The stories of Harriet Pattison, landscape architect and companion of Louis Kahn

East Landscape Architecture Preservation
Harriet Pattison at Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park Roosevelt Island, NY Photograph © Barrett Doherty, 2015, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation
Harriet Pattison at Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park Roosevelt Island, NY Photograph © Barrett Doherty, 2015, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

We know much about Louis Kahn. The Estonian-born (tsarist Russian at the time) American architect based in Philadelphia built his career on monumental buildings that often used exposed reinforced concrete. We know about his life and relationships, explored in his son Nathaniel Kahn’s 2003 documentary, My Architect. But what of Nathaniel’s mother, Harriet Pattison, who was a colleague, friend, and romantic companion of Kahn later in his life until his sudden death?

“Louis Kahn had a complex relationship with Harriet Pattison, Nathaniel’s mother. He would arrive, announced only by a last-minute phone call, at her house once a week,” wrote The Guardian back in 2004, when Nathaniel Kahn’s movie was first released in the UK. “He would play with his son on the lawn, stay for lunch and dinner, and drink a chilled martini or two. Then Harriet would drive him into town and drop him at the end of a darkened street, with Nathaniel wrapped under a blanket, watching as his father vanished into the night, back to his wife.”

Harriet Pattison and Louis Kahn Photograph courtesy of Harriet Pattison

Harriet Pattison and Louis Kahn, photograph courtesy of Harriet Pattison

We previously knew Harriet Pattison through bits and pieces. A landscape architect, she worked with Kahn in his office on numerous projects. One was the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park before Kahn’s death in 1974. The project fell away until it was revived in 2009 and finished in 2012. (The park sits on the southern tip of the slender Roosevelt Island surrounded by the East River with the lower Manhattan skyline rising to the west and Queens and Brooklyn to the east.) She also helmed another major project with Kahn: the landscape design at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.


Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park Roosevelt Island, NY Photograph © Charles A. Birnbaum, 2015, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park Roosevelt Island, NY Photograph © Charles A. Birnbaum, 2015, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

But now an oral history project sheds more light on Harriet Pattison’s life and work. As part of an ongoing oral history series on landscape architects, the D.C. based nonprofit the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) is releasing a 93-minute oral history tonight (April 19) on Harriet Pattison. In 32 wide-ranging clips, Pattison reveals how she approached her work, life, and Kahn. The series (which you can find here) begins with her growing up in Chicago, through her opening of a private practice, to her major works like the Hershey Company Headquarters.

“Harriet Pattison has been overshadowed by Louis Kahn and shares the responsibility, but not the credit, for the creation of two Modernist icons” said Charles A. Birnbaum, TCLF’s president & CEO in a statement. “The goal of this Pioneers Oral history series is to make Pattison’s unique and inspiring story and design legacy visible and valued.”

The Kimbell Art Museum Fort Worth, TX Photograph © Barrett Doherty, 2014, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The Kimbell Art Museum Fort Worth, TX Photograph © Barrett Doherty, 2014, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Birnbaum  interviewed Pattison at UPenn’s architecture archives in Philadelphia last June. The Pattison oral history project unveiling coincides with an exhibit opening on Pattison’s work at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, Harriet Pattison: Gardens & Landscapes.

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