Nathaniel Kahn, the illegitimate son of respected New York architect, Louis I. Kahn, who died in 1974, undertakes a five year, worldwide exploration to understand his long-dead father. Kahn, considered by many architectural historians to have been the most important architect of the second half of the twentieth century, was a Jewish immigrant who overcame poverty and the effects of a devastating childhood accident. Kahn created a handful of intensely powerful and spiritual buildings -- geometric compositions of brick, concrete and light -- which, in the words of one critic, "change your life." But his personal life was filled with secrets and chaos: he died, bankrupt and unidentified, in the men's room in Pennsylvania Station, New York, leaving behind three families -- one with his wife of many years and two with women with whom he'd had long-term affairs.
Review by Louise Keller:
An enthralling exploration of an extraordinary man, My Architect is far more than a documentary about a talented designer considered the most significant in the last half of last century. This Academy Award nominated film recognises Louis I. Kahn not only for his contribution in creating buildings rich in spiritual power, but more importantly takes an intensely personal look at the complexity of his secret, private life. His buildings are distinctive and timeless with stark, symmetrical lines accented by curves that play with angles and light; his personal life was shrouded in shadows. One wife, two mistresses and three children who meet for the first time at his funeral.
Kahn's son Nathanial, who was 11 when his father died, has made a riveting and highly emotional film that triggers our every emotion. It's a cathartic journey, as he tries to become acquainted with the father he never knew. He was a man of small stature with a badly scarred face, black-rimmed glasses and thinning white hair. His carelessly tied bow-tie and uncluttered appearance symbolised his artistic temperament and nomadic lifestyle.
A Jewish immigrant from Estonia, Kahn moved to Philadelphia when he was four years old, and lived in poverty. Under scholarship he studied at the University of Pennsylvania, but it was not until a trip to Greece, Rome and Egypt in the middle of his life, that he finally found the style that defined his artistic talents. He combined stark modernism with the mystique of the ancient ruins. Spirituality suddenly embodied his creations.
My Architect is no ordinary tribute, and Nathanial often questions the integrity of the man who never married his mother, and whose dangled promises became all too important in his life. Treasuring every childhood recollection - from well-loved black and white photographs to preserved postcards and memories of a special picnic - Nathanial digs deep - professionally and personally. He talks to his father's architect colleagues, cab drivers, clients, relations, lovers, children ... and no topic is censored. There's admiration, heated criticism and recollections as Nathanial retraces his father's final years, before he died alone in a public washroom, the address in his passport scratched out.
It is impossible not to be moved in scenes like the one between mother and son, when Nathanial urges Harriet to be critical. It is such a personal moment, and it's as though the emotion has carried them far beyond camera range. Tears well in the eyes of Kahn's former mistress Anne Tyng as she explains why she left him even though she didn't really want to. 'If you go into silences, you will hear him,' says an Indian architect colleague, who believes Kahn to be a highly advanced soul - or guru. We visit many of Kahn's buildings, and the expansive drama of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla California seems to extend forever as Nathanial roller-blades in the courtyard. There's the dramatic library at the Phillips Exeter Academy and the futuristic steel boat that expands into a concert stage is unforgettable. But the film's climax comes as Nathanial journeys to Bangladesh, where he sees the crown jewel of his father's accomplishments: the majestic, monumental Capital of Bangladesh. Completed nine years after Kahn died, the breathtakingly striking hand-built concrete structure took 23 years to build, as long as it took to build another monumental symbol - the Taj Mahal.
Kahn is an enigma. He was strong, opinionated, confident, charismatic and instilled unfathomable loyalty from both his colleagues and his women. He lived for his work and strived for idealistic concepts. His buildings are almost sacred. Fascinating, funny, heartbreaking and affecting at the most unexpected times, My Architect is multi-layered in its impact, opening our eyes wide to the majesty and wonder of an artform that is everlasting.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Who is Louis Kahn? Well, even if you don't know or care before seeing My Architect, you'll know and care after it. I didn't know, and as I watched his son trace this architect's work, I didn't much care for his enormous buildings, either. Many are made of red brick, a medium he favoured in almost mystical proportions, all of them are somewhat stern and inelegant, and it is said he was one of the most influential architects of the last century, there is no evidence of it given in this film. Indeed, the film's interest in architecture is cursory and an aside. The real interest - and the real value - is in the film's personal probing of a man who was far from lovely, yet he was loved.
This film is made by Nathaniel, his only son, who last saw him when he was11 years old and Louis was being buried; Nathaniel is now 36. He had seen his father but once a week and knew nothing much about daddy, who continued to live with Ester, his wife. Nathaniel's mum and another woman who had a child with Kahn, were kept out of his life. Yet the three women stayed loyal in their way to this strange, slightly disfigured man. (His face bears the scars of a small apron fire from his youth.)
He is short, with large glasses, a mop of white hair (in most of the footage we see of him) and on film there is no sign of the charm he is said to have exuded. But the film ploughs on, through acquaintances, ageing colleagues and peers, his women, his children and even his enemies.
The candid interviews with colleagues are enlightening, but it's the family, and especially Nathaniel's own mother, who add that spark of excitement to this film's adventures into Kahn's life. Amateurish in some ways, the film benefits from this naïve approach and captures the emotional essence that drives Kahn's memory in so many people.
Kahn's sudden, anonymous death in the toilets of New York's Pennsylvania station, apparently penniless, adds a strange glow of rock star glamour to his life (until it is detailed as a heart attack on his way home from a trip to India). It seems somehow fitting that a man who some regard as a spiritual creator of buildings, but an inept human being, should expire in a contradiction.
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MY ARCHITECT (PG)
CAST: Narrator: Nathaniel Kahn
PRODUCER: Nathaniel Kahn, Susan Rose Behr
DIRECTOR: Nathaniel Kahn
SCRIPT: Nathaniel Kahn
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Bob Richman
EDITOR: Sabine Krayenbühl
MUSIC: Joseph Vitarelli
PRODUCTION DESIGN: N/a
RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 14, 2004
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
VIDEO RELEASE: May 11, 2005