'My Architect' builds bridge from a son to his father

February 22, 2004


In the course of his 40-year career, renowned architect Louis Kahn designed
buildings that are considered genuine architectural masterpieces. Though he
built works such as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the
Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., he was less successful in the
structuring of his personal life.

Behind a facade of respectability, which included a traditional marriage
with Esther Israeli, with whom he had a daughter, Sue Ann, Kahn also had two
other "secret families." With architect Anne Tyng, he had a daughter,
Alexandra, and with landscape architect Harriet Pattison, he had a son,

Now a filmmaker, Nathaniel Kahn waited nearly 30 years after his father's
death before he felt ready to examine in greater detail the man, his
all-consuming career and non-traditional family relationships. His sadly
accurate documentary, "My Architect," which has been nominated for an
Academy Award, paints an intriguing picture of the link between artistic
genius and human fallibility.

Kahn, who narrates the film and is often seen in front of the camera, said
he needed "the understanding of time" before starting down the path of such
a personal journey.

"It was always clear to me that I didn't want to make the film about Louis
Kahn that anybody could make," he said. "I wanted to make a film that was
really personal, one that only I could make. I knew it had to be told from
my point of view. Ultimately, it's a story of a son's search for his father,
that's the universal part of it. The fact that it's about an architect also
makes it interesting on another level."

Kahn was 11 when his father died. Returning alone from a trip to Bangladesh,
the elder Kahn, 73, was preparing to take a train from New York to
Philadelphia when he collapsed in the men's room at Penn Station on March
17, 1974. The police didn't recognize his name, and for some unknown reason,
his home address was crossed out on his passport. He lay in the city morgue
for three days before he was missed.

The funeral that followed was a "surreal experience" for his young son.
Ignoring discreet messages not to attend the funeral, both "secret" families
did and then were shuffled off into a side room.

"It was like some sort of Bergman film," Kahn said. "Lou's wife didn't want
us to be part of the ceremony. And I do understand that now; it was a
difficult, sudden tragedy. But I was just a kid, and it all seemed so unreal
that for the longest time, I just didn't believe he was dead."

To get at what drove his father professionally, Kahn, who studied philosophy
and theater at Yale, talks onscreen to many of his father's colleagues, from
contemporaries like Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei to Frank Gehry, who once
worked in Kahn's office. On the personal side, he interviews both his mother
and Tyng, as well as his half-sisters. Kahn found archival footage of his
father in a variety of diverse locations: Saudi Arabia, the Virgin Islands,
upstate New York, as well as the vaults of the Museum of Modern Art.

In the interviews, Pattison and Tyng continue to speak fondly of Lou Kahn;
it's evident they still hold feelings for him. (Neither woman ever married.)

On the professional front, world-class architects speak of his vast
accomplishments, most created in the last 20 years of Kahn's life. His son
also looks up an old nemesis, Ed Bacon, the man in charge of a planned
redesign of downtown Philadelphia, who rejected Kahn's design. Though 30
years have passed, Bacon minces no words in his biting condemnation of
Kahn's proposal.

"What intrigued me was how people are still engaged with this man who's been
dead for 30 years," Kahn said. "Bacon didn't hold anything back, and I loved
him for that. They obviously had a difficult relationship, and Bacon's
response was so immediate. It was like he'd just gotten off the phone with

Both Pattison and Tyng were professional women who worked in the elder
Kahn's office. His work served as an intimate pursuit. For a woman in the
less enlightened '50s and '60s, with limited career options, working for an
architect was an exciting prospect. These personal relationships were built
on a foundation of professional intimacy.

"Both women were able to work at an extremely high level in their fields,"
Kahn said. "I think that's part of the reason that neither of them feels
particularly resentful toward Lou. Disappointed? Absolutely. Devastated?
Absolutely. But not actively engaged with being angry. On some level deep
down, perhaps they knew that Lou's No. 1 commitment was to his work."

Despite his mother's and Tyng's forgiving comments, revisiting the various
chapters of his father's life forced Kahn to re-evaluate "the measure of

"Is it all about creating great things or is it also about treating the
people who are closest to you right," he said. "I don't think the two are
mutually exclusive, but I think for Lou to some degree, they were. I think
in the end the real tragedy of my father's life was that he wasn't able to
find a way of making decisions in his personal life that would have given
peace to those around him."

Kahn points out that people knew about the other families, which were a sort
of "open secret." Yet it was a difficult, complicated situation. Several
times a month, the phone would ring and send his mother into a frenzy of
cooking in preparation for a visit from his father. Kahn recalls that the
visits were made so special and mythological that it was doubly hard to
experience his father simply as a human being. But in the next breath, he
notes that his father was "totally there, totally engaged in having a son"
at least for an evening.

"One of the few advantages of not having a parent in the house is that you
really remember every time they were in the house," he said, with a
forgiving laugh. "I guess that was all part of the heartbreak of this man. I
wanted to preserve those contradictions in the film because everyone to some
degree is a mystery to the people around them."

An elfin man whose face was severely burned in a childhood accident, Louis
Kahn grew up poor in Philadelphia. He won a scholarship to the University of
Pennsylvania, where he studied under Paul Cret, graduating with a degree in
architecture in 1924. During the 1930s and '40s, Kahn struggled to define
himself artistically and obtain commissions. It was a difficult task,
because of the Depression and his outsider status as a Jew in an
old-establishment gentleman's profession.

In 1947, Kahn began teaching architecture at Yale University, a career that
later extended to the University of Pennsylvania. Through his teaching, he
would influence a generation of architects.

At one point on a trip through Greece, Rome and Egypt, Kahn came to an
important realization: that what was missing in the steel-and-glass
aesthetic of modernism was the mystery found in ancient ruins.

Now over 50 and enlightened with a new creative path, the elder Kahn began
the most productive and inspired decades of his career. In addition to his
new aesthetic ideas, he became obsessed with the elements of natural light
and landscape. Using simple materials, brick and concrete, he designed
buildings that were both highly functional and spiritually uplifting.

One look at the lovingly photographed buildings in "My Architect" informs
the viewer that Kahn was a graceful visionary. His soaring masterpiece is
the National Assembly building in Bangladesh. Other stunning works include
the Yale Art Gallery, the Exeter Library, the Salk Institute in California,
and, in a bit of whimsy, a "music boat." Designed like some sort of oddly
artistic battleship, it opens into a proscenium stage on which concerts are

Serene, mysterious and spiritual, the buildings helped Nathaniel Kahn, now
41, come to a better understanding of his father's choices in life. For the
documentary, he visited all his father's buildings, including the massive
structure in Dhaka, the last on his pilgrimage, which was "utterly
overwhelming." Completed 10 years after Louis Kahn's death, it was the
building that most intrigued his young son on his occasional visits to his
father's office.

"Clearly he chose perfection in his work at the expense of his personal
life," he said. "Who's to say whether that is right or wrong; it was his
choice. But in seeing that building in Dhaka, I somehow understood that
choice on a very intuitive level. Though, of course, the price to me and
those who were close to him and those who loved him was very high. All of
that came together in that one building."

Kahn claims, even as a teenager, he never felt any harsh resentment toward
his father. In his mind, his father's personal weaknesses were always
overshadowed by his accomplishments.

"By making the film, I came to a much more human understanding of who he
was. My father had a lot of faults and failings; he was an imperfect man.
But in the end, he's just a man.

"I used to think if I could just have five minutes with him, I'd ask him all
these questions. But now, I wouldn't ask him a single question. I'd go out
and have a beer with him and size him up man to man."