“My Architect”: Nathaniel Kahn’s Search for His Famous Father
by Nick Poppy
When the architect Louis I. Kahn collapsed and died in the men’s room of Penn Station in 1974, he left behind many things. There were buildings of monumental importance and vision, like the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in southern California, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. There were ambitious and unfinished projects, including plans for an enormous synagogue in Jerusalem. And there were people. Kahn’s obituary, which made the front page of The New York Times, listed his survivors as a wife and daughter. But the list was incomplete. The architect had also secretly fathered another daughter and a son by two women to whom he was not married. Perhaps tellingly, Louis Kahn’s body lay in the city morgue for three days before it was claimed. The architect, it turns out, was many things to many people, but there was something elusive, a little hard to identify, at the center.
Nathaniel Kahn was 11 at the time of his father’s death, and that loss, compounded by the very public denial of his existence — the Times obituary that omitted him, his mother, and his half-sister — affected him deeply. His father’s death left him with many questions, which boiled down to a single, gemlike query: who was Louis Kahn?
Now, almost 30 years later, the son has made a film about the father. Nathaniel Kahn’s personal, first-person documentary “My Architect” (which opens at Film Forum on Wednesday and nationwide thereafter) takes measure of Louis Kahn as a person and an artist, the architect of many buildings, as well as three children. In “My Architect,” the younger Kahn travels the world, visiting his father’s buildings and talking to the people who knew him. Nathaniel traces the lines of Louis’s life and career, describing the obstacles and influences that shaped his father, and in so doing, comes to a better understanding of who his father was, and who he himself is. “My Architect” may be to architecture what Mark Moskowitz’s “Stone Reader” is to literature: an appreciation, an evocation, a search for a person, a family, a community — and a reckoning with the enchanting, maddening, soul of the artist.
Nathaniel Kahn spoke with indieWIRE contributor Nick Poppy about “My Architect” and his famous, obscure, neglectful, loving father.
indieWIRE: It seems like architect and documentary filmmaker are parallel careers — they occupy the same sort of place in our society.
Nathaniel Kahn: I think first of all just the process of making a building and the process of making a movie have a lot of similarities, in that there are so many things that conspire to kind of reduce your vision along the way, from the difficulties with convincing people to be involved, to the difficulty of getting money, to just the amount of time it takes. And then of course the fact that buildings are constructed and films are constructed. I mean, you put things together, you string things together, you put stone upon stone. It’s a slowly building process. Also, there is the idea that ultimately architecture is just about space and light. And films are also certainly very much about light. Physically speaking, it is literally capturing light. But also it is conveying a feeling of space, and movement.
Those things also seem related — I think they’re related in complex ways that I probably made way too simple, but it is something to think about. I do think also that architecture is all around us, and film is all around us. There are a lot of bad films out there. There’s a lot of bad architecture out there, and I think sometimes it takes a lot of time to begin to see what’s really good. And I think what the test seems to be is, what really sticks with you. And what really becomes a part of your life. There are buildings I’ve visited, places like Chartres Cathedral, or some of the buildings of my father’s. You visit them and they really do change your life. They make you see things differently. And I think a great film can do that, too. That, after you see a great film, your world is somehow different. It almost changes your consciousness a little bit.
iW: It struck me when you were going around to the various building sites that you were looking for family, that you were visiting your brothers and sisters. You have some kinship with these things and the people around them.
Kahn: I think that’s true. I think on some level, all the people I talked to were touched by this man, in one way or another. And I think that in a way, that makes the film the measure of a life. But also, what you point out is that each one of these people sort of has a kinship with each one of the other people, because of this man. And I think that’s true to some degree And when you have someone like Lou, who affected so many people, and gave so much of his life to creating something, creating things, gave so much time, energy, life force to those things. He had a really profound impact on these people, and I think they [still] think about him. We all think about him in different ways. I know that each one of his children has something they wish they’d said to him, or something they wish they’d asked him.
And the same thing goes for a lot of these other people. From the famous architects like Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Moshe Safdie, Frank Gehry, to the cab drivers who drove him around, and are still puzzling about him. You know, who was he really? He was one of those people who, when he came through your life, you couldn’t help but be affected by him. Not everybody liked him, and that’s the other thing that I was pleased to be able to show in the film is that there were people who didn’t like him. And who didn’t get along with him. Or who didn’t get what his thing was. And I didn’t want to just create a film that was a puff piece about how great he was. I wanted to really take the full measure of the man. And when you open yourself to that, a lot of things come out that are surprising, and complex, and contradictory.
iW: I was a little surprised by your response throughout the film. You seemed remarkably emotionally contained. The story about your family is a little unusual, and I might have expected more anger, more…
Kahn: Sturm und Drang?
Kahn: I think that one of the hardest things in making the film was finding the right voice for me. And we tried a lot of different things. And I think that what I discovered is that one has all kinds of emotions, but you have to find the right place for them. And I didn’t want to whitewash the entire film with this sense of anger. I do think there’s a strong sense of longing throughout the film, and that was sort of more what I was after. My father was my hero, and he died when I was 11. So, I really never experienced the kind of natural teenage rebellion or the anger at him. I never experienced those feelings as a young person. So 20 years later, 25 years later, 30 years later, it’s very difficult to supply those things. Difficult to find them. I certainly have them. There are some moments when I express a little bit of anger or frustration at him. And actually, through making the film, I feel those emotions more now than I did before making the film. I think it brought me closer to him, so in a way, I was able to experience feelings about him that I really had not had, and certainly one of them was frustration and anger at times. We certainly tried narration that was angrier, but it didn’t work. It sort of skewed the whole thing. The last thing I wanted to make was a “Daddy Dearest” film. It’s not really what I felt about it. And I think that we live in an age when everybody thinks if you’re not being angry, you’re not being real. And that’s a little shallow.
iW: One of the major themes of the film has to do with the things that a person leaves behind. There’s so much physical stuff from Louis Kahn’s life, and you use that material to paint him.
Kahn: I think you’re right. In a lot of ways the movie is about what’s left behind, and I hope that there’s a kind of universality to that, because all of us leave things behind, whether it’s children, or a financial legacy, people do leave things behind. I think in the case of Lou, he left a great deal behind that is kind of unusual. In the film I really wanted to find those things. And obviously some of them are buildings. But some of them are people, too. Or feelings. In a way, the film is a little bit of ghost story. We used the footage that way. The editor and I talked a lot about how we wanted to use that archival footage that we had of Lou. And we felt very strongly that we didn’t want to use it in the conventional way of, “OK, we have some old footage of this guy, here he is talking about one of his buildings.” But rather to use it as if he were a character in the movie that we were trying to get to, but at first had kind of a hard time getting to. So the first shots of him have him disappearing into a doorway, or walking on the street. There’s a lot of him moving around, or drawing and being a little bit remote. So rather than telling us about himself, it was more that he was this kind of ghost that was weaving in and out of these people’s lives, even many years later. Thirty years later.
iW: Did you show your father’s gravesite in the film? I don’t remember seeing it.
Kahn: We filmed that, but no, we didn’t. I had a whole wonderful scene there – the first time I went to his grave, actually. And it was a good scene. Maybe it will be in the DVD.
iW: It struck me that since this film is so much about physical markers, that’s another marker.
Kahn: I guess I didn’t want to imply that my father was in one place. He was in all those buildings. Each place that I went to, part of him was there. And maybe I didn’t want to cast that off and say, well, really he’s here. I feel his gravesite is completely just incidental. The marker of his life is not a tombstone. It’s those buildings that are out there. It’s that solid, ancient looking capital of Bangladesh, it’s the mysterious Salk Institute, it’s the sublime Kimball Art Museum, it’s the beautiful little Trenton Bathhouse. Those are the markers he left behind. Those things, and our memories. Our personal memories. Of which there are many, spread among many people. From cab drivers to famous architects.