review by Carrie
Gorringe, 20 June 2003
Seattle International Film Festival
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,
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: