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My Architect: A Son's Journey

(2003) *** Unrated
116 min. New Yorker Films. Directors: Nathaniel Kahn, Nathanial Kahn. Cast: Nathaniel Kahn, Louis I. Kahn, Nathanial Kahn, Frank O. Gehry, Philip Johnson.

When Louis Kahn died of a heart attack, alone and unrecognized, in a men's room of a New York railway station, he left a concrete legacy of brick and stone and an ephemeral one, shrouded in mystery. Some consider Louis Kahn the most influential architect of the latter part of the twentieth century. To his children--a daughter conceived with his wife, an illegitimate daughter from another woman, and an illegitimate son from a third woman--Kahn was an imposing but often absent, lovable and infuriating architect of their characters. Nathaniel Kahn, Louis's marginalized son, took his camera on a journey of discovery to the people and places which help to define Louis Kahn, as well as the places which Louis Kahn defined: his buildings. The resulting film--My Architect: A Son's Journey--won a 2004 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.

Nathaniel's film is deeply, unabashedly subjective on the subject of his father, adopting the somewhat chaotic but unidirectional character of his own quest for understanding. As such, the director trails into a few dead ends (like a bland discussion among Kahn's children), but for the most part, My Architect holds interest as an examination of the defiantly idiosyncratic personal character of an artist and a biographical (and autobiographical) analysis of Kahn's work. Kahn desired "permanent work in the world—he wanted it to last." If Kahn failed to be prolific, he certainly created a handful of literally monumental buildings, among them the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California and the Capital Complex at Dhaka Bangladesh. Kahn's work emphasized a harmonious fit of material to design and a geometric clarity inspired by ancient monuments.

Of course, Kahn's lesser known legacy lives in his children. Nathaniel shares his childhood memories of a warm but elusive father, coming and going in the night, stretched thin amongst two other families and a consumptive career which buried the architect in lifelong debt. Kahn's insistence that he could only count on his work leaves a palpable void for those left behind, but Nathaniel gathers chestnuts of his father's personality from Kahn's architectural contemporaries (like Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei), his admirers, and both of his extramarital lovers, as well as from archival blueprints, films, and the buildings themselves, each of which offers Nathaniel a uniquely involving emotional experience of his father.

Climactically, Nathaniel visits what was arguably his father's greatest work. Shamsul Wares--a Bangladeshi architect who collaborated with Kahn on the Capital Complex in Dhaka--bemoans of the director's limited time, "You cannot treat this building like this! Do you think you can really capture the quality of this building in terms of space, light, volumes, and the layering of these spaces, the ambiguities?" The filmmaker must acknowledge that his filmic document is but a Pyrrhic victory, but the film succeeds in creating its own space for meditation on a man: the journey, as they say, is all.

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