My Architect - A Son's Journey
Louis Kahn was many things in his life. He was an architect of
unparalleled vision and scope. He was a brilliant scholar and an
interesting lecturer. He was a charming man. He was a late
bloomer in architecture, coming up with his greatest works after the age of
fifty. He was an exceedingly private man. He was an enigma.
He was married for forty years and fathered a daughter. He also
fathered a daughter with one of his assistants. He also had a son with
another woman he worked with. A woman who believed he would leave his
wife until the day he died. He was an absentee father who was
occasionally capable of great kindness to his children. He was a man
who was half a million dollars in debt when he died of a heart attack in the
men's room at Pennsylvania Station in New York. For some obscure
reason that no one can quite figure out, Kahn had blacked out his name and
address in his passport, so that his body was unclaimed for days before they
figured out who he was.
Nathaniel Kahn was one of his children. He was only eleven years old
when his father died. By the time he was grown, he was still plagued
with questions about his father. How could a man could be so revered
in certain circles and yet be completely impossible to actually know?
Nathaniel made this film in an attempt to come to grips with the father he
never really knew. He thought that if he talked to the people who knew
Louis and toured his greatest buildings, perhaps he could gain an
understanding of who he really was. It may be therapy for him, but it
also turns out to be a fascinating mystery. The fact that he only gets
some of the answers to his uncertainty doesn't distract from the reality that
he is able to give a look into the mind of an artist.
the time of his death, Kahn was in his seventies and still jumping through
hoops to get jobs. However, even though he was considered a giant in
the world of architecture and a man of groundbreaking vision, he created
relatively few buildings. As Kahn tells us in the film, of all those
spectacular structures, on only one did Kahn turn a profit (the Salk
Institute in La Jolla, California.) The rest were delivered at a
significant loss, when they were able to be finished at all.
Kahn's style seems to have been one that embraced light and space and a
sense of whimsy. A sense of imperfection in the building was not only
tolerated, it was embraced. From great large structures like the Salk
Institute, the Yale Art Gallery and Kimbell Museum of Art to more personal
visions like a community center in Trenton, New Jersey (which is the project
that Kahn felt was the first where he truly found his style) and a huge
musical boat which opens up to be a giant bandstand for perform concerts at
the ports it docks at, Kahn's style is unmistakable and different.
film shows that Kahn was a visionary and artist as an architect, and at the
same time had very little sense of the business of architecture. He
put so much passion and thought into the look and feel and texture of his
buildings that he that he often disregarded functionality. After all
these years, former Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon (the father of
actor Kevin Bacon) still animatedly (perhaps just a bit too animatedly)
argues that the ideas of Kahn's for reshaping downtown Philadelphia may have
been somewhat esthetically pleasing, but would have been impossible to
dichotomy also seems to have followed Kahn in his personal life. He
had grand ideas of family life that he could never seem to actually work
into his life. He was involved in what seems like a lifelong
loveless marriage. (Unfortunately, Kahn's widow is dead and was one of
the few people Nathaniel was unable to interview.) The lovers who were
left behind do not feel any bitterness towards him, in fact they seem to be
amazingly tolerant. Nathaniel seems to have a problem being so openly
forgiving. Tiny moments like when he learns that his father spent
every Christmas with the family of the engineer from the Salk project show
that the wounds are still raw for him. At the same time, talking with
Louis' co-workers, family members (including his two half-sisters) and
friends does seem to be cathartic for him.
The film closes with a visit to Kahn's masterwork, the capitol building of
Bangladesh in Dhaka. Architect Shamsul Wares comes closest to
explaining what may have driven Kahn. He was a force through whom the
poorest country in the world could get one of the world's most spectacular
structures. He gave of himself to bring people closer to the divine.
If this mission caused him to be less than an ideal family man or person,
perhaps that is just the price that had to be paid.
I don't know for sure if Nathaniel Kahn takes complete solace in this fact.
But perhaps he finally realizes that is okay not to entirely understand the
man. Louis Kahn made the choice that his life was his work. It
was his legacy. It was his true passion. It is still here long
after Kahn was gone, and it will be here long after we all are. So, in
that way, at least, Louis Kahn was a success.
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Posted March 7, 2004.