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    Nathaniel and Louis Kahn in My Architect
    Nathaniel and Louis Kahn

    The master builder

    The son of famed architect Louis Kahn goes in search of the father he rarely saw through both his legacy and the personal memories of those who knew him in the satisfying "My Architect."


    "Monumentality in architecture may be defined as a quality, a spiritual quality inherent in a structure which conveys the feeling of its eternity, that it cannot be added to or changed."

    — Louis I. Kahn

    Written and directed by: Nathaniel Kahn.
    Produced by: Susan Rose Behr, Nathaniel Kahn, Yael Melamede.
    Featuring: Frank O. Gehry, Philip Johnson, Nathaniel Kahn, I.M. Pei.
    Cinematography: Robert Richman.
    Music by: Joseph Vitarelli.

    Related links: Official site
    Film Forum 209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.) (212) 727-8100

    A human life is finite, but the products of that lifetime can endure for centuries. Is this why painters and sculptors, novelists and poets, playwrights and actors are regarded as more spiritual than other professionals, because what they leave behind are lasting, tangible works that interpret and add to the collective understanding of what it means to be human? And what of the lives of the artists themselves? Their audiences often feel close to them through their works, but the artists' families, always competing with the work for attention, may feel they are missing the vital connection. The new film "My Architect" documents the life of an artist and the search by his son to discover the father he barely knew.

    Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) was one of the greatest architects of the second half of the 20th century — although he died bankrupt and alone, the victim of a heart attack in New York City's Pennsylvania Station, his body laying unclaimed in the city morgue for three days until his identity was established. Admired by colleagues such as Frank O. Gehry, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei and Robert A.M. Stern, Kahn was more meticulous than prolific, designing over a hundred projects, less than half of which were ever completed. Distinguished as a high-ranking academic at the Yale School of Architecture, and later his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, he was in great demand as a speaker, and his travels led to commissions (some never realized) across the U.S. and at far-flung sites in Israel, India and Bangladesh. But it wasn't until his funeral that another facet of his life was revealed, when his wife and daughter publicly had to face the existence of his two other families: two illegitimate children, a girl and boy, born to two different mistresses.

    Nathaniel Kahn in My Architect  
    Nathaniel Kahn
    Nathaniel Kahn, the writer, director, on-camera interviewer and narrator of "My Architect," is Louis's youngest offspring, and the documentary's subtitle, "A Son's Journey," accurately reflects both the agenda behind the film and the manner in which it was made. Only 11 when his father died, Nathaniel had infrequent access to his dad, seeing him when Lou (as he calls him) would swoop in for sporadic weekend visits. The movie essentially casts Nathaniel in the role of architect, as over the course of several years he constructs a life story for the mysterious father he so passionately adored. He amasses archival materials, travels widely to tour his father's buildings, finds the eyewitnesses who last saw him alive at Penn Station, and interviews former colleagues, including the aforementioned giants of architecture as well as Lou's nemesis in his hometown of Philadelphia, Edmund Bacon, a city planner who blocked Kahn's participation in the redesign of the metropolis. (Nearly 30 years after Kahn's death, Bacon is emphatically unrepentant about his opposition, conveying a sense of what must have been Kahn's aggressive personality.)

    Filial tenderness is present throughout "My Architect" — playfulness, as well. At Louis's celebrated Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Nathaniel emphasizes its livable dimensions by gracefully crisscrossing its plaza on roller skates. The son also engineers an emotional reunion with one of his father's patrons, Robert Boudreau, who commissioned Lou to design a ship that would transport an orchestra for dockside concerts from port to port. Like many of the interviews Nathaniel conducts, this one triggered memories, specifically of a time when Lou created little books for his small son. A childhood keepsake, Lou's illustrated story about a boat testifies to the interplay between imaginative fantasy and the stages toward its eventual realization.

    Nathaniel's exchanges with his mother, Harriet Pattison, a landscape architect who worked at Louis's firm, naturally provide insights into his father's behavior. But so do interviews with Lou's previous mistress, designer Anne Tyng, daughter Alexandra Tyng, and Sue Anne Kahn, Lou's daughter with his wife Esther (who was never interviewed by Nathaniel, but who appears in footage from an earlier documentary). It's remarkable that all these encounters are devoid of acrimony and resentment, as is a visit to one of Lou's aged relatives, a thickly-accented rabbi. This was Nathaniel's excursion into the Jewish half of his family, immigrants from Estonia he knew little about.

      The Bangladesh capitol complex designed by Louis Kahn. in My Architect
      The Bangladesh capitol complex designed by Louis Kahn.
    Louis's impoverished Jewish origins both shaped and thwarted his endeavors. The immigrant work ethic and drive to succeed won him a university scholarship, but later his ethnicity was used by Philadelphia's bluebloods to bar entry to the city's elite architectural circles. But he was sustained by the mysticism underlying traditional Judaism, which permeated his creative expression. His quest for the spiritual in architecture found new direction in 1950-51, when as a visiting professor abroad, he toured ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian ruins. Trained in the Beaux Arts mode, further tempered by Modernism, Kahn now introduced monumentality into his work, a breakthrough that reenergized his career and led to projects celebrating the contemplative, from libraries (Philip Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire), to art museums (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), to houses of worship (First Unitarian Church, Rochester; Temple Beth-El in Chappaqua and the planned, but never built, Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem).

    It is at Nathaniel's last stop on his worldwide tour of his father's buildings that we can most fully appreciate the genius of Louis I. Kahn: the Capital Complex at Dhaka in Bangladesh. Completed nine years after Kahn's death, this massive edifice includes not only parliamentary chambers and government offices, but also a 20,000-foot mosque. Here Kahn is revered across all social strata. From the morning maintenance workers who take visible pride in the building, to the architect Shamsul Wares, who cautions Nathaniel that not even in a few days could he begin to appreciate the magnitude of this creation — the Muslims of Bangladesh are deeply grateful to the late Jewish-American architect. "He wanted to be our Moses," says Wares, "and gave us our structure for democracy."

    One can imagine that after a lifetime of struggle, the Dhaka capital, in its scale, ideological underpinnings and awesome beauty, may have represented a form of catharsis for Louis. So it does for his son, who muses, "On this journey my father became real to me, a man, not a mystic. Now I miss him more, but after all these years, I think I found the right time and place to say goodbye."

    NOVEMBER 14, 2003

    Reader comments on My Architect:

  • Anne Tyng   from Richard Benham, May 24, 2004
  • film, My Architect   from Martin B. Miller, Jun 27, 2004
  • I'm amazed by this remarkable story!   from Luis B. DaSilva, Nov 25, 2004
  • Trying to contact Nathaniel Kahn   from Mike Owens, Mar 3, 2005
  • Re: Trying to contact Nathaniel Kahn   from teresa, Mar 25, 2007
  • Re: Trying to contact Nathaniel Kahn   from Richard Fitts, Mar 21, 2008
  • Re: Trying to contact Nathaniel Kahn   from Richard Fitts, Mar 21, 2008
  • "music boat"   from Christine, Jun 17, 2005
  • Re: music boat   from Andy, Jul 26, 2005
  • building of the Hurva Synagogue Jerusalem   from Architect Daniel Bachrach, Feb 12, 2006
  • "My Architect"   from Jane von Maltzahn, Jan 31, 2007

  • Post a comment on "My Architect"