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My Architect

The story of architect Louis Kahn is a fascinating tale. One of the great architects of the 20th century, he died of a heart attack in Penn Station and wasn't identified for several days. And when the funeral was finally held, it turned out that Kahn had three different families, none of whom had ever met the others. Thirty years later (Kahn died in 1974), his only son Nathaniel has made a documentary that tries to trace the life of his father.

Louis Kahn was an architect who rose to prominence after World War II and particularly in the 1960s. He was famous for his use of concrete and his desire to create buildings that look like they'll last forever. Despite his many accomplishments, however, he never achieved the fame or success of other contemporaries such as Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei. Nathaniel has done a terrific job of interviewing pretty much all of the major architects who worked at the same time as his father. There's a marvelous interview with Johnson outside his Glass House, and with others such as I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, and Robert Stern. They all give reasons for why Louis never quite achieved his desires: too utopian, too stubborn, too Jewish, or too mystical. Nathaniel also interviews people who worked with his dad (or against him, as in the case of a hilarious interview with a Philadelphia Brahmin) and even local cabbies who remember transporting him around town.

But My Architect is not just an overview of Louis Kahn's life and work. It's also a journey, in which Nathaniel tries to understand who his father was and why he so often shut his son out of his life. The film's opening shot is of Nathaniel reading his father's obituary, an obituary that pointedly has no mention of his son. So these interviews and these trips to various buildings function as acts of discovery, both of who Louis Kahn was and what legacy he left through his son.

In many ways, My Architect reminds me of Stone Reader, a little documentary that came out last summer. In that film, Mark Moskowitz spent an entire movie trying to track down a favorite author. In this film, Nathaniel tries to track down his father. Both movies feature earnest narrators who often become more important than their subjects, and both are feel-good pictures with amiable guides and interesting "high-art" topics. Both are also made by directors who have more enthusiasm than talent.

My Architect unfortunately feels like it's made by a novice filmmaker (though Nathaniel does have some environmental short films on his resume). There's little consistency of tone. One majestic shot of the Salk Institute (a stunning set of buildings in La Jolla, California) cuts to another of the same structure, but this time the visual is interrupted by a fast-speed shot of a small child hopping along. The fast-motion photography is almost comical in effect and diminishes the grandeur that's come before.

The filmmakers have the opposite problem when it comes to music. They don't trust their photography enough and so try to enhance the experience by playing overly familiar, bombastic classical numbers. A shot of Kahn's famous, floating musical barge is set to Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man; and some marvelous footage of the Kimbell Art Museum is "supported" by Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" movement of the Ninth Symphony. It's not that I don't appreciate those two pieces of music. In fact, I love them. What I don't enjoy, though, is having them trotted out as manipulative devices--playing several seconds of each to somehow cue an emotional response. It's insulting to its audience and reminiscent of the worst Hollywood movie. This reaches its nadir when we hear Neil Young's "Long May You Run" on three separate occasions, once while Nathaniel rollerblades on the spectacular open spaces of the Salk Institute.

It makes sense that the movie, which is as much a personal journey for Nathaniel as it is an overview of Louis's work, would feature Nathaniel and his own growing awareness of his father, but do we need to see Nathaniel playing with his dogs or trying to keep a paper yarmulke on his head while filming at the Wailing Wall? This smacks of silly self-indulgence. Louis Kahn may have been self-indulgent, but he was never silly. And I have to imagine Louis would've been embarrassed by some of Nathaniel's voice-over, which feels improvised at times.

Still, there is much to love about My Architect. My friend Garth was genuinely moved by Nathaniel's quest. I found Bob Richman's spectacular cinematography to be worth the price of admission. He has the amazing ability to convey the three-dimensional splendor of Kahn's architecture with a two-dimensional piece of film. The movie's final reel, which features Kahn's awe-inspiring Capitol in Dhaka, Bangladesh, made me want to jump on a plane to visit it first-hand. And when colleagues of Lou discuss his desire to create the feel of ancient ruins, we know exactly what they mean. This temporal film won't last as long, but it's a pleasing legacy, nonetheless.   

J. Robert Parks  2/22/2004



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