My Architect (2003)

2003-11-12 (Limited release)

One might expect a documentary about the late architect Louis Kahn to focus on his pivotal role in shaping 20th-century architectural trends. And, if it features interviews with Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, and Robert A. M. Stern, you might expect insightful analysis of his masterworks: the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, the Exeter Library, or the astounding capital complex in Decca, Bangladesh.

But My Architect is unexpected. Made by Kahn’s son, Nathaniel, it is more interested in his father’s unusual familial experience: before his death by heart attack in the men’s room of New York’s Penn Station, he fathered two children out of wedlock (including Nathaniel) with two different women while remaining married to a third for nearly 50 years. Seeking reasons for these choices, the son visits his buildings, interviews those who knew him, and culls through documentary evidence of his career. And so, the film not only traces how Nathaniel’s memories developed, but also how his research for this project has colored them. Much of this process is difficult. He meets with his half-siblings to discuss their peculiar relationships to each other. As he watches old interview footage, Nathaniel’s voiceover tends to focus on Louis’ physical features — his hands, his facial scars, his wispy hair. In some instances, these features are blown up and isolated onscreen, as if to break down and decode the monolithic impression Kahn left behind.

But such moments, like shots of Kahn’s Philadelphia office or footage of him at building sites, only enhance the man’s lingering mystery. As Nathaniel recounts his father’s incessant traveling, long hours, and habit of sleeping on a rug in his office, it becomes clear that Kahn deliberately rejected diurnal comforts of the domestic sphere. By detailing moments he did spend with his father, Nathaniel makes him seem a tourist in his own family. Whether this is emblematic of the artist’s love for humankind or himself is a question the film invites us to contemplate. We also contemplate some of his work, though these sequences appear in cropped frames, as though the documentary was originally made for television. Worse, the buildings’ majestic silence is maddeningly thwarted by the accompanying music, which trivializes the architecture, perhaps by design. In a sense, his father’s buildings are Nathaniel’s villains, monuments to his father’s priorities.

While Nathaniel is in an unusual position to care as much about the quality of Louis Kahn’s parenthood as his art, an audience may not share these priorities. The story of the emotionally unavailable artist is a familiar one, but My Architect reveals the costs of such egotism. While the film accepts the myth that monumental art requires monumental selfishness, interviews suggest that Kahn’s intensity was such that those around him were grateful to aid him in his quest. They appear in awe of his talent in a way that his children are not. Nathaniel reveals his mother’s view of him to be a romantic illusion, and his interrogation of her is rather discomfiting. Thankfully, the creepiness is mitigated by Nathaniel’s self-deprecating charm, enhanced by brief scenes where his yarmulke blows off at the Western Wall or he roller-blades in one of the vast solemn courtyards at the Salk Institute.

It’s essential that Nathaniel earn our sympathy, because in the absence of any nuanced exploration of Louis Kahn’s work, the pathos of Nathaniel’s childhood is the film’s sole emotional hook. My Architect is staked on a premise that neatly mirrors its theme, that the plight of a particular individual is more compelling than elaborating an artist’s public reputation and lasting social significance. The film shows the paradox of his father’s career: Kahn’s refuses to sort out the chaos of his personal life so that he can commit himself instead to making great buildings for the public. At the same time, his cantankerous and uncompromising approach to architecture suggests he is consumed by his near-insular vision.

This is memorably illustrated through an interview with the equally acerbic Ed Bacon, who defends his exclusion of Kahn from the redesign of downtown Philadelphia in the ’60s, explaining how Kahn refused to see public buildings as serving anything other than an aesthetic function, as having any other purpose besides testifying to the clarity of his own vision. In making this paradox plain, Nathaniel invites us to see his father as a kind of visionary, whose aesthetic forced him beyond the dichotomy of public and private, rather than mired him in the midst of it. His life, then, is neither private nor public, but transcendent. He conceived buildings that reconfigure public space into a private sanctums so intimate that Nathaniel can find memories of his father reconstituted there, with his many contradictions resolved, or at least seeming superfluous.