Nathaniel Kahn’s film about his deceased, estranged and world famous father, Louis Kahn, straddles the line between personal and historical documentary. Since Nathaniel Kahn never knew his father well when his father was alive — having brief but memorable interactions with him on occasional weekends — Nathaniel Kahn uses “My Architect” as a means to become more familiar with Louis Kahn’s life and to explore the man through his legacy. From his humble beginnings in turn of the century Philadelphia, to his early days as a fledgling architect, to his widely acclaimed projects (such as the national capitol in Bangladesh), Nathaniel Kahn looks for his father in what he left behind.
How do you get to know a person? How do you understand a person’s fears, desires and dreams? Nathaniel Kahn seems uncertain about these questions (as well as uncertain about film’s capacity to explore them) and so he takes an exhausting approach to his investigation, examining his father from every possible angle. His buildings, his friends, his colleagues (including I.M. Pei, Robert Stern and Frank Gehry), his three separate families and their friends and families all become vantage points from which Nathaniel Kahn gazes upon the remnants of his creator. He presents varied accounts of Louis Kahn, all of which agree on three things: he was a great artist, an irascible genius and an irresponsible family man. How else can you explain why America’s most influential architect was also the father of two illegitimate children, Nathaniel Kahn included?
The bulk of the documentary deals with getting the audience up to speed and presenting the main players in Louis Kahn’s life, namely his wives and children (or, rather, one child in particular: the filmmaker himself). Nathaniel Kahn is the omnipresent tour guide throughout the documentary, sometimes over-literalizing the images with his narration and reducing their metaphoric possibility. On the whole he is a plain and straightforward presence, pausing at times to gaze appreciatively upon one of his father’s buildings or to patiently listen to people’s comments, positive or not. If Nathaniel Kahn sometimes seems too passive it is only because he stands in the midst of a great silence. “My Architect” is a constant encounter with the void left by his father’s death, felt most profoundly inside his monuments with their expansive arches and vast, cavernous halls. Or, to use the words of Yale professor Vincent Scully, inside their “primitive power and weight.”
The film often loses track of its original intent (for Nathaniel Kahn to put the ghost of his father to rest) and dwells instead on the fascinating facts of Louis Kahn’s artistic genesis. After floundering for years in the architecture market, Louis Kahn took a life-altering trip to Egypt that changed his concept of material and space. Standing amidst ancient ruins and age-old pyramids, he realized that the purpose of all great buildings was to stand the test of time — to touch eternity. And the way toward this purpose was to understand the basic construction materials themselves. Brick, concrete and steel, unadorned, became the essential palate of all Louis Kahn’s future works. He listened to and obeyed the needs of the elements, crafting grand spaces out of simple, thick geometric pieces. Yalies need only step onto Chapel Street to see examples of Louis Kahn’s work with the Yale Art Gallery and the British Art Center — his first and last commissions.
Far from solving the mystery of Louis Kahn, the establishment of his artistic genius only complicates the task of “My Architect.” How can you humanize a legend? By the end of the film it is clear that Louis Kahn is practically a prophet in the eyes of architecture enthusiasts, who don’t hesitate to liken his work to that of a messiah. His fundamental understanding of how to shape space and his deep and uncompromising love for his work indicate a spirit with higher purpose — a connection, some might say, to the first creator Himself.
That Louis Kahn died alone, destitute and bankrupt in a Penn Station bathroom, and that no one claimed his body from the city morgue for three days, only add to his incomprehensible personae — to his myth. The film sets out on an impossible task and, understandably, falls short. It’s hard to believe Nathaniel Kahn at the end when he says he is ready to lay his father to rest. But it’s easy to understand why he would want to. Nathaniel Kahn is not as interesting as his father. And “My Architect” is not as inspiring as the monuments it depicts. The film’s value resides in its varied account of a truly remarkable man. Whether his social transgressions are forgivable is ultimately up to the audience’s persuasions. But what isn’t up for debate is that Louis Kahn offered a new way of experiencing the physical world, and for that we should all be thankful.