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MY ARCHITECT: A SON’S JOURNEY (unrated) (2003)

New Yorker Films

Official Site

Director: Nathaniel Kahn

Director of Photography: Bob Richman

Producers: Nathaniel Kahn and Susan Rose Behr

Narrator: Nathaniel Kahn

Rating:

The 19th-century British novelist Samuel Butler once remarked that every man’s work is always a portrait of himself. If that’s true what can one say about the silent and stark buildings of modernist architect Louis Kahn, considered by many to be one of the premier American architects of our time? What larger meaning, if any, can we read into brick, stone, and glass? Is there deeper substance behind precise geometric shapes and sharp angled lines? These are but some of the questions Nathaniel Kahn seeks answers to about his father Louis in this Oscar-nominated documentary, My Architect. Clearly Nathaniel Kahn sets out to do more than pay homage to the designs of Louis Kahn; he aims to reconstruct his father’s buildings as larger metaphors about families, dirty secrets, and forgiveness.

This is much harder to do than one would initially think, as Louis Kahn was very much an enigmatic figure. But a few hard facts are known. Louis Kahn was born in Estonia some time near the turn of the 20th century, and early on his life was marred by a tragedy that would scar him for the rest of his life. When he was three, he plucked a glowing coal from a fire and placed it in his apron, and disastrously the apron ignited and badly burned Kahn. He was left with obvious burn scars on his face and body. Louis’s father felt death for the young boy would be preferable to going through life disfigured and ugly. But Kahn triumphed over such adversity. After his family immigrated to America he eventually became one of the foremost architects of his time, leaving his mark on the landscape with various achievements including the Salk Institute in California, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas to name but two designs of his vast modernist legacy.

Yet there is more to a building than its façade, and beneath the surface as well Kahn’s personal life was marked by secrets and contradictions, including a cryptic gesture made shortly before he died. Kahn married in his early twenties, and the union eventually produced a daughter. But Kahn never divorced his first wife and he subsequently had two other long-term liaisons with women, each relationship resulting in the birth of an illegitimate child. Nathaniel Kahn was the third such offspring, but he hardly knew his father. Louis Kahn would visit Nathaniel and his mother at odd hours of the night, and stay with them only for fleeting periods of time. In 1974 at the age of 73, Kahn suddenly collapsed in a bathroom at Penn Station; it took several days before his body was positively identified. He had scratched out his home address on his passport, and Nathaniel’s mother convinced her young son that this strange fact indicated Louis had finally made up his mind to leave his first wife and live with them. Did it? Was this in fact what the elder Kahn had finally resolved to do shortly before he died? And what does one make of his relationships with his multiple families? How did these three women and their children tolerate what frankly appears to be appallingly selfish behavior? Was Kahn a charming man possessed of extraordinary genius or was he merely an important architect who was also a manipulative cad? The younger Kahn runs around for nearly two hours seeking answers to these and other questions. He visits his father’s buildings and interviews multiple people who knew his father well, including family members, clients, and colleagues. The result is a remarkable, engaging documentary whose nomination suggests that Oscar committee members occasionally know what they’re doing.

But there are a few snags. My Architect runs a bit too long and occasionally tells its audience the same message over and over again. And there are moments when Nathaniel seems to revel just a bit in his own maudlin emotions. And as part of that, the ending seems a bit too orchestrated and pat. After all, dead men don’t tell secrets, so can Nathaniel’s search for answers about his father’s behavior yield satisfying results? Finally, if you’re not a fan of modern architecture, you may find it hard to ever find any likeable qualities in Louis Kahn. In fact, most of his designs seem cold and empty, but there’s one exception, and in fact this one moment is really what makes My Architect such a compelling story: As the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean, a roller-blading Nathaniel pivots and spins on the concrete open plaza of the Salk Institute. If indeed every man’s work is a portrait of himself, there’s truly something worthy of watching a son enjoying simple pleasures through the labors of his father. This one evocative scene, midway through Nathaniel’s journey, may change how you feel about stark modern architecture and the power art has to touch us all.

Nancy Semin

 

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