Anne Tyng, Louis Kahn and the toys

It is very funny browsing antique issues to see the real ingenuity of certain inventions and, among them, the toys invented for the children. For a contemporary look some are really incredibly dangerous and today it would be impossible even to produce something like that. One example is a series of toys produced by Guilbert that contained radioactive and poisonous substances. In another case I already found advertising of a toy that was a little submarine where children could enter and navigate in small rivers or lakes... or little cannons perfectly functioning, to show to your sons how the artillery works... just incredible.
During a “visit” to some old issues of the Popular Mechanics Magazine I found an article about a project for a large scale building set that allow to construct toys or even furniture. It was a set of cut plywood parts, very ingenious, with a very functional and simple slot system without screws, nails, bolts or nuts. It was the August 1950 issue and among the pictures there was one of the author of the “make-it-and-brake-it” (that was the name): Anne Tyng.

This was not a complete stranger name for me but I could not remember where or when I have heard it. Anyway also my eight years old daughters know that with a Google page infront of us there are no more secrets or doubts...
So after a quick search almost everything was clear: Anne Griswold Tyng was born in 1920 in the city of Lushan, in the Kingsi chinese province. She was an architect and professor known, among other things, for her struggle for the woman emancipation in the artistic profession field. Anne always advocated the importance of women moving from the role of muse to release her own creative power and potential.
As the fourth daughter of an american episcopal missionary, in 1938 Anne took the chance of a family travel to United States (due to her father’s sabbatical year) to stay definitely in that country. After a graduation at the Radcliffe College Anne Tyng was, in 1942. one of the first women to receive a master degree in Architecture at the Harvard University, Massachusetts. In this faculty she came to be Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer assistant.

After her academic formation Tyng keep working in the Konrad Wachsmann office in New York, in the Van Doren, Nowland and Schladermundt design office and at Knoll Associates. The facts of Anne Tyng was a woman who learned architecture and worked with some so famous architects and offices should give to her a great place in the modern architecture history, but the reason that made her really famous was what happen after 1945.

In 1945 Tyng moved to Philadelphia and started working in the Louis Kahn office. At the time Kahn has still a partnership with Oscar Stonoron and Anne participates in several projects including the Philadelphia master plan (1946-52). In 1947 Kahn dissolved the partnership with Storonov and Tyng continued working with him until 1964. At that time Anne was a beautiful and smart 27 years old woman and Louis Kahn, as it will be demonstrated some years later, never could be able to resist these arguments. During this period she worked in several Kahn’s projects and, furthermore, get involved in a loving relationship with the architects which arose their daughter Alexandra. But the “family” that Louis create with Anne was just one of three families that this architect created and maintained during his own life.

The collaboration between Anne Tyng and Louis Kahn is clearly visible in buildings as the Yale University Art Gallery (1951-53), the Philadelphia City Tower (1952-57) or the Trenton Bath House (1955-56); all them strongly characterized for the geometric accuracy, for the typological investigation as for the architectural composition and the structural solutions.

About the relationship between Anne and Louise I would be able to write much more, both was really especial and rare peoples and about the love that join the couple you can find much more information in the letters exchanged between 1953 and 1954. In this period Anne went to Rome, the city where their daughter Alexandra was born. There is a compilation of the letters that were published in 1997 by Anne Tyng where it is possible to read the 53 letters that Kahn wrote to her weakly talking about love, architecture politics or colleges and common friends. Instead of writing more I prefer the portrait of this man made by the great movie My Architect realized by one of his own sons, Nathaniel. This documentary try to explain what happened to this magnific architect that mysteriously died in 1974, totally broken and completely alone.

After leaving the Kahn office, Anne Tyng continued to investigate the relation between geometry and architecture. Moreover she wrote several articles about urbanism and about her experience as a worker woman in a context dominated by men. In 1968 she began to teach courses about the geometrical order and the human scale in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where she remained until 1995.

In a so intensive life the toys were forgotten but the author that passes to history for others reasons, at the time gained certain notoriety with them. If we pay some attention to the article published on the Popular Mechanics Magazine connecting it with the historical context, we can understand that, indeed, the toys were something really innovative. It would be possible to say that they are at the level of some other contemporary toys as the Eames’s toys or the António Vitali’s toys (a swiss toy designer). Totally made by cutted plywood boards, the toys have complex shapes that could be jointed to make several of different objects. At the time plywood was a really innovative material, like carbon fiber or kevlar are today. It was a material used in the construction of building, furniture or used, during the World War II, to construct ships or lending vehicles. Really resistant but, at the same time, flexible; lightweight but durable to the elements, plywood was one of the most promissory material of the time. Even Charles Eames, in the decade of 194o, began to design and to produce his own famous plywood chairs that are still for sale today.

Beyond the use of playhood, the idea that the child could easily and quickly change his own environment and his own objects is something that, at the time, was particularly innovative. It was innovative because was perfectly tuned with his contemporary philosophical movements that were preaching the need for a radical change in the teaching paradigms. In this context John Dewey (1859-1952), an american philosopher, was on of the main responsables for the introduction of the Pragmatism in the educational practices. He advocated that the child learn more through the action and less through the observation or the study of theory. Accordingly was not real trivial to give to a child a changeble or manipulable object (Charles Eames’s “The Toy” began to be produced ten years later). Furthermore, the geometrical complexity of the parts and of the possible combinations proved the will of the author for sensitize the child to a geometric and compositive knowledge through the play or, in general, thought the occupation or action. She felt this need due to the dual and rare (for the time) role she had: architect and mother.



  1. It is incredible. It was as early as the 1950s that people discovered the importance of toys for cultivating children's creativity and innovative thinking.

  2. It is incredible. It was as early as the 1950s that people discovered the importance of toys for cultivating children's creativity and innovative thinking.