Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Feb 01, 2004 11:48 am 
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FATHER AND SON

A wayward genius brilliantly revealed

My Architect by Nathaniel Kahn is that ancient story, the search for a man’s father. Nathaniel was the illegitimate son, the “bastard,” of Louis Kahn, the architect who died in Penn Station, New York, in 1974 coming back from India. Kahn had three children, but only one by his wife; the second daughter and only son were by two other women. The architect was a nomad and a man obsessed with his work. He saw Nathaniel and his mother once a week, but Nathaniel never got to know his father well. Lou Kahn died when his son was only eleven, and the secret children and their mothers weren’t supposed to come to Lou Kahn’s funeral, though they did.

So 25 years after his father’s death, at the age of 36, Nathaniel set out to make this film to find out who his father was – and he has done an amazing and triumphant job. He begins with a sketch of Kahn’s origins, the fire that disfigured his face (it looked pock-marked), and his early displacement from Estonia to America. We learn about Kahn’s development over time and the sources of his style. They look back to the archaic and the monumental, not to anything his contemporaries did.

Nathaniel visits all the significant people and places in his father’s life as well as a number of important architects. He starts out with “the man with the glasses,” Philip Johnson. Johnson talks about what a “nice guy” Kahn was. “All the rest of us were bastards,” he says. Johnson’s point is there was a lack of jealousies or rivalry, a selflessness: that focus on the work; it’s also clear Kahn is a member of the Johnson pantheon. I.M. Pei makes one thing emphatically clear: he considers Kahn his superior. “It’s quality, not quantity, that matters,” he says rapidly and bluntly when Nathaniel suggests Pei was more “successful.” Kahn may only have completed a few buildings, Pei says, but they are great masterpieces. Later in the film Frank Gehry says Kahn was his original inspiration, that without Lou Kahn, he would not be. It’s plain that the most famous architectural figures of our day are all in awe of this man. A failure morally, a man who couldn’t do right by the people closest to him in his life, Louis Kahn is perhaps the greatest American architect. That fact emerges as powerfully as do his personal shortcomings.

Nathaniel “interviews” the great buildings, too, most beautifully and movingly. His camera scans their spaces. It peers at them far and near in different lights and shadows. We even see him from far above, roller blading around the space encompassed by the Salk Center in La Jolla, casually making friends with and taking possession of it after an interview with the man Kahn worked with when the center was designed. These viewings of the buildings, a revelation of the man’s achievement, presented for the most part without commentary, are deeply moving both in and of themselves and in the context of the searching portrait of the man behind them.

To skip forward to the end: in the film’s final segment Nathaniel Kahn tells Shulyar Wares, the Bangladeshi architect, that his three days of photographing the government building at Dhakka, Kahn’s last great project, will only yield at most ten minutes of film. “Ten minutes!” Wares exclaims. “You would try to do justice to this building in ten minutes! To its spirit, its power, the ambiguities of its spaces!” Wares then speaks about Kahn’s achievement and character. It’s not unusual for a great artist to fall short as a man, he says: the one failure may be necessary for the other success. It’s an eloquent, seemingly spontaneous speech, and a perfect finale to the portrait.

It’s hard to do justice to this film without summarizing it scene by scene. It’s the cumulative effect of the interviews, plus the fine photography and the brilliant editing, that all add up to an extraordinary portrait of a great artist and a flawed but complex man. Nathaniel Kahn’s simple bravery before the camera leads to a series of intensely revealing, often moving scenes with the people in Kahn’s life. There are quite searching conversations with the two other women, including the filmmaker’s mother. Nathaniel Kahn never falters or spoils the tone: he isn’t confrontational, but neither does he avoid hard questions. He’s serious, but without an ounce of self-importance.

And while the interviews are powerful, they are paced by visits to the few but great buildings, whose effect at times is transcendent, and needs no inflated commentary from Nathaniel or anyone else.

It’s astonishing how the film modulates from some rather petty remarks by men who worked with Lou in Fort Worth (who considered the architect impractical and airy-fairy) to the building that resulted, backed up by Beethoven’s Ninth. If you can look at a building with Beethoven’s Ninth as background and the music seems right, you know it’s a great building. And this is the revelation of My Architect: that Louis Kahn’s buildings are magnificent, radiant visions of serenity, vastness, and beauty: that they’re among the artistic masterpieces of the twentieth century and we’re fools not to go see them. I for one plan to make the pilgrimage to La Jolla for the Salk Center as soon as I can.

The triumph of Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary is its balance. While the exploration of the buildings and the processes behind them goes along, so also the search for the secrets of Kahn’s life continues through the course of the film. We realize that indeed as Wares says, Kahn’s weaknesses and his virtues are inseparable. If he was a bit of a Don Juan, it’s because he was a man of great personal charm, a man without poses or pretenses whom everyone liked – though sometimes they had to give up working with him to save their health and sanity, because he worked so relentlessly. Neither of the “other women” would have had it any other way. The first found working with him tremendously rewarding despite the painful secrecy (she was an architect too), and the second, the filmmaker’s mother, still believes that Lou was about to come and live with them when he died. And if Kahn was irresponsible toward women, he was passionately committed to his work, and the result is a lasting monument of triumphant buildings.

There is a surprising amount of footage of Kahn himself, so that his face, his stature, even the way he looked walking in and out of his offices in Philadelphia, are always a reality to us. It’s appropriate that Kahn died in the huge train station, his address mysteriously obliterated from his passport. He died as a nomad, exhausted from his great final project in Bangladesh, driven, isolated. Nathaniel even managed to find and interview – in California! – the railroad employee who found his father’s body in Penn Station 25 years before. The whole film seems a combination of diligence and serendipity. It’s a homage with equal measures of passion and restraint. Though a search for self in a way, it’s selfless and compassionate.

Seen at Film Forum, New York.

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DHAKA


Images and comments:
Dhaka. (a slide show of photographs of the buildings):
In Search of Louis Kahn. The writer, an editor of Architecture Week, is dissappointed that there are not more images of the buildings by Louis Kahn and thinks there are too many "talking heads."

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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