Climbing through the five space frames of Platonic solids that inaugurated “Anne Tyng: Inhabiting Geometry” was akin to moving through a surreal playground celebrating Euclidian principles. Together with a lacy, spiraling double helix that stretched from floor to ceiling, the large models (approx. 7 feet per side) each invited the visitor to enter into Tyng’s singular architectural vision. Custom fabricated for the show, these partially painted plywood forms accompanied an intimate presentation of the drawings, documentation and models for six of Tyng’s projects, thus providing an accessible introduction to the theories and practice of this significant yet overlooked figure in the history of modern architecture.

Anne Griswold Tyng was born in China to missionary parents in 1920 and educated at Harvard in the early 1940s before spending a decade as an associate in the Philadelphia offices of Louis I. Kahn. Based in Philadelphia for 50 years, she taught architecture for nearly three decades at the University of Pennsylvania until her retirement in the late 1990s. However, she is typically credited only for her early collaboration with Kahn and as the mother of their daughter, Alexandra. Her geometric vision clearly inflected their jointly authored projects, such as the skeletal and elegant City Tower (1952–57), represented here by a dozen drawings, a meticulous acrylic model and printed promotional materials for the unrealized monument. Buckminster Fuller understood the mark she left on Kahn’s work, calling her “Kahn’s geometrical strategist” in a letter of support for Tyng as the first woman to be awarded a grant from the Graham Foundation in 1965.

Tyng’s application of geometry as both a structuring and metaphorical element merits acknowledgment in its own right. The delicate plans, elevations and models for her ambitious but little-known Urban Hierarchy project (1969–71) elucidate how she translated her love for basic geometric elements into viable structures and systematic social solutions that are human in scale and materiality. One model offers a single, hivelike unit whose clustered building blocks are populated by miniature inhabitants, vehicles and a playground, while the other shows how multiple cylindrical units can fit together to form a more comprehensive urban system.
Tyng continues her work today, extending and deepening her research into the application of the Fibonacci sequence and Platonic solids, first manifested in a 1964 exhibition at the university that was beautifully evoked in 19 photographs at the ICA. The documentary component of the show also included recent notes and models along with early brochures for City Tower, her trademark Tyng Toy (a kit for making children’s playthings) and her groundbreaking doctoral dissertation (on the Fibonacci proportion). “Inhabiting Geometry” will hopefully inspire further exploration of Tyng’s contributions to the ongoing discussion of socially driven architecture, sustainable urban proposals and the role of gender and psychoanalysis in design.


[The show is on view at the Graham Foundation in Chicago through June 18.]
Photo: View of Anne Tyng’s exhibition “Inhabiting Geometry,” 2011; at the Institute of Contemporary Art.