“My Architect”: Searching for a Brilliant Architect, and a Not-So-Brilliant Father
by Peter Brunette
“My Architect” is an excellent new documentary (opening today at Film Forum) that comes perilously close to a narcissistic flame-out from time to time, yet always manages to right itself at the last minute. Most immediately, it’s a nuanced portrait of the great American architect, Louis I. Kahn, who died of a heart attack in a men’s room at New York’s Penn Station in 1974. In these days of the celebrity architect (yes, I too made a detour during my vacation in Spain this past summer to see Frank Gehry’s magnificent Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao), it’s an important and fascinating document on these grounds alone. What makes the film especially interesting, however, is that it was made by the architect’s 40-year-old illegitimate son, Nathaniel Kahn. As such, and far more importantly, the documentary becomes a heart-rending search for the missing Father, a topos in Western culture that has been with us at least since Telemachus pined so eloquently for his Dad Odysseus in Homer’s 3000-year-old epic.
One immediate benefit of this personal approach to the film’s subject comes in its organization, which is whimsical and delightfully rhetorical, rather than boringly chronological or thematic. Jokey chapter headings, like “The Truth About the Bastard,” become witty plays on words since, in this case, the bastard turns out to be Nathaniel, not his caddish father. Also, because the presentation of information is always charged with the filmmaker’s unrequited desire (Nathaniel, who saw his father only infrequently, was 11 at the time of Kahn’s death) there’s an undeniable intensity here that would be lacking in any other filmmaker’s treatment. The downside to this intimacy, of course, is that Nathaniel’s relentless foregrounding of self makes for some serious self-involvement which verges at times on the ickily megalomaniacal.
A wonderful parade of talking heads provides us with an impressive who’s who of modern architecture, from Philip Johnson (still spry and testy, though well into his 90s) to the legendary Yale architecture professor Vincent Scully and architects I. M. Pei, Frank Gehry, and Robert A. M. Stern. They provide the intellectual ballast to “My Architect,” which earnestly strives to understand the philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings of Kahn’s revolutionary approach, which melded high modernism with ancient geometrical forms, and which in turn helped pave the way for postmodernism. The conclusion that you take away from these interviews is that Kahn was a visionary artist, an idealist who was not very adept at making nice with potential clients. A host of other people involved deeply or superficially with Kahn — from cabdrivers to professional colleagues to spurned lovers, even to the guy who found Kahn dead in the men’s room — round out the fascinating, articulate cast.
Rather than focus solely on the enigma of Louis Kahn the brilliant architect and failed human being, the film wisely concentrates on Nathaniel’s attempt to come closer to his father through an encounter with his buildings, which are spread all over the world. Here the film reaches its visual zenith, in a host of powerful, resonant shots of such dispersed constructions as the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, the Salk Institute in California, and the House of Parliament in Bangladesh.
But what most non-architects will remember from the film is the intense emotional scenes, as when Nathaniel meets with his half-sisters (one, 20 years older, Kahn’s legitimate daughter and another, Nathaniel’s age, also the product of an illicit affair), or when he takes his father’s other lover back to visit a building she worked on with him, and, most powerfully of all, when he confronts his mother concerning her continued loyalty to her lover whose genius didn’t allow for much domestic contentment, the goal of lesser mortals. These scenes have a phony, constructed edge to them, since you can’t ever forget the presence of the camera, but it’s a kind of productive phoniness that has a Brechtian distancing aspect to it. In other words, it feels as though Nathaniel, though happily wallowing in his self-absorption, is simultaneously letting us know that he knows he’s doing this. Less forgivable are the constant reaction shots of himself that Nathaniel feels he must give us, lest we forget for a second who’s the center of attention here, and the occasionally forced music score designed to extract that reluctant tear. Curiously, what worked most effectively on me was the impassioned Bangladeshi architect who speaks of the importance of Kahn’s architectural vision to the increased self-confidence of his impoverished country. “He gave us love, if not you,” he explains to Nathaniel. “To love everyone, you don’t see the closest ones. This is inevitable for a man of his stature.” It’s unclear whether these words convince Nathaniel to accept his father’s absence from his life — for once he’s reticent — and the result is powerful.
Despite its flaws, this is a brilliant and moving documentary. And in this talk-show-besotted, confessional age, a certain amount of narcissism, I guess, just comes with the territory.