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Design for Living

From Philly to Dhaka, a son's pilgrimage sheds light on a visionary architect's personality

When the great architect Louis Kahn died of a heart attack in 1974, bankrupt and alone in the men's room at Pennsylvania Station, he left behind a shadowy private life and a few luminous buildings of lasting beauty. His mourners included not only his wife and daughter but the two children he had by women in long-term, clandestine relationships. Kahn's only son, Nathaniel, was then 11 years old; some 25 years later, as a filmmaker, he set out to discover the man he glimpsed only fleetingly in childhood. The result is this remarkable film, an inspired homage to his father's work, and a bracing, bittersweet testament of filial love mixed with pain and compassion.

Born in 1901 into a Jewish family on an island off the coast of Estonia, Louis Kahn immigrated at age four to Philadelphia, where he was raised in poverty. "To look at him wasn't much of a pleasure," recalls his colleague Philip Johnson, interviewed in My Architect on the lawn of his Glass House in Connecticut; Kahn's face was badly scarred for life by a childhood accident. Some time after the age of 50, he began to develop his own architectural language, creating modern buildings (the Salk Institute in California, the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas) with the timeless quality of ancient ruins.

Some people who grow up in the shadow of genius develop a keen appreciation for life's small ironies. The younger Kahn devotes considerable screen time to a host of celebrated architects, including Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei (the most gracious of the bunch), who testify movingly to his father's accomplishments and influence. But he also speaks with the cabdrivers who ferried the peripatetic ladies' man between his multiple households in suburban Philadelphia, and the morning workers who clean his colossal Capital Complex in Bangladesh (they love the building but confuse its creator with Louis Farrakhan). The camera captures the soaring central nave of the father's library at Phillips Exeter Academy; but it also lingers on the anti-sublime, like the yarmulke that keeps blowing off the son's head (his mother, landscape architect Harriet Pattison, is not Jewish) as he stands before the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Kahn's Phillips Exeter Academy Library
photo: Louis Kahn Project Inc.
Kahn's Phillips Exeter Academy Library

Details

My Architect
Written and directed by Nathaniel Kahn
New Yorker
November 12 through 25, Film Forum

Visiting his father's masterpieces and grappling with his failures (his thwarted plans to build a synagogue in Jerusalem, for example, or to rebuild Philadelphia's downtown), the son sheds light on an elusive personality, as singular and strangely isolated as his greatest works—a creative visionary, unable (or unwilling) to negotiate the demands of business and family life. And each interview with the women and children he disappointed lays bare the wounds time will not heal.

Long ago, the distant sight of my own father crossing the street in his last years once moved me to tears. What part of our loved ones remains resolutely unknowable? My Architect returns obsessively to a bit of archival footage showing a vaguely unwieldy, white-haired figure in a bow tie, turning the corner and entering his downtown office. What emerges, when the myths and the bitterness have dissipated, is the obdurate sense of a unique individual—a Jewish immigrant in an Episcopalian gentleman's profession, a nomadic builder of monuments, a consummately generous artist, whose love was doled out sparingly to those around him. He's close to concrete (a favorite Louis Kahn material), yet still an enigma.

 
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