DVD recommendation: My Architect, a Son's Journey

Directed and Produced by Nathaniel Kahn

This documentary featuring and directed by Nathaniel Kahn explores Nathaniel’s journey to learn more about his father, world-renown architect Louis I. Kahn, whom he barely knew. We learn from Nathaniel’s narration that when he was eleven, his father was found dead of a heart attack at the age of seventy-three in the men’s room of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, bankrupt and alone. Because at the time of his death he was carrying a passport with his home address crossed off, his body remained unclaimed in the city morgue for three days. In the New York Times obituary, he was said to be leaving behind his wife Esther and daughter Sue Ann. His two other families were not mentioned, one of which includes Nathaniel and his mother, landscape architect Harriet Pattison. The other includes Louis Kahn’s daughter Alexandra and her mother, architect Ann Tyng. Louis Kahn had kept the two other families under wraps while he remained married to Esther Israeli from the age of twenty-eight until his death.

Louis Kahn’s complicated personal life meant that Nathaniel and his mother were never sure when Lou (as the director sometimes refers to him) would drop by or how long he would stay, so Nathaniel knew him only fleetingly before he was gone for good. Years later in his late thirties the filmmaker begins a quest to ask questions, long unanswered, about who his father really was, both as an individual and as an architect. The viewing audience is ultimately the beneficiary of Nathaniel’s circumstance, for he allows us to accompany him, and witness Louis Kahn’s life anew through the eyes of those who knew him or his work and wish to share their insight with his son. We come to understand the irony of what Louis Kahn says in the film’s archival footage, “How accidental our existences are really and how full of influence by circumstance.” This is certainly the case for his son Nathaniel.

Nathaniel provides us with a brief history of his father, narrating that he was born on an island off of Estonia in 1901 or 1902, that he immigrated with his family to Philadelphia in 1906 where they lived in near poverty, and that his distinctive facial scars were acquired by an accidental fire at the age of three. Kahn went on to win a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania from which he graduated in 1924 and then married Esther Israeli in 1930, starting a family with her ten years later. He didn’t open his own office until 1947. Finally in 1951 when he traveled to Rome to be the Architect in Residence at the American Academy, he found his architectural voice. He was drawn to the feeling of the ancient ruins, and concluded that he wanted to build modern buildings that recalled the feeling of those monuments. His most celebrated commissions would follow.

Naturally the interviews that unfold in the course of the narrative often tell as much about the interviewees as about the subject of the interview. Phillip Johnson says at the film’s onset from the grounds of his famous Glass House that, “Louis did it by being an artist…He was his own artist. He was free compared to me.” What generous words for a son’s ears. When Nathaniel is speaking with I.M. Pei about how much more prolific Pei’s career has been than Louis Kahn’s was, Pei says graciously, “Three or four masterpieces are more important than fifty or sixty buildings. Quality not quantity.” Later Robert Stern reveals his colors when he admonishes, “Don’t put him up on some kind of pedestal…He was success oriented.” Frank Gehry shares, “Lou was a breath of fresh air in America. My first works came out of my reverence for him.”

Nathaniel intersperses the interviews and narration with footage of Louis Kahn’s landmark buildings. They celebrate massive concrete, masonry, water, and natural light with balance, order, and geometry, successfully evoking a sense of ancient monuments created in modern times. You don’t doubt what Louis Kahn told his wife Esther, that he might not have been a great pianist, but that he might have been a great composer. He was. Beautiful time-lapse photography shows the buildings changing as the natural light changes and at times changing with activity. Nathaniel’s impulse is to show the spaces animated by people. The results are mixed. A small boy pausing to gaze upon the monumental Capital of Bangladesh at Dhaka that Kahn designed is touching. Footage of the filmmaker rollerblading at another one of Kahn’s masterworks, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, on the other hand, seems heavy handed and a little silly. It’s one of the rare times that his own personal story interferes with his father’s.

For the most part though, his hunger for information about his father is poignant, if not heart-breaking. He looks on wistfully with his half-sister Alexandra, the offspring of Louis Kahn’s affair with Anne Tyng, as his other half-sister, Sue Ann Kahn who grew up with his father, shows them some old bow-ties she saved that had belonged to their father. Neither he nor Alexandra seems to have such ordinary keepsakes of their own. The disparity is palpable. Nathaniel also listens to tales of how much his father loved Christmas as told by a one-time Louis Kahn employee who would host Kahn for Christmas. You can’t help but feel that Nathaniel is wondering why this is news to him. Later when touring the astonishingly powerful Capital of Bangladesh a local architect speaks of Louis Kahn with tears in his eyes, “He wanted to be a Moses here. He gave us democracy. He’s not a political man, but in disguise he has given us the institution for democracy…He has given the love to us…To love everybody he sometimes didn’t see the very closest ones.”

By the film’s end you’ve experienced some of Louis Kahn’s most impressive spaces and heard from those deeply influenced by him for better or worse. You’re awed by his talent and frustrated by his limitations. You’ve encountered the human being behind the legend.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast

Click here to buy this DVD from Amazon.