My Architect dir. Nathaniel Kahn

Opens Fri Jan 30 at the Varsity.

I know almost nothing about architecture. I certainly knew less about architecture than most people at the screening of My Architect: A Son's Journey, about 90 percent of whom were architects. In fact, I can think of at least three close personal friends whose passionate interest in the art and history of architecture made me feel silly sitting down to review a film whose subject, Louis I. Kahn, is one of the most famous and important architects of the 20th century. Not that I'd ever heard of the guy.

Fortunately for me, My Architect isn't really about architecture, nor even about Kahn himself, except insofar as the late master builder and his immortal buildings remain an enigma to his son Nathaniel, the filmmaker behind this extraordinary documentary. Nathaniel Kahn's film is about something I know plenty about: the void created by a father's absence from his children's lives, and the way that void is continually filled and depleted by the father's reputation. More specifically, My Architect questions the conceit that artistic genius needn't be beholden to petty human strictures like family. Complicating matters is the (well-documented, apparently unarguable) fact that, unlike most fathers who abandon their wives, lovers, and kids for the sake of their art, Louis I. Kahn actually was a genius. Though he never built many structures, the few major works he did complete, such as a library at Phillips Exeter Academy, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies--all shown here with reverent detail--are legendarily influential. I. M. Pei (an architect even I'm familiar with) defends Kahn's limited output by telling the camera that "three or four masterpieces are more important than 50-60 buildings."

Thanks to the film's generous cinematography, even a neophyte can understand why Kahn's work is revered. Though not all of it is strictly beautiful, or even terribly functional--some early buildings are revealed as failed experiments--the boldness of design, the frankness of material, and the sheer magnitude of his structures are unmistakably impressive; all the more so when you see grown men weeping at the conceptual reality the buildings embody. Near the end of the film, an architect is moved to tears by Kahn's building for the capital of Bangladesh, a massive island of concrete, set off by round windows, majestic natural light, and a honeycomb of ramps bustling with parliamentary activity. What the building represents, the man says, is no less than the birthplace of Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan. "We were trying to create a democracy," he tells Kahn's son. "He gave us the institution for democracy." The tears in the architect's eyes are made all the more poignant when he entreats the filmmaker to forgive his father's neglect; Louis Kahn had love for all people, he says, and as a result, he couldn't afford to give more to his only son. "It's the inevitable association of great people."

Therein lies My Architect's fundamental complexity. The more we learn about Louis Kahn--his reputation among fellow architects as a visionary artist, his refusal to compromise, the frustrations of his failed quest to build more and more important buildings--the more sympathetic a figure he becomes. But at the same time, we are confronted with truths about the man that one is typically quick to judge. When Kahn died--alone, half a million dollars in debt, in a train-station bathroom--it was revealed that he left behind three separate families: a wife and two lovers, each of whom bore him a child, and none of whom seemed to actually know about the others. But if they did know (it remains unclear in the film), they chalked his promiscuity up to the demands of genius. The film never condemns Kahn, though it admits that his relationships caused major problems for the women, due largely to out-of-wedlock pregnancies. But none of them regrets the time spent with Kahn. Not surprisingly, the two extramarital lovers were both architects, who even today swoon at the very thought of his greatness, and almost seem to be waiting for him to return.

For the children, specifically the filmmaker, whom Kahn never acknowledged publicly (though he did visit once a week), such fond memories are tainted by the specter of his absence not only in the present, but in the past. Nathaniel says he can remember every single day he spent with his father, which is to say he never spent many, and while the filmmaker's narration is witty and frank throughout, we can plainly see his chagrin when he learns that Kahn spent Christmases with his assistant's family rather than with (any of) his own. It's in these moments that My Architect assumes its stature; though a fine profile of a man, the film's true power comes from the intrusion of emotion onto primarily intellectual terrain. There is a scene, about midway through the film, when, after an hour or so of eloquence and casual intellect, Nathaniel tells an interviewee that he is Kahn's son. The man is stunned into silence by the news and can't fight back tears; the camera stays on him for several minutes as a flood of feeling for both son and father, and for the ordeal that Kahn's unorthodox life caused, spills out. I don't know if I've ever seen a more honest, spontaneous moment captured on film. I'm not sure I've seen one in real life.

My Architect is an attempt to lay claim to a father who belonged to everyone else, but not to his own son. It's about the way details linger in the mind of a son whose father exists only in fragments--his hands in a shaft of light, the scars on his face, his bow ties, and, of course, his buildings--and the way those fragments are recapitulated into memory. But where Kahn became famous for asking his materials how they wanted to be used--"I asked brick, 'What do you want, brick?' And brick said, 'I want an arch.'"--one can't help wondering what might have happened if just once he'd asked his son.

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