession was entirely dominated by men. She made a house and a life for herself and her daughter in this city at mid-century, and pursued her intellectual passion as far as it would take her. She designed buildings, made calculations, wrote papers, taught students, raised her child, ate yogurt, mentored aspiring architects. And when she got tired, she climbed up the ladder to the loft she’d designed for herself and dreamed, perhaps, Platonic dreams of tetrahedrons and cubes.

Anne Tyng: Inhabiting Geometry closes at ICA THIS SUNDAY, March 27. Don’t miss it.

If you’re in Chicago, you can see the show at the Graham Foundation, 4 West Burton Place, between April 15 and June 18.