'My Architect': Peeking Behind A Father's Facade

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2004; Page C01

The normal route for a film about architecture is maybe a showing or two on
public television and, if it happens to be particularly insightful, a long
afterlife in university architecture departments.


For architecture aficionados, then, the opportunity to see such a film on a
large screen in a commodious new commercial movie house is a treat -- and a
surprise. But there it is: "My Architect: A Son's Journey," Nathaniel Kahn's
film about his father, the great Louis I. Kahn, opening today at Landmark's
E Street Cinema.

The theater itself is a treat, a big boost to downtown. Situated in the
bowels of an enormous, three-year-old office building, it is yet another
testament to the wisdom of the city's long-term planning strategy. If you
want to build profitable offices here, developers were told, you also have
to make space -- significant space -- for the arts.

Still, the presence of "My Architect" on the opening bill of this
long-awaited downtown art multiplex may be because the film is not,
primarily, about architecture. It is, rather, a touching search for
identity, a son's painstaking and sometimes painful effort to connect with a
powerful, mysterious father.

Of course, architecture plays a major background role. It could hardly be
otherwise. Louis I. Kahn was one of the 20th century's greats. In just a
handful of major, memorable buildings, all conceived in the last two decades
of his life, he helped lay the foundations for the remarkable rebirth of
modern architecture we are experiencing today.

Kahn was idolized even during his lifetime. He was a mystic, a mesmerizing
teacher and an unforgettable presence. A little man with a scarred face
(from a childhood burn) and a memorably unkempt silvery pate, he spoke to
packed houses wherever he went. When he said things like, "In the realm of
the incredible stands the marvel (long pause) . . . of the emergence of the
column," it had the authoritative ring of a pronouncement from on high.

But, like many a famous father -- and, for that matter, like many a creative
egotist -- Kahn was a distant dad. Even in this category, though, Kahn was
something special. Nathaniel was 11 in 1974 when his father died of a heart
attack at age 73, leaving the boy with loads of questions he could not put
to rest even after becoming a man. This film is the poignant result.

The circumstances of Louis Kahn's death were strange. He was famous, busy
and practically penniless. He traveled a lot for work, but mostly on his
own. (One of the sections of the film is aptly titled "The Nomad.") He died
of heart failure in the restroom of Penn Station in New York after one of
his many solo trips to Bangladesh, where he was following the construction
of the National Assembly building in Dhaka, one of his masterpieces. Because
he had scratched off the address on his passport -- and why in the world did
he do that? -- his body lay unidentified for three days in a Manhattan

But for Nathaniel, who never understood why he had seen his father only once
a week or so throughout his 11 years, the funeral was more than the usual
terrible shock. It was there, for the first time, that he met his
half-sisters and their mothers. In addition to the daughter he sired with
his wife of 46 years, Louis Kahn had fathered another with a professional
associate in the 1950s. Nathaniel, the youngest of the three children, came
along in 1963. His mother, too, was a professional colleague of Louis Kahn.
The three families, if that is the word, lived in relatively close proximity
in Philadelphia, though it's not clear from the film exactly who among them
knew what about this complicated situation.

Nathaniel Kahn's approach to his subject is at once laconic and layered. He
doesn't say much, but he asks a lot of questions. We follow him as he visits
his half-sisters and his father's friends and colleagues, as well as the
famous architects (including Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Moshe Safdie and
Frank Gehry) influenced by Louis Kahn's work. Along the way, we are treated
to extended looks at most of the elder Kahn's best buildings.

It is a slow journey, maybe a little too slow for some. But I was hooked,
and I don't think this is simply because I am a longtime admirer of the
architect's work. The son-father story is compelling on its own, and the
people involved do indeed have such pointed, interesting and sometimes
contradictory things to say.

There are excruciating moments, such as when Nathaniel, talking to one of
Louis Kahn's fellow architects, learns that his dad used to spend cheerful
Christmases with the man's family. Nathaniel doesn't comment, but afterward,
he takes a skateboard for a looping run on the stone plaza of the Salk
Institute in California, one of his father's triumphant achievements.

This is a bittersweet story, no question. But to the son's great credit,
what emerges from his patient investigation is a remarkably rich, even
sympathetic, portrait of the father. And, almost as lagniappe, there are all
those splendid images of the father's architecture.

Moviegoers should take note that the new theater's address, 555 11th St. NW,
is misleading. The entrance, as the theater's name indicates, is on the
north side of E Street near the intersection with 11th.

My Architect (116 minutes) is not rated, but does not contain any
potentially offensive images.