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'My Architect: A Son's Journey'

Son traces the life of Louis Kahn in 'My Architect'

Friday, February 06, 2004

By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"My Architect: A Son's Journey" is the story of a man's five-year search for the father he barely knew, for the meaning of his father's life and work and for the relatives he'd never met.

 
 

'My Architect: A Son's Journey'

Rating: Unrated.

Director: Nathaniel Kahn.

   
 

Nathaniel Kahn was 11 when his father had a heart attack in the men's room at Manhattan's Penn Station, about as banal and impersonal a stage set for life's final act as one can imagine. His body lay unclaimed on a slab at the morgue for three days because no one knew who he was.

Louis Kahn was a living legend at the time of his death, the circumstances of which sealed his public persona as an impoverished, tragic figure whose reputation rested on a handful of heroic, monumental buildings.

There is, as there always is, so much more to tell, and Nathaniel Kahn and his cameraman crossed the country and traveled to Israel, India and Bangladesh to tell it. It is by turns witty, angry, lyrical, heart-wrenching, confrontational and deeply moving, and it just may be the best documentary ever made about an architect.

It was not common knowledge that Lou Kahn had more survivors than the wife and daughter listed in his New York Times obituary in 1974. But it was known to his immediate family, some of whom hated him for it, and to his business associates that Kahn was maintaining, if only intermittently, two other families with two women who had worked for him.

Kahn's daughter Alexandra Tyng was born to architect Anne Tyng; Nathaniel's mother is landscape architect Harriet Pattison, who believes to this day that Kahn was planning to leave his wife and come live with them at the time of his death. For both women, who never married, he is still a powerful presence.

All three families lived within a few miles of Kahn's Philadelphia office, but never saw each other until his funeral.

How he and they managed this is one of the central questions Nathaniel seeks to resolve as he gently teases answers from his half-sisters, aunts, uncles, mother and Anne Tyng. Only Kahn's widow eludes him; she died before filming began but appears in an old film clip.

Kahn was no movie idol, as historic film footage reveals. He stood 5 foot 6 inches, his face was badly scarred by burns he'd received as a toddler in his native Estonia and his voice was thin and raspy. None of that mattered to his women, who have held their beauty and dignity into old age. He wooed and won them with his mind.

"Lou would visit every once in a while, mostly at night," Nathaniel recalls. "My mother would frantically whip up a five-course meal and I got to stay up late."

When Nathaniel decided to make his movie, he knew time was against him as he sought interviews with his father's aging contemporaries. Fortunately they were long-lived, none more so than Philip Johnson, whom Nathaniel meets on the lawn of the Glass House. He is genuinely surprised to hear Johnson describe Kahn as "the most beloved architect of his time."

The son also finds insight from conversations with I.M. Pei, Robert Stern, Frank Gehry and several architects who worked with Kahn around the world or in his office, including Moshe Safdie.

"My first works came out of reverence for his work," Gehry says.

Not everyone found Kahn's poured concrete forms fitting. He was invited to redesign Downtown Philadelphia in 1967, but the plans, shown briefly in the film, were rejected.

"They were all brutal, totally insane, totally impractical," an aged but animated Edmund Bacon, former Philadelphia city planner, rails at the son. It is a little shocking to see him and some of the documentary's other players, shown in film clips from the 1960s and '70s, age 30 to 40 years in an instant.

One of the threads running through the film is the search for connection.

"He left no physical evidence that he'd ever been to our house, not even a bow tie," Nathaniel narrates. He cherishes the postcards mailed from his dad's travels and a little handmade book father and son wrote together about whimsical boats.

At the time, Kahn was working on the design of the Pittsburgh (now American) Wind Symphony barge for conductor Robert Boudreau, who clearly loved Kahn and is overcome with emotion on meeting his son.

It's a joy to watch Nathaniel and the camera get to know Kahn's barge and buildings intimately, from the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., to the hand-built National Assembly Building in Bangladesh. Where did those uncompromising, elemental, spiritual forms spring from? Nathaniel traces them to his father's life-changing trip to Europe and ancient Egypt.

In time, the son learns the secret of Lou Kahn: He was all about the work. The private, personal context of "My Architect" hugely expands and enriches our understanding of it.


Post-Gazette architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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