Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Nathaniel Kahn, "My Architect" (2003).

One of the art forms I've been almost criminally negligent in learning about has been architecture. This ignorance may be more egregious because Pittsburgh is a city famous for its diversity of building design. Works by prominent figures such as Henry Hobson Richardson (The Allegheny Courthouse and Jail- 1883), Frederick Osterling (The Pittsburgh Union Trust Building- 1915), Philip Johnson (PPG Place- 1984), Charles Klauder (The Cathedral of Learning- 1921) and Rafael Vinoly (The David Lawrence Convention center- 2003) dot the city landscape. In addition Falling Water (a private home by Frank Lloyd Wright) is a short drive away. Simply walk through one of the many distinctive neighborhoods in the 'Burgh, and you'll get an idea of the breadth and range of architectural styles. Certainly there is plenty in town to keep a serious student busy.

I'm assuredly a layman when it comes to this subject. In order to confront this deficit in my knowledge, I recently picked up a couple of documentaries focusing on Twentieth Century architects. Tonight I watched My Architect: A Son's Journey (2003)- a film about Louis I. Kahn, directed by his son Nathaniel. The elder Kahn is not noted for having realized many of his designs, but rather his reputation has grown from the creation of several masterpieces. He is known to have incorporated the International Style with special attention paid to the play of light and the durability of his structures. His legacy includes the Richards Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA, the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh in Dhaka, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, TX. In addition to these applications, he was quite noted as a professor and academic at Yale University.

Yet though the viewer of My Architect will pick up some valuable insights about Kahn's influence from noted modern architects like I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Frank Gehry- this film is really structured around the personal journey Nathaniel Kahn undertook to garner some understanding of his father. Louis Kahn was not an exemplary family man. In addition to his wife Esther and their daughter Amy, Kahn had two secret families. Kahn sired two children (Nathaniel and daughter Alex) with two different mistresses . Nathaniel's mother was a very young 22 when he was born... his father was over 60.

From Nathaniel's perspective, Louis Kahn never spent much time with him and his mother. Not only was he juggling several women, but for all intents and purposes he was married to his job. According to colleagues Kahn had no sense of day or night and lived an extraordinarily nomadic existence. This seems to be borne out by his late success in Asia. From the time that the architect initially achieved international notoriety for his buildings, he would have only a couple of decades to live. Kahn was a flurry of activity in his twilight years, and during this time he devoted a bare minimum to his "second family". They'd see him approximately once a week until Nathaniel was eleven. Then at the age of 74, Louis Kahn died. In his obituary, only Esther and daughter Amy were listed as survivors.

It's notable that Nathaniel Kahn evinces very little resentment toward his famous father. he demonstrates remarkable restraint in not passing judgment or making assumptions. His on-screen trip is very much about letting the figures from Louis Kahn's life talk about the man from their individual points-of-view. Not only does Nathaniel seek out folks who knew his father professionally, but he interviews his half-siblings, the other mistress, his own mother, and her sisters. Naturally there is a wide divergence of opinions expressed on his situation and the elder Kahn's life. Perhaps the most touching assessment comes from a place least expected- a Bangladeshi official explains the import Louis Kahn holds for his people. It's an astonishingly direct and nuanced perspective, and it is delivered with genuine emotion. Much the same can be said about the totality of My Architect.

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