My Architect
review by Carrie Gorringe, 20 June 2003

Seattle International Film Festival 2003

Nathaniel Kahn's first feature, My Architect, takes him on a journey through his childhood and his problematic relationship with his father.  Now, we've all seen tedious versions of this I-never-knew-my-father paradigm before in countless documentaries, but Kahn's story was different;  not only did Kahn not know his father, but as the film progresses, it transpires that no one else did as well.  Louis Kahn was one of the giants of mid-twentieth-century architecture:  among his projects were the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA, the Scripps Institute in Philadelphia, and the government buildings of Dacca, Bangladesh.  His buildings are characterized by their special insistence upon their stark forms and the ways in which they allow natural light to flood into wide-open spaces, an ironic metaphor for the way in which Kahn conducted his personal life.  After his mysterious and anonymous death in Penn Station in 1974, it transpired that Kahn had been leading a triple life with two serial mistresses and two additional children born out of wedlock.  Moreover, the families lived within miles of each other, but only encountered each other at Kahn's funeral (the encounter was, needless to say, not a pleasant one, Kahn's wife having literally ordered the mistresses not to make an appearance). Nathaniel's life was characterized by both comic and tragic incidents:  his father would appear at his house, once a week, usually under cover of darkness, spend some time with the "family", then depart in the middle of the night.  His mother, despite her professional background (she was a landscape architect), seemed to play a role straight out of a weepy melodrama;  she spent years hectoring Kahn to leave his wife for her (indeed, there is a strong implication in the film that the effects of Kahn's triple-dealing were beginning to take a toll:  his fatal heart attack appeared to coincide with a promise he had supposedly made to Nathaniel's mother that he would, in fact, divorce his wife).  Nathaniel Kahn, left with no real legacy from his father in any sense of the term (his father died in debt), resolves to visit his buildings and his lovers, attempting to discover who his father really was.

In examining his father's life, Kahn encounters a man who had always lived according to his own rules (he had lost several contracts among them the opportunity to reshape downtown Philadelphia during the 1960s -- because of his refusal to compromise his standards), and his responses to other people's attitude toward design was not always politic.  He could also be remarkably insensitive (upon hearing that his second mistress was pregnant, Kahn's response was, "Not again!").  Yet, he also was capable of a degree of personal loyalty (the film implies that one of the reasons that Kahn did not divorce his wife had much to do with the fact that she had been his primary means of financial support early in his career), however imperfect or incomplete.  How to explain this man who was so direct in his work and so equivocal in his personal life?  After five years of examination and travel, Nathaniel Kahn finds, at best, only a partial answer, in the person of a government representative from Bangladesh, who tentatively posits that Kahn was a man who was brilliant but remarkably "immature" in his private life the old "Transgressive Genius" chestnut.   In what are the most painful moments in the film, Nathaniel Kahn confronts his mother and, though his questions, obliges her to come to terms with the years she wasted living in her own illusions about her lover;  she, too, is a victim of incompleteness, albeit that which she willingly (or willfully?) inflicted upon herself and her son.  Perhaps, as Nathaniel Kahn's extensive use of archival materials demonstrates, the real answer to Louis Kahn's identity lies exclusively in the works he left behind, and, as much of his work was not realized during his lifetime, it seems as if his son's work (i.e., to understand his father) is destined to suffer the same end.  My Architect is an absorbing work, both damning and enlightening.


Seattle International Film Festival:

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Directed by:
Nathaniel Kahn

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.

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