Anne Tyng, 1920-2011

Anne Tyng, 1920-2011

By Kelsey Keith
Just before the new year, architect and theorist Anne Tyng died at the age of 91 at her home in Marin County, California. Her extensive writings about geometric architecture explored ways to apply mathematical systems to buildings, a technical application of nature that's still popular in studios and textbooks today.

Born to a Boston family residing in China as missionaries in 1920, Anne Tyng went on to become one of the hardest working and perhaps underrated architectural theorists of the 20th century. And much like Marian Mahoney Griffin, her work as a junior partner was overshadowed by the output of male counterparts. (She once relayed in an interview how, following graduation from Harvard GSD's architecture school, she was refused a licensing exam by a proctor who refused to administer it to a woman. It was 1949, and she was the only female to apply that year.)

Tyng was employed by the Philadelphia studio of Louis Kahn for 15 years, and owing to her own fascination with Platonic solids, urged the Modernist master to incorporate geometric shapes into the firm's interior architecture. That wasn't the extent of their relationship: she also bore him a daughter in 1953, while Kahn was married to his wife Esther. That rather juicy scandal sent Tyng to Rome, a period captured in a 1997 book she published that includes letters from Kahn (he destroyed hers, as the story has it). 

Perhaps one of the most dedicated, yet underrated architectural theorists of the 20th Century, Anne Tyng’s influence can be seen in the mathematical forms and shapes prevalent in modern design.

Her influence is most readily seen in the triangular ceiling grid at the Yale Art Gallery, based on the tetrahedron, a personal favorite. Another standout building is the Trenton Bathhouse, whose "deceptively simple arrangement of five cubes" is considered Kahn's breakthrough (ahem). Tyng's hometown newspaper The Philadelphia Inquirer recalls that "in My Architect, a documentary by Kahn's third child, Nathaniel, Ms. Tyng was shown walking forlornly through the crumbling building." It was renovated in 2009.

After a falling out with Kahn in the 1960s, Tyng taught architecture at her doctorate alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, for three decades. Last summer, The Graham Foundation in Chicago featured her geometric models and hand-drafted graphite drawings in a retrospective show, including five blown-up models of the five Platonic solids. The Architect's Newspaper wrote at the time, summing up Tyng's legacy, that "to be inside the pure forms of a tetrahedron, dodecahedron, or icosahedron is to somehow experience both the ancient and the new."


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