In the preface to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray, he makes the famous statement that “all art is quite useless”. Not so architecture, an art form that can be both admired and functional. Time, though, is a great leveller, condemning some art to the past while elevating others. The works of Louis Kahn (1901-1974) receive this treatment in My Architect (2003, 116 mins), a documentary of his son Nathaniel Kahn‘s journey to better understand the man who died when he was eleven. The Richards Medical Research Laboratories, once lauded on newsreel as Kahn’s greatest achievement now seems a monstrous carbuncle to those who use it today.
Kahn’s death was a bit of a conundrum. Following his return from project work in India, he suffered a heart attack and died in a New York toilet. His address was scored out on his passport and his body lay unclaimed in the city morgue for three days. Despite his career and the high profile of his work, he was half a million dollars in debt. The subsequent obituary noted that he left behind a wife and daughter. No mention was made of his children from two other relationships that he concurrently maintained. It’s this exclusion from his father’s publicly known life that begins this film.
The twenty-five year distance between Kahn’s death and making the film is not fraught with the problems expected, namely that his contemporaries would also be dead. Luckily, architects appear to be immune to death and some of those appearing here (I.M Pei, Philip Johnson, and, for six-degrees-of-separation fans, Kevin Bacon‘s father, Edmund Bacon) are, if not already there, pushing nonagenarian status. Johnson calls Kahn a true artist while Bacon, famous for his role in rebuilding downtown Philadelphia, appears less enthused by Kahn’s seeing individual flourishes while neglecting the larger picture (“all brutal, totally insensitive, totally impractical”)
Bacon’s dissent aside, the overall sense is one of warmth (and why wouldn’t it be in a film about a son wanting to understand his father?) but that sensation comes not from the editing but the words of all the others interviewed. The women who he maintained away from his own marriage never themselves married and still look back favourably on the architect. Frank Gehry attributes his first works to his reverence for Kahn. Old friend Robert Boudreau is lost for words when Kahn fils reveals his heritage. Even a group of career cab drivers seem pleased to take a trip down memory lane without their meters running.
There are two stories running parallel here. That of the son learning of his father and then there’s the story of the father himself which, debts aside, can be held up as an American success story. As a three year old in his native Estonia, he burnt his face with hot coals, and the scars stayed with him through life. Later his family emigrated to America, where he would draw and play the piano for money. Architecture finally came as his calling, although it wouldn’t be until he was almost fifty that his undistinguished career would get the inspirational injection it needed, thanks to a residency in Rome where he learnt from the ancient monuments that endured millennia. No longer would he attempt to emulate the glass fronted buildings leading the new architectural wave; instead he would make ancient buildings for the modern world.
The buildings are certainly unique and Nathaniel Kahn makes an effort to visit them throughout the film. Most vivid are the Phillips Exeter Academy Library for its undramatic exterior which gives way to a beautifully exposed interior and the Salk Institute, which I.M. Pei declares “will stand the test of time”. While time (in the terms that architecture needs to prove its worth) is not possible within a shooting schedule, Kahn does treat us to a lovely time lapse sequence of the building. A young boy plays over the central canal, the sun sets, the building lights come on in phosphorous green, and a portentous sky is reflected in the water. The architecture here is not just the shapes and materials, but how it ties in to the world around it. And not just ties in but shapes it, as evidenced by the tears of Shamsul Wares as he contemplates how the beautiful Bangladeshi parliament building gave the country a home for democracy. Such forward-looking is what ultimately allows the son to say goodbye to the father.
As an inspiration and vaunted as one of the modern greats the sacrifice taken to reach such architectural heights must certainly have been Kahn pere‘s family life — or families’ lives. “Are we a family?” Nathaniel asks of his half-siblings. The answer may be as unclear as their image of him as father, but there’s food for thought in whether a family should be defined by blood or by choice. The blood is certainly there, but notions of familial unity may ultimately be personal.
It’s suggested that certain attributes (being short, ugly, and Jewish) may have driven Kahn internally, such soul-searching ultimately leading to his artistic drive and unique vision (“symmetry, order, geometric clarity, primitive power, and enormous weight”), and his family life being secondary because true artists don’t have discipline. But the story of Louis Khan appears to be one of the older themes around; that of man versus nature. Indeed there’s a voiceover of Kahn eulogising on the power of art to recreate and inspire wonder (“Truly the work of art is one that tells us that nature can not make what man can make.”) The story of Nathaniel Kahn and his father may have been one borne of nature, but it takes an artist to tell it.