My Architect: A Son's Journey

"Very Good"

My Architect: A Son's Journey Review


It's difficult to think of a subject less suitable for film than architecture - and a story about an architect even less so. But even though the documentary My Architect: A Son's Journey has much more than buildings on its mind, it is one film that could have been successful simply as a study of the several structures that are featured in it. Late in the film, when the director is interviewing an architect about a building they are standing in, he mentions to the architect that the footage he shot of it will only have about 10 minutes of screentime; the look of pain on the architect's face is almost palpable.

The director in question is Nathaniel Kahn, the only son of the titular architect, Louis Kahn. Even though he is credited with pioneering the break from the soulless modernism that typified architecture in the postwar period, Lou never achieved the success he deserved. In 1974, when Nathaniel was 11, Lou died from a heart attack in a men's room at Penn Station in New York. He was bankrupt and his body went unidentified for three days because he had crossed out his address on his passport. After his death, it was revealed that although he had been married for decades to Esther Kahn, with whom he had a daughter, Lou - this short man with a thin voice and a face horribly scarred from a fire in his childhood in Estonia - had carried on long-term affairs with two female architects, having one child with each.

My Architect is in some sense a journey of exploration for Nathaniel, an attempt by him to understand the exciting, mysterious man who would come by the house every week or so (all three of Lou's women lived within a few miles of each other around Philadelphia), but whom he never quite knew. And since Nathaniel's father was a man who lost himself in his work, what better way to understand the man than to understand his work?

Thus follows a round of interviews with the top architects in the world today, men like I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry and A.M. Stern - all of whom cannot say enough about Lou's brilliance, or his eccentricities. Unlike most talking-heads, they don't speak in soundbites, however, bringing forth much more intimate feelings than one usually gets in studies of under-recognized genius. Pei, especially, lights up when talking about Lou and practically gushes; when Nathaniel says to Pei that he had a much more successful life than Lou, having built many times more buildings, Pei brushes it off, saying "Three or four masterpieces are better than 50 or 60 buildings... It's quality, not quantity."

And the buildings themselves are magnificent. Nathaniel has the honesty to note that when he visits one of Lou's first great works - the Richards Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania - that he was a little disappointed, and rightfully so. It's a bland modernistic piece, roundly hated by everyone who works in it. But when the film lands at the Salk Research Center in La Jolla, California, its clean, sweeping spaces letting in the ocean vistas are like a revelation, and perfectly illustrate what all the architects are going on about when they discuss Lou's "spirituality." The building shown at the film's climax, the capitol building of Bangladesh, is like something out of time, soaring stone and brick structures looming out of an artificial lake, with light-soaked galleries and cathedral-like spaces inside. They are indeed masterpieces, as Pei says, but there are too few of them, as Lou was never one to compromise, and he came late to his limited success: by the time his ideas began to catch on and he started receiving commissions, he had only 10 years left to live.

Although this project is obviously extremely close to Nathaniel's heart, it must be said that the film suffers from too much of his presence. He's a fairly passive interviewer, one who's content to ask a question or two and then let his subjects stew somewhat, which occasionally brings forth further unqueried revelations, but often just results in stony, uncomfortable silence. My Architect ends in mystery and sadness, Lou's family, friends and co-workers seemingly still stunned all these years later, and unable to fathom exactly what kind of hold the man still exerted over all of them, like his buildings, inescapable.

A Q&A with the director (featuring some archival footage) is also included on the DVD.

OK, he's your architect too.



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