At 5:32 a.m. on the morning of June 2, I received a text from my friend Eric Kahn containing a photograph of a diptych accompanied by this message: “new ‘Catastrophe Cycle’.” I assumed this to be the title of a new series of paintings he was working on. His text was not unusual, as we often communicated by texting each other images at various hours of the day or night. A few hours later, I received this text message from his partner Russell Thomsen: “Call me asap. Urgent.”
My close friend and colleague had just passed away.
The night before Eric and I had talked about driving down to Mexico on a “paint run.” He was excited to start a new series of large oil paintings, having just returned from New York City where he saw friends and visited museums and galleries. He sent me several photos of Ross Bleckner’s studio—a painting leaning up against a wall, a photo of the artist with his arms folded, a close-up of his palette. Before that, snapshots from MoMA—Jasper Johns’ painting Target with Four Faces, one of Barnett Newman’s white paintings, and a poster-sized photograph hung in the stairwell of the building Eric was staying in of Le Corbusier walking up a staircase. We conjectured that it was likely taken at the Unité in Marseilles. The irony did not escape him.
Eric was a gifted architect, a talented artist, and a charismatic teacher who touched the lives of many people around him—colleagues, students, friends, and family. He possessed a brilliant mind and poetic spirit that perceived and imagined the world as a series of metaphors. He had a profound sense of integrity. His commitment to architecture and teaching was as deep and passionate as were his beliefs about art and humanity. To me, he was an artist-poet who happened to practice architecture, and I learned a great deal from him. Lorcan O’Herlihy, another close friend, said it succinctly: “Eric saw art in everything.”
I first met Eric at SCI-Arc when he and Russell joined the faculty and began teaching a thought-provoking undergraduate design studio. Simultaneously, I came to know and admire the work they were engaged in as partners (with Ron Golan) of Central Office of Architecture (COA). COA uniquely balanced speculative research on the city and modernity with a steadfast commitment to building ideas. Their Recombinant Images in Los Angeles (1989) still remains a hauntingly beautiful and enigmatic work of photography, produced at approximately the same time they were designing Brix Restaurant, a sublime work of architecture. Both their built and speculative projects were featured prominently in Aaron Betsky’s Experimental Architecture in Los Angeles, with their project on Downtown Los Angeles gracing the book’s cover. Later works included private residences in Los Angeles, upstate New York, and Tokyo, as well as a SCI-Arc Gallery installation titled Stentorian. Most recently, Russell and Eric— in their recent incarnation as IDEA Office—received a Graham Foundation grant to develop their ongoing project Thinking the Future of Auschwitz, a profound meditation on memory and the unspeakable.
I’m pretty certain that Eric and I became friends while sitting on design studio reviews together. Our conversations in that context often extended to discussions about our shared interests. He loved to speak about the “soul of an architect,” and what that meant to him. His brilliant intellect encompassed far-reaching passions, from visual arts to philosophy, poetry and music to architecture. He had an uncanny ability to move between disciplines with agility and finesse; this led to late-night discussions about Calder, Coltrane, Vaughan Williams, the Lakers, Le Corbusier’s sketches, a photograph of the Farnsworth House blanketed in snow, Tarantino films, the colors of Barragan’s house in Miguel Hidalgo, and Brian Eno’s diary A Year with Swollen Appendices, which he referred to often and enjoyed immensely. Nothing was out of bounds.
I never missed an opportunity to invite Eric to sit on my reviews. He was a unique critic and one of the very best out there. His approach was less analytical and less overtly critical than that of others. His observations were insightful and his remarks generous, imbued with a poetic sensibility that frequently involved new ways of looking at something. I, and all others present at any of these discussions, deeply appreciated that.
Anyone who knew Eric knows that he was always drawing—on a napkin, a coaster, an envelope, or in a sketchbook. However, it wasn’t until we finally taught a studio together (along with Wes Jones) that our conversations about art, architecture, and urbanism reached a new plateau. It was then that I truly awakened to Eric’s deep and abiding passion for art, not just as an appreciation but also as a daily practice. At Eric’s urging, the three of us would meet to look at and discuss our “other” work, which consisted of drawings and paintings and that ran parallel to our architectural practices. Eric loved for us to share our artworks and referred to them as “gifts.”
The introduction that I wrote for Eric’s unpublished book Proof of Architecture begins with a quotation from Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks: “Everyone carries a room about inside, him.” Such was the case with Eric: His life and work were inseparable and exemplary. As I write this in a hotel room an ocean apart from where he has been laid to rest, I take solace in the knowledge that Eric’s achievements and poetic spirit are very much alive and will continue to resonate.