Film Reviews


By • Nov 12th, 2003 •

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Rating: 4/5

Was Louis Kahn a saint or a monster? That’s the central question of My Architect, a new documentary about the man who many consider to be the greatest American architect of the 20th century.

In March of 1974, Kahn dropped dead, aged 73, of a heart attack in New York’s Penn Station. Although even then he was widely recognized as an artistic genius—the film’s opening sequence shows his obituary on the front page of the New York Times—he left behind a half million dollars in debt and three broken families: his neglected wife and daughter, as well as two illegitimate children by two different mistresses. Twenty-five years later the youngest of these, his son Nathaniel, began work on this film, which sets out to discover the inner workings of this man whom he barely knew.

Cleverly juxtaposing interviews with his father’s colleagues (including such architectural luminaries as I.M. Pei and Frank Gehry) and with family members, old documentary footage of Kahn, and stunningly beautiful imagery of his most famous works, My Architect tells two different, but equally compelling stories: one of a brilliant and successful (in the artistic, if not financial sense) architect, the other of Nathaniel’s quest to put closure to his relationship with his shockingly bad father.

The film’s journey attempts to progress toward answers as to how a man who publicly made so much beauty out of chaos could privately make so much chaos out of beauty, and which of the two roles was, on the whole, the more important: public builder, or private destroyer. Unfortunately, no clear answers can emerge, as it becomes apparent that Kahn was an enigma even to those who knew him best. This was a man who frequently slept on the floor of his studio, would travel halfway across the globe without bothering to tell others of his whereabouts, and was, depending on the point of view, either an arrogant and aloof “artsy” type, or a mystic who saw something so deep that he couldn’t be bothered with the details that the rest of us mistake for reality.

Although this film leaves one with something of an unsatisfied feeling (it never does reveal Kahn in a way that we can touch. But then, how could it?), Nathaniel’s self-effacing style leads to some memorable scenes. In one, he interviews his mother, now in her 60’s, who still defends Kahn, and still clings to the belief that he was planning to leave his wife to come live with her and Nathaniel. In another, a Bangladeshi architect who worked with Kahn on that country’s Capitol comes to tears recalling the love that poured through Kahn’s work.

The film’s funniest scene comes when Nathaniel interviews his father’s old arch-nemesis, Ed Bacon, who worked to prevent Kahn’s ideas for revitalizing downtown Philadelphia from being realized. Nathaniel patiently stands by as the comically cantankerous Bacon demolishes everything that Kahn stood for. One has the feeling that, in Bacon’s view too, Kahn was a bad man, but only because he was a bad architect. Although the scene is pure humor, it inadvertently offers more insight into the Kahn mystery than any other: perhaps men who are so imbalanced as to wrap their entire egos in their art aren’t much of a fit for the rest of society.

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