Louis I. Kahn
My Architect: A Son’s Journey is a documentary film directed by Nathaniel Kahn, the illegitimate son fathered by architect Louis I. Kahn with the second of two sequential extramarital liaisons that he formed during his life. (There was a legitimate daughter by his wife, Esther, with whom he lived, and an illegitimate daughter with the earlier mistress.)
Kahn died suddenly in 1974 at age 73, after which his unusual multiple family arrangement became public knowledge. Nathaniel was 11 years old then; now, these many years later, his documentary takes the form of a quest for the identity of his father. As such, the film is somewhat dichotomous. There’s the personal side of Kahn’s life and there’s the professional side, with his extraordinary achievements as an architect. While there’s no question that personal aspects often help illuminate artistic accomplishment, My Architect, as a son’s personal investigation, tends to devote more time to family matters than is justified in terms of understanding Kahn’s accomplishment, and Nathaniel’s own journey is of far less interest. Indeed, the film makes clear that Kahn, the driven, workaholic architect, put his work ahead of all three families at all times. The work throws far more light on the relationships than the relationships do on the work.
That said, there is much of interest in the film, which uses the standard documentary techniques of interviews, talking heads, archival footage, photographs, letters and newspapers to tell its story. There is new footage of many of the important Kahn buildings: the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, the library at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, the National Assembly in Dacca, Bangladesh. These are, as suggested by Kahn’s friend, art historian Vincent Skully, works of symmetry, order, geometric clarity, and great weight; they are enduring monuments.
Not only are the buildings of surpassing beauty, but they are also a highly individual expression of modernism, utterly different from the prevailing curtain wall, glass and steel style that had come to dominate (ad nauseam) the cities of the world. Kahn’s are buildings with a distinct air of mysticism; they resonate with the influence of historical predecessors, from the Pyramids to medieval castles to 19th century industrial architecture.
Brief interviews with leading architects, such as an unusually gracious Philip Johnson ("All of my buildings don’t add up to his three or four…"), I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, and Robert A.M. Stern, establish the reverence in which Kahn’s work is held by his peers. Other interviews establish the not unusual conflict between a great visionary and a startlingly arrogant bureaucrat who ran Philadelphia’s city planning commission, and another between the artist and the engineers who must implement his vision.
The film is marred by the occasional banality of the narration, by Nathaniel’s inarticulateness and unskilled interviewing, and by heavy-handed soundtrack choices. Nathaniel as director doesn’t seem to know what to leave out–such as a pointless interview with a man (a stranger) who saw his father when he died in Pennsylvania Station, an unedifying interview with a rabbi cousin, a self-indulgently long take of Nathaniel in-line skating in the courtyard of the Salk Institute. Would that that time might have been used for more footage of the glorious buildings!
Nathaniel seems troubled by his family history, insisting, for example, with his half-sisters on the rather pointless question, "Are we a family?" and almost badgering his mother, Harriet, "Don’t you get angry with him?" She doesn’t answer and throws the question back at him. He says nothing, but his unresolved conflicts are clear from the tone of the question itself. Nathaniel must not have been listening when, in an earlier interview, Susannah Jones, a close friend of his mother, says with conviction that Harriet’s was "an immense, lifelong love…That kind of love is on the side of life and is a good thing."
My Architect, which all too often plays like filmmaking as personal therapy, is nonetheless worthwhile in providing background on a major architect of thrilling accomplishment.