My Architect: A Son's Journey
Director: Nathaniel Kahn
In The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, a documentary released in 2000, Aiyana Elliott tells the life story of her folk-singing father, Jack Elliott. When she wishes aloud that her father had done more parenting than rambling, the musicians from Jack’s past say, well, yes but then we wouldn’t have the music of Ramblin’ Jack and might not have the music of Bob Dylan. In My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn seems to be searching for someone who’ll say something similar about his father, architect Louis Kahn, but the hypothetical scenario is more complex in Kahn’s tale. As an illegitimate child, he wouldn’t exist if his father had been a more traditional family man. Lou, as his son calls him, was an architect who slept on a roll of carpet in his office, easily lost track of whether it was night or day and juggled three simultaneous families, with at least a child each. The first time Lou’s progeny met was at his funeral in 1974.
Nathaniel is the youngest child—he was 11 when his father died—and My Architect is his very personal attempt to understand the man who dropped by the house once a week to see him and his mother. Despite being a quiet labor of love shot mostly on video, the movie features interviews with some architectural heavyweights—Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Robert A. M. Stern and, briefly, Frank Gehry. Nathaniel is a calm and focused interviewer. He reveals his feelings through his questions, which probe for details about the man rather than his work or methods and are generally presented in carefully edited sequences of gestures and facial expressions. He approaches Lou’s buildings the same way, exploring them inside and out, noting the details, looking for evidence of his father. He forms the movie’s most memorable images by lingering on his favorite parts of those buildings, returning frequently to concrete courtyards flanked by multi-story wings stretching toward the horizon, his father’s parallel lives disappearing into the sunset, with Nathaniel roller-skating between them.
Although Nathaniel himself is more contemplative than emotional—Lou’s been gone for decades—the movie is weakest when it attempts to squeeze tearful moments from a couple of its interviewees, with the camera zooming quickly into watery eyes, an embarrassing, twice-repeated ploy lifted from the local news that feels out of place here, as if a TV crew has momentarily taken over the camera. But overall Nathaniel’s interviews are balanced, and his attempt to find his father in his buildings, scars and all, is credible and well-paced, with neat visual rhymes that circle back to points raised earlier. His search leads him eventually to Bangladesh where Lou built the capital building and where the movie arrives at a genuinely touching conclusion that somehow brings things to a close without really tapping into the mind of Louis Kahn. To this day, Nathaniel’s mother believes that when Lou died alone in a railway station bathroom, he was on his way back to her. Nathaniel says that this is “a good myth to have.” Perhaps the movie’s conclusion in Bangladesh is Nathaniel’s own good myth.