The word "genius," denoting extraordinary intellectual or creative power, is derived from a Latin term meaning to beget, to father. My Architect: A Son’s Journey, Nathaniel Kahn’s deeply personal documentary about his father, the late Louis I. Kahn, is about the elder Kahn’s genius in both senses of the word.
A highly influential and respected architect, Lou Kahn had a substantial impact on modern architecture with his monumental, classically influenced designs in brick and concrete. Equally important to the film, Louis Kahn fathered three children by three different women — one his lifelong spouse, the other two longtime mistresses. Kahn the filmmaker is one of Kahn the architect’s two illegitimate children.
Nathaniel was 11 when his father died in 1974 at the age of 73. Nathaniel’s film, made nearly 30 years later, represents both an instrument and a chronicle of his efforts to explore who his father really was, what legacy he left behind, and what it might mean for his son. Part travelogue, part interview documentary, part home movie, My Architect surveys the elder Kahn’s most important buildings, from La Jolla’s Salk Institute to the Exeter Library to the Bangadeshi capital, along the way interviewing colleagues, peers, family members, even chance acquaintances — anyone who might have light to shed on the mystery of his father’s character and personality.
Certainly his father’s life was full of mystery and contradiction. A celebrated authority in his own lifetime, he was $500,000 in debt at the time of his death. Inspired relatively late in life by a tour of the ruins of the ancient world, Kahn designed in a massive, geometrically rigorous style that one source speaks of in terms of its "traditional morality," though no one would use those words to describe his personal life. A secular Jew who spent years trying to build a world-class synagogue in Jerusalem overlooking the Temple mount, Kahn’s largest and arguably most transcendent creation wound up being a capital complex for a Muslim nation, Bangladesh, housing a mosque as well as facilities for the nation’s government.
Perhaps the most nagging question is just how Kahn understood or thought about his complicated love and family life. His three women and their children all lived in the same Philadelphia suburb within a few miles of one another, yet their paths never crossed until the day of his wake. Kahn regularly visited Nathaniel and his mother, sometimes as often as once a week, always returning each evening to his wife. Did it all amount in his own mind to juggling three different lives, three different families? Or did he fancy that they were all in some way a single "family"?
Kahn the filmmaker does his best to be objective, allowing each interviewee to provide his own perspective on Kahn the architect. One colleague of his father’s frankly disparages Lou’s shabby treatment of women even as he praises his talent and energy. But others rationalize Lou’s actions: A friend of his mother’s defends his parents’ love as "lifelong" and "on the side of life and a good thing."
Yet when Nathaniel, in one of the film’s most startling segments, films an almost painfully frank interview with his own mother, his feelings come to the fore. What Lou did to them was bad, wasn’t it? Doesn’t she ever feel angry at him? But his mother resists this line of thought, sticking to the claim she told him since his father died — that when he died Lou had been on the verge of leaving his wife and coming to live with them.
Now an adult, Nathaniel is skeptical about this claim (though he doesn’t raise the question whether, had this in fact been his father’s intention, that would have been a good thing). But his mother still clings fiercely to her story. "It’s a good myth to have," he offers cautiously. But she won’t compromise: "I don’t believe it’s a myth… What’s your explanation, Nathaniel?"
In this single moment of pathos and desperate sadness, Nathaniel gives us, without commentary, without criticism of either of his parents, a wordlessly eloquent exposé of his father’s philandering and his mother’s denial more telling than the most strident propaganda. Not that the film has a moral axe to grind — but the moral is there for those who wish to draw it.
In another vivid scene, Nathaniel meets with his two half-sisters in a house designed by their father (for another family, significantly), and they share memories of the day of the wake. Nathaniel and his illegitimate half-sister recall their mothers being phoned by friends of Lou’s widow requesting that they not come to the wake — but they did come, though they were shuffled to the side.
"Are we a family?" Nathaniel asks his half-sisters. To this question no satisfactory answer is forthcoming. "I think if we’re a family," one of his sisters volunteers, "it’s because we’ve made a decision to care about one another… not because of the accident of having the same father." But of course if it weren’t for their father, they wouldn’t be having the conversation in the first place.
Can the soul of an architect be found in his buildings? Nathaniel’s first attempt, a visit to the Newton Richards Medical Research Building in Philadelphia, leaves him cold; despite the high esteeem in which the building is held by architectural authorities, Nathaniel doesn’t like it (nor do its residents). The Salk Institute, with its staggered laboratories each enjoying an unobstructed view of the Pacific and its central concrete courtyard bisected by a ribbon of water, is more evocative; footage of Nathaniel rollerblading in the courtyard, dancing about architecture as it were, is both touching and slightly pitiful.
But it’s Lou’s final creation, the Bangladeshi capital complex, that offers Nathaniel the most powerful revelation of his father. At once imposing and ethereal, the monumental edifice of concrete and marble columns straddles desert and river; its inner spaces are vast and grandly modernistic, but outside its formal geometric structures suggest both ancient temple and fortress, reflecting Kahn’s love of the ruined monuments of the ancient world. In a striking tribute to Kahn’s classicalist aspirations, Nathaniel tells us that during the Bangladeshi war for independence against Pakistan, Pakistani bombers neglected to target the capital complex because from the air they mistook it for an ancient ruin!
Does Nathaniel finally find his father? If so, it’s neither to excuse him nor to condemn him, for a son can do neither of those things. But the journey will perhaps have been worth it if Nathaniel can finally do what he was unable properly to do as an illegitimate 11-year-old at his father’s wake: say goodbye.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.