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My Architect: A Son’s Journey (A Movie Review)

My Architect: A Son’s Journey


Featuring Louis I. Kahn, Nathaniel Kahn, Sue Ann Kahn, Harriet Pattison, Anne Tyng, Alexandra Tyng, I.M. Pei, Moshe Safdie, Robert A.M. Stern, Edmund Bacon, Shamsul Wares, Philip Johnson and Frank O. Gehry.

Written by Nathaniel Kahn.

Directed by Nathaniel Kahn.

Distributed by New Yorker Films. 116 minutes. Not Rated.

Louis Kahn was many things in his life. He was an architect of unparalleled vision and scope. He was a brilliant scholar and an interesting lecturer. He was a charming man. He was a late bloomer in architecture, coming up with his greatest works after the age of fifty. He was an exceedingly private man. He was an enigma. He was married for forty years and fathered a daughter. He also fathered a daughter with one of his assistants. He also had a son with another woman he worked with. A woman who believed he would leave his wife until the day he died. He was an absentee father who was occasionally capable of great kindness to his children. He was a man who was half a million dollars in debt when he died of a heart attack in the men’s room at Pennsylvania Station in New York. For some obscure reason that no one can quite figure out, Kahn had blacked out his name and address in his passport, so that his body was unclaimed for days before they figured out who he was.

Nathaniel Kahn was one of his children. He was only eleven years old when his father died. By the time he was grown, he was still plagued with questions about his father. How could a man be so revered in certain circles and yet be completely impossible to actually know?

Nathaniel made this film in an attempt to come to grips with the father he never really knew. He thought that if he talked to the people who knew Louis and toured his greatest buildings, perhaps he could gain an understanding of who he really was. It may be therapy for him, but it also turns out to be a fascinating mystery. The fact that he only gets some of the answers to his uncertainty doesn’t distract from the reality that he is able to give a look into the mind of an artist.

At the time of his death, Kahn was in his seventies and still jumping through hoops to get jobs. However, even though he was considered a giant in the world of architecture and a man of groundbreaking vision, he created relatively few buildings. As Kahn tells us in the film, of all those spectacular structures, on only one did Kahn turn a profit (the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.) The rest were delivered at a significant loss when they were able to be finished at all. 

Kahn’s style seems to have been one that embraced light and space and a sense of whimsy. A sense of imperfection in the building was not only tolerated, but it was also embraced. From great large structures like the Salk Institute, the Yale Art Gallery and Kimbell Museum of Art to more personal visions like a community center in Trenton, New Jersey (which is the project that Kahn felt was the first where he truly found his style) and a huge musical boat which opens up to be a giant bandstand for perform concerts at the ports it docks at, Kahn’s style is unmistakable and different.

The film shows that Kahn was a visionary and artist as an architect, and at the same time had very little sense of the business of architecture. He put so much passion and thought into the look and feel and texture of his buildings that he that he often disregarded functionality. After all these years, former Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon (the father of actor Kevin Bacon) still animatedly (perhaps just a bit too animatedly) argues that the ideas of Kahn’s for reshaping downtown Philadelphia may have been somewhat esthetically pleasing but would have been impossible to implement. 

That dichotomy also seems to have followed Kahn in his personal life. He had grand ideas of family life that he could never seem to actually work into his life. He was involved in what seems like a lifelong loveless marriage. (Unfortunately, Kahn’s widow is dead and was one of the few people Nathaniel was unable to interview.) The lovers who were left behind do not feel any bitterness towards him, in fact they seem to be amazingly tolerant. Nathaniel seems to have a problem being so openly forgiving. Tiny moments like when he learns that his father spent every Christmas with the family of the engineer from the Salk project show that the wounds are still raw for him. At the same time, talking with Louis’ co-workers, family members (including his two half-sisters) and friends does seem to be cathartic for him.

The film closes with a visit to Kahn’s masterwork, the capitol building of Bangladesh in Dhaka. Architect Shamsul Wares comes closest to explaining what may have driven Kahn. He was a force through whom the poorest country in the world could get one of the world’s most spectacular structures. He gave of himself to bring people closer to the divine. If this mission caused him to be less than an ideal family man or person, perhaps that is just the price that had to be paid. 

I don’t know for sure if Nathaniel Kahn takes complete solace in this fact. But perhaps he finally realizes that is okay not to entirely understand the man. Louis Kahn made the choice that his life was his work. It was his legacy. It was his true passion. It is still here long after Kahn was gone, and it will be here long after we all are. So, in that way, at least, Louis Kahn was a success. (2/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted March 7, 2004.

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