By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
|Photo by Robert Lautman|
One spring day in 1974, the world-renowned architect Louis Kahn — creator of a handful of acknowledged masterpieces that include the Salk Institute in La Jolla, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the capitol building in Bangladesh — was found dead of a heart attack in the men’s room at New York’s Penn Station. He was 73, and it was days before his body was identified at the city morgue. Kahn, who had just returned from India, had crossed out the address in his passport — a small detail, but one bursting with significance for anyone involved with or trying to read this brilliant but elusive man’s life. Getting a bead on Kahn, especially if you happen to be his illegitimate son, can’t help but be a quixotic project, as Nathaniel Kahn, who directed and narrates My Architect, a documentary homage to his father, seems all too poignantly aware.
In the film, the architect Moshe Safdie — one of many former colleagues who recall Kahn with varying degrees of affection, idolatry and, in at least one other case, fury undiminished by the passage of several decades — wryly observes that Kahn’s death was entirely consistent with his life. He was a nomad and, as it turned out, a man of many addresses, none of which he was willing or able to call home. Despite the tactful (more likely, ignorant) elisions of the obituaries, whose only scandalous tidbit revealed that Kahn had died broke, it later came out that he had been running, or running from, not one but three families. In addition to the daughter he had with his wife, Esther Israeli, Kahn maintained secret, long-lasting relationships with two other women, and fathered a child with each of them.
Depending on whom you talk to, everyone got screwed, or emerged the richer, or — more plausibly — both. Nathaniel, Kahn’s youngest child and only son, was born in 1963 to Harriet Pattison, then a young landscape architect in Kahn’s Philadelphia office. Kahn junior was only 11 years old when his father died, and before that he saw him once a week at most, and then only for the evening, at the end of which the boy was bundled into the back of his mother’s car for the drive back into town, where they let the secretive patriarch off at a discreet distance from the office where he often worked through the night. Until the funeral, and to a large extent after it, Nathaniel was not publicly recognized as his father’s son. My Architect is an attempt to make the relationship official, and though the film is inescapably tinged with sadness, it’s rarely mawkish. What makes it enthralling is the younger Kahn’s openness to a range of emotional responses (his own and others’) to his father’s life above and below board, and his readiness to turn his own predicament into both entertainment and a provisional kind of puckish wisdom. Still, as Nathaniel makes the rounds of the handful of buildings that have immortalized his father, as well as the numerous projects that remained unfinished or never got off the ground, it becomes clear how much easier Kahn the architect was to know than Kahn the man.
Or was it that the man simply disappeared into the architect? No lesser titans of the profession than Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry and Safdie adored Kahn. (Only the iconoclastic Robert Stern begs to differ, and with unseemly zeal.) One by one they lionize him as an otherworldly artist, whose utopian intransigence and inability to compromise — added to the fact that he was a Jew from a poverty-stricken background in an overwhelmingly WASP profession — excluded him from many prestigious projects. Some of the movie’s most telling footage shows Kahn himself, ever the persuasive charmer, teaching or overseeing construction of his towering edifices. Yet merely to look at Kahn is to doubt his legendary charisma. He was ugly as sin — very short, with a wiry white comb-over, his eyes peering through thick black glasses out of a face scarred from a childhood accident that with hindsight seems not just formative but downright prophetic. At his home in Estonia, 3-year-old Louis, entranced by the light emanating from some burning coals, picked them up and put them in his apron, which then caught fire. In what must surely be an apocryphal story, his mother is said to have predicted that the incident would make of him a great man.
Certainly it turned him inward. Kahn became a dreamer and a visionary, a romantic who favored natural light and struggled for years to define himself in relation to the cold steel and glass of high modernism, until, in his 50s, he traveled the world and found his muse in the grandeur of the antiquities of Greece, Rome and Egypt. At the end of My Architect, Nathaniel, who has learned everything and nothing about his father, arrives in Dhaka, where the capitol that Louis designed but never saw through to completion stands in all its monumental splendor, a home for Bangladesh’s fledgling democracy and also a space for use, a pleasurable area in which to stroll and sit. You could weep (as one local architect and friend of Louis does) at the grace and drama of this building, constructed from Kahn’s beloved brick and concrete, with its sweeping arches and huge cylindrical doorways throwing disks of light onto facing walls.
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