The Salk Institute
Louis I. Kahn
Director Nathaniel Kahn
Documentary filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn pursues the truth about the life and work of his famous and notorious father, architect Louis Kahn, a man who cast aside the feelings of those close to him as he practiced his chosen craft. Kahn the younger examines the man, his relationships and his most famous works in “My Architect.”
Comparison is inevitable for those who saw the charming and imaginative documentary, Lucia Small’s “My Father the Genius,” a heartfelt work that combines examination of her father, brilliant architect Glen Howard Small. This film and “My Architect” delve into the lives of visionary geniuses, masters of their profession but woefully inept in maintaining positive relationships with wives, lovers and children.
Nathaniel Kahn begins his examination of his father, Louis, many years after his death. Nathaniel has only recently admitted to his relationship with the famous, volatile architect whose creations span the world. Elder Kahn had a wife and daughter, it was known, but he also had two mistresses and a child apiece with them. In all cases, Louis placed his work first and his family a far distant second as he followed his artistic destiny and left the remains of his broken family relationships strewn behind.
Documaker Kahn travels the country and the world and gathers interviews with his mother and half sisters, his father’s colleagues and disciples. He visits the far-flung places where his father’s visions take concrete form, such as the enormous, awe-striking capital he designed for the impoverished nation of Bangladesh. Kahn also probes into the financial irresponsibility of Louis that matches his emotional immaturity.
“My Architect” is not the catharsis that Lucia Small achieves with “My Father, the Genius.” Nathaniel Kahn’s work is more detached and gives some insight into what made Louis Kahn tick but does not judge the man and his failings. This is a practical, straightforward work that delivers in its quest to make known the accomplishments, and failings, of a genius. I give it a B-.
When famed architect Louis I. Kahn died unexpectedly, his son, Nathaniel, searched his obituary to find some reference of himself, but only a wife not his mother and a daughter Sue Ann were mentioned. Decades later, Nathaniel is still trying to find evidence of his existence in the life of his father in his searching documentary, "My Architect: A Son's Journey."
It's not unusual when Hollywood studios come up with the same idea all at once - two films being prepared about "Alexander the Great" at the same time, etc., but how odd that two independent filmmakers have both attempted to reconnect with an absentee father who was a prominent architect via a documentary within two years! Even weirder is Kahn's admission that the real family name is Schmalowski, a foreign version of Lucia's surname? Lucia Small's "My Father, the Genius" was a well directed, wildly original use of the form, although she also benefited from having her subject participate in her film. Kahn, in trying to explain his present by revisiting his father's past, goes a more conventional route with a father who has passed into history.
Kahn interviews his dad's colleagues and contemporaries and visits his most famous buildings - the Salk Institute, the Kimball Art Museum, the Capitol of Bangladesh, although they shed little light on the man. Philip Johnson dubs him 'the most beloved architect of our time,' while another associate marvels that Kahn was married, let alone had two additional families with mistresses. The architectural kudos are tempered humorously by present day inhabitants of the Richards Medical Building who say it is not a good place to work and that birds fly into its windows.
In reconnecting with his past, Kahn is more coy when his interview subject, in fact, knew him as a young boy. He has an emotional reunion with the man who operates a music barge that opens into a hall, a project that Kahn can trace to a childhood book, 'A Book of Crazy Boats,' made for him by his dad. A fascinating bit of kismet is captured when Kahn locates the last man to see his father alive (Kahn collapsed in the men's room at Penn Station), who reveals that he hasn't seen his own son in ten years.
Kahn tries to build suspense by working his way through his father's women by leaving his mother until the film's end. Harriet Patterson is finally introduced 1 hour into the film, still beautiful with a rich, youthful voice, Although her contention that Louis was returning to her and Nathaniel at the end because he had crossed out his address in his passport is pooh-poohed by Kahn's legitimate offspring, when she poses her questions to her son - 'So what do you think Nathaniel? Do you think it's a myth?' - her words are poignant and oddly reflective of her son's film.
Kahn ends up with a conflicted portrait of his father - a man with a badly scarred face who was irresistible to woman, an 'in the trenches' professional revered by Frank Gehry, a Utopian dreamer of impractical designs who nonetheless created practical solutions. One never quite gets a sense of whether Kahn has accomplished his personal goals. 'Are we family?' he asks his two half-sisters. He does, however, convey a sense of loving connection to his father when he includes a shot of himself rollerblading in the courtyard of the Salk Institute. His musical accompaniment? Neil Young's "Long May You Run.'
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