Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 09 February 2006
Source New Yorker DVD
A son’s desire to know and understand his father is an age-old trial in identity—a primary search for one’s father is a secondary search for one’s self, typified by Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams and, more recently, Mark Wexler’s Tell Them Who You Are. Though the formula of a detached father-son relationship has always imparted an extra layer of emotional credibility to film characters, it never really stood profoundly alone until Nathaniel Kahn’s 2003 documentary My Architect.
My Architect is Nathaniel Kahn’s attempt to know his father, famed architect Louis I. Kahn. He is the result of an affair between Kahn and landscape artist Harriet Pattison, and the few recollections of his father are delicate remembrances of a man who yearned to live several lives while barely succeeding in living one. Gaining fame only in the last decade of his life, Kahn died, penniless and exhausted, when he was 73; Nathaniel was eleven. He was found in a Penn Station bathroom, the address on his passport crossed out. By interviewing those who knew, disliked and loved him, Nathaniel composes a symphony on film. We hear from his contemporaries — great architects like I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson — as well as his enemies; an interview with Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon has Nathaniel restarting an argument forty-years stalemated. We see Louis Kahn’s work exposed by sunlight and bathed in the shades of darkness, both astounding and isolated. They’re reflections of their creator: Kahn’s Exeter Library in New Hampshire rests alone on a hill, skirted by nature, while the Norman Fisher House is a concert hall constructed as a steel boat, built to travel the waters without a home.
My Architect is inherently beautiful. It’s easy to credit first-time director Nathaniel Kahn’s unpolluted skills and personal commitment, or Robert Richman’s plush cinematography, but the great visuals only succeed as a testament to Louis Kahn. The long, uninterrupted visages are breathtaking at every angle, placid and bare while at the same time full and intricate. The office-workers who inhabit Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Building refer to it as ugly; Nathaniel seems to agree. As the film progresses, he seems to appreciate his father’s work more and more; the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, are wonderful examples of structure submitted to light and nature—open, flowing assortments of concrete and steel, their lines of design and construction still purposely visible. When Nathaniel finally arrives in Bangladesh to visit Louis’s last work, the National Assembly in Dacca, the legacy of his father is finally realized. Looking down from the second floor, Nathaniel and architect Shamsul Wares discuss what such a modern building meant to the young and impoverished Bangladesh of the 1970s, and as Wares begins to cry he proclaims, “He gave us democracy.”
There’s a moment in the film’s beginning when Nathaniel Kahn roller-blades through the open pavilion of the Salk Institute; “Long May You Run” plays in the background. Though it seems odd for a son to sweep through one of his father’s few masterpieces, you realize that he’s interacting with Louis in the only way he can: as a sole being dancing in the middle of an open monument, its designer a man whose life was as large and complex as his work.
From what the space wants to be the unfamiliar may be revealed to the architect. From order he will derive creative force and power of self-criticism to give form to this unfamiliar. Beauty will evolve.
—Louis I. Kahn, from Perspecta 3