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My Architect: A Son's Journey (2003)

The secret life of architectural genius Louis Kahn

Directed by:

Nathaniel Kahn

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 116 minutes

US Certificate: Not Rated UK Certificate: PG

Emigrating from his native Estonia to Philadelphia at the age of four (in 1905), Louis I. Kahn studied architecture in university, married in 1930, and had a daughter ten years later. In 1947 Kahn became a popular professor at Yale (and later at the University of Pennsylvania), but success as a working architect did not come to him until he was in his fifties, when travels through Greece, Rome and Egypt inspired a new style which married classical monumentality with modern materials, and exploited the effects of natural light to singular advantage. At his death in 1974, he was regarded as one of the most important and influential architects of his generation.

Yet Kahn died alone in the toilet of a New York train station, bankrupt and with the address on the passport he was carrying mysteriously erased – and as well as his truly extraordinary structures (including the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Kimbell Art Museum, and his crowning achievement, the posthumously completed National Assembly Building of Dhaka, Bangladesh), Kahn also left behind some less well-known living monuments, in the form of a couple of mistresses and two illegitimate children. 'My Architect: A Son's Journey' follows the quest of one of those children, Nathaniel Kahn (who was eleven when the architect died) to reconcile his father's public and private lives, and “find out who he really was”. In other words, a film which, even as it reconstructs the great architect's buildings, deconstructs the man.

A wealth of archival material is brought together with new footage of Kahn's major works (including the National Assembly Building, whose staggering beauty alone is a sight well worth the price of the ticket), as well as the original plans, and even computer models, of buildings never completed. Interviews with other architects (including Vincent Scully, Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, Robert A.M. Stern and Philip Johnson) are placed alongside more personal accounts from cabbies, builders, family members and lovers – but many of these interviews are poorly conducted, in need of tighter editing (especially the ones at Union Station, L.A. with the man who barely remembers finding Kahn's body – and with a totally irrelevant passer-by), and revolve infuriatingly around variants of the question “How could Dad have done this to me?”, when there are far more interesting questions that might have been posed.

Kahn was always more interested in his public works than his private relationships, and this documentary, whether wittingly or not, makes it clear why, as it sets Nathaniel's meandering, often banal musings against Kahn's breathtaking buildings. No disrespect to Nathaniel, but his obviously very personal journey might better have been shared with a therapist than with a large cinema audience, and to my mind it provides a distraction from, rather than an insight into, Kahn's architectural achievement – a bit like having one's view of a magnificent spectacle blocked by somebody continually saying “Me me me”. Sometimes it is better just to respect people's privacy.

It's Got: Fascinating, not always hagiographical account of Kahns architecture (one person says of the early Richards Medical Towers "it needs...something to give it a little pizzazz instead of looking like a bomb shelter", while of the National Assembly Building a Dhaka morning worker says simply "this is the nicest place in Bangladesh"); Jack MacCallister, a former co-worker on the Salk Institute, suggesting insightfully that "the scars on the building that are produced by the way its made" are meant to reflect Kahns own facial burn scars; absolutely stunning architecture, culminating in the complex at Dhaka that seems to float on its own foundations.

It Needs: A little less emphasis on Nathaniels personal journey (I realise this is the whole point of the documentary, but still wish that it was not).

Alternatives:

Amadeus, The Belly of an Architect

Summary

Documentary about a contradictory life and staggering architecture, told with a little too much of the Wrath of Kahn Jr.

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