Legendary architect Louis I. Kahn dropped dead in the men’s room at Penn Station at the age of 73. Having just returned from a trip to India, he was facing bankruptcy at the time, and was probably the most honored and simultaneously underemployed architect of his era. His obituary said that he was survived by his wife, Esther, and a daughter, Sue Ann. What it did not say was that he also had two other families on the side, including an 11-year-old son, Nathaniel.
That son is the fellow who made this fascinating — if somewhat overlong — documentary that details his efforts to understand his late father. The film gets off to a somewhat clunky start with the first interview, but soon becomes compelling as it reveals more and more about Kahn and his work.
Nathaniel Kahn sometimes injects a little too much editorial comment into the proceedings, but since the movie’s as much about him coming to terms with his father as it is about the noted architect, that’s reasonable enough.
Still, the film works best when the interview subjects speak for themselves. Some are helpful and insightful, while others veer toward the outrageous and the eccentric. I have yet to figure out just why the fellow who found Kahn on the floor of the men’s room was included here, or what he thought he had to add to Nathaniel’s understanding of his father. And the man who effectively blocked Kahn from working on the renewal of downtown Philadelphia is more revealing about his own intense hatred of Kahn than he is of the man himself.
On the other hand, architectural giant I.M. Pei offers a brilliant and generous assessment of Kahn, blowing off the suggestion that Pei was more successful than Kahn by noting that “four or five masterpieces are more important than 50 or 60 buildings.”
Interviews with the last two women in Kahn’s life, along with Nathaniel’s get-together with his two half-sisters, help to fill in the blanks on the personal side, and something like a full picture of the man slowly forms. The film is unusual in its emotional power, especially when it takes up the owner of a bizarre floating theater designed by Kahn and an architect in Bangladesh with whom Nathaniel discusses his father’s greatest and most incredible creation, the capital of Bangladesh.
The film’s structure is shrewd to the point of near brilliance: The order in which Kahn’s works are presented builds interest as the movie progresses, climaxing with the Bangladesh sequence, which, happily, finds the Bangladeshi architect speaking most lovingly and eloquently about both Kahn the artist and Kahn the man. It’s a great ending to a very good documentary.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of My Architect: A Son’s Journey on Sunday, May 1 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street, follow to Lake Pointe Landing entrance and park in lot at left.)]