Monday, February 28, 2005

my architect

This past week, we rented a DVD of the documentary, My Architect, directed by Nathaniel Kahn. The documentary is about his father, architect Louis I. Kahn, considered to be one of the great architects of the last century. He is particularly noted for art museums at Yale, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, the library at Phillips Exeter Prep School in New Hampshire, the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the National Assembly buildings in Bangladesh.

Kahn died in 1974 at the age of 73. His personal life was messy -- two children by two different associates in his architectural firm in addition to a daughter by his wife. At his death, he was bankrupt. Traveling back from India, Louis Kahn had a heart attack in the men's room at Penn Station in Manhattan. Having crossed out his home address on his passport, the police didn't know who to contact and they didn't know who he was. His body was taken to the NYC morgue for three days before the world figured out that architect Kahn was dead.

Kahn the son had many questions about his famous father. He was eleven years old when his father died, a father who came to see him once a week or so, but who never lived with the boy and his mother. At age 39, Nathaniel decides to learn about his father by visiting his buildings. Deciding that documentaries lessen their impact by taking interviews of talking heads and using snippets throughout, he decided to use any interview only once during the movie "Since I only sat down and interviewed them once." The only person who shows up twice is his mother, and she was interviewed twice in separate locations. On the DVD are additional parts of the interviews with architects and others who knew Kahn that are worth watching.

In between visits to Kahn's buildings, we hear from Philip Johnson, chatting with the director sitting outside under a tree close to the Glass House, as well as other well-known architects I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, and Robert A.M. Stern.

But the lesser known interviews are the most compelling: people who worked with Kahn on specific projects, the fellow who saw Louis Kahn when the police found him dying in the train station men's room, a cab driver who often drove him around Philadelphia where he lived, an architect in Bangladesh who lectures to the son about his father.

And the women in Louis Kahn's life. Both of the women who had Kahn's children out of wedlock were professionals in his architectural practice in Philadelphia, the first was an architect, the second a landscape architect. They collaborated with him on his buildings. Independent women in the 1950s who dared to have children while being single. Smart, tough women who fell in love with a man who could or would not be faithful to either one. Both of them have incredibly expressive eyes, and the film gives us an opportunity to look at Kahn through them, with some pain and anger, but also with their passion for him.

Kahn the director also draws upon numerous film outtakes of his father from the 1960s and 1970s. It's b-roll stuff, mostly not talking head, but the shots of Kahn walking here and there, drawing, thinking. And then there is a haunting picture of the young boy Nathaniel sitting outside with his father, his small hand in his father's hand.

At one point, Nathaniel meets with his half-sisters at a house that Louis Kahn designed and they talk about their father. Louis' daughter by his wife brings a couple of Kahn's bow ties, the kind we have seen in the outtakes. It is a muted reunion.

And there are the buildings, lovingly shown, reminding us of how powerful Kahn's designs were (and how little snippets of them were used in other buildings by lesser architects that never had that kind of power and energy).

Kahn the director struggles with his feelings about his father, but his tone is often balanced and questioning rather than either angry ranting or hushed hagiography. By the time we get to the impressive government building in Bangladesh, he does reach a connection, some sense of peace with his father.

One of the more powerful scenes in the documentary was at the end of the section on the Salk Institute in California. Fairly well-known, it is a series of jutting buildings separated by a rectangular plaza that itself is divided by a thin channel. The buildings, the plaza, and the small channel of water open out onto the Pacific Ocean. The sky and ocean are framed by the buildings.

As we see several shots of the completed building, we can make out a small figure rollerblading on the plaza. At one point, we have a closer shot from the sky and we look down on the director, making a perfect and playful arc, slicing up the hard right angles of the plaza and buildings. It's the director, Nathaniel, gliding across and through the plaza.

Another such moment was captured at the capitol building in Bangladesh, where a small boy stands on a ledge, looking out across the water at the magnificent building. The boy ponders the mighty building. That is all we can see. Building. Water. A small boy. The director, who narrates the documentary, tells a compelling story about complicated people.

A side note. One of the interviews that was cut from the documentary was with Peter Goldberger, architectural critic for the New Yorker magazine. Nathaniel interviewed him at a fast food court at Penn Station, where his father died. At the time of Louis Kahn's death, Goldberger had just been appointed architectural critic for the New York Times at age 23. He was called to write the obituary about Kahn and was nervous about getting it write.

Goldberger tells Nathaniel Kahn that he felt more strongly now than when he wrote the obit that his father was truly a great architect. How ironic, he says, that Kahn died in the modern Penn Station, a travesty of a place, so lacking in any architectural quality, the complete opposite of a Louis Kahn building.


lemming said...

Wow. You do write very well, Don. :-)

I remember reading a New Yorker piece about his unusual family circle and the picture of the half-siblings; delighted to har that the story didn't end there.

Don said...

Lemming -- I've been to the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth a couple of times, and was aware that Kahn was a famous architect, but had not read much about him. The interior of the Phillips Exeter library and the Bangladesh buildings were incredible.

But even if he had been a crappy architect, the personal story in this documentary was very powerful. I think its the best movie that I've seen in a long time. I highly recommend it.