My Architect: A Son’s Journey,
116 mins, opening in cinemas on 14 October 2004.
Does a genius have to live by the moral rules that apply to everyone
else? Or should they be able to write their own rules?
This question has been addressed by several writers. Paul Johnson’s
book Intellectuals, first published in 1989, examines the often
despicable personal behaviour of great thinkers such as Rousseau,
Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Brecht, Bertrand Russell and
Sartre. More recently, Drusilla Modjeska’s book Stravinsky’s Lunch
asked the same question as a way of examining the plight of women
artists trying to juggle family, love, and art.
Now there’s Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary feature film My Architect,
five years in the making. Nathaniel is searching for the truth about
his father, the world-famous architect Louis Kahn, who died when
Nathaniel was 11. At the time Louis Kahn died, many considered
him to be the greatest living architect.
My Architect begins with Louis Kahn’s mysterious death in the men’s
room of Penn Station. He was 73, and had just returned from
India, where he completing one of his greatest works, the Institute of
Management at Ahmenabad. But when his heart stopped at Penn
Station, no one recognised him. He had scratched out his home
address from his passport, and so his body stayed in the morgue,
unclaimed, for several days.
Louis Kahn’s death made page one of The New York Times. But in
the obituary, his son Nathaniel was not listed as one of the family
that survived him. That was because Louis Kahn had three families
– one “legitimate” family and two others that he had kept secret.
Nathaniel found he had two half-sisters that he knew nothing
about. They saw each other for the first time at their father’s
funeral. This film is Nathaniel’s exploration of his father and
this secret triple life.
In fact, My Architect is about several journeys. There’s
Nathaniel’s search for his father – the one he didn’t know. Then
there is Nathaniel’s search for himself. And finally, overlaying
the whole film, is Louis Kahn’s search for immortality.
Nathaniel interviews many people over the course of nearly 2
hours. He also films the most significant of his father’s
buildings: the Yale Art Gallery (1951-53), the Trenton Bathhouse
(1954-59), the Richards Medical Towers (1957-62), the Exeter Library
(1967-72), the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (1959-67), the
Yale Center for British Art (1969-74), the Kimbell Art Museum (1967-72,
often described as the greatest museum built in the 20th century), and
his two last and largest projects: the Institute of Management at
Ahmenabad (1962-74) and the transcendent Capital Complex at Dhaka,
Bangladesh, begun in 1962, but completed after he died.
Nathaniel interviews his subjects in his father’s buildings when he
can. This does two things: it solves the problem of photographing
architecture without making the film look too static, too much like a
travelogue. And it somehow makes a spiritual connection between
the people interviewed and Louis Kahn himself.
Nathaniel asks his mother, his father’s other lover, his two
half-sisters, his aunts, and his father’s work colleagues, employees
and clients, what his father was like. He asks eminent architects
such as Philip Johnson, IM Pei, and Frank Gehry what they thought of
his father and his work. Louis Kahn’s presence permeates the
film, his image going in and out of focus as Nathaniel grapples with
often-painful questions. Was Louis Kahn an insensitive workaholic
who cared only for his buildings? Was he a dreamer but ultimately
a failure (he died bankrupt)? Or was he a genius, and is that all
that matters? There’s confusion and hurt here, but there are
moments of poignant beauty and great insight too.
Two examples can suffice: first, there’s a scene in which
Nathaniel goes rollerblading in the divine courtyard of the Salk
Institute in California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, just as the sun
sinks into the sea. He describes long, slow arcs with his blades,
echoing the elegant curves and arches that characterised much of his
Second, at the stunning Capital complex in Bangladesh, Nathaniel has a
chance encounter with a local architect, Shamsul Wares. Wares
chastises Nathaniel for only devoting 10 minutes of film to this, his
father’s largest project, and probably his masterpiece. Wares is
in no doubt about Kahn’s contribution to this, the poorest country in
the world: “He wanted to be Moses for us… He gave us democracy”.
The music score, mainly piano, is by Joseph Vitarelli and is achingly
beautiful – including one particularly lovely waltz. Vitarelli also
makes effective use of Neil Young’s song Long May You Run. And if
the film at times concentrates a little too much on Nathaniel’s place
in all this (as indicated in the film’s subtitle), perhaps it is
understandable. He is, after all, emerging from the shadow of a