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Escape Artist 

The triple life of Louis Kahn

Thursday, Jan 22 2004
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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.

There are other reasons to weep. For Nathaniel, this, at last, is the place that makes his father real, that brings him closer to a man who left him only memories of fleeting visits, bedtime stories of lions and tigers, and a few whimsical architectural sketches. It’s a satisfyingly euphoric end to a search that must have brought as much frustration as it did insight. Yet I was far more moved by earlier, more ambiguous, but finally more potent, moments that hint at the contradictions that define so many superstars who, in serving humanity as a whole, behave like monsters to the people in their neighborhood. When Nathaniel pokes and prods at his mother (who still believes that Kahn erased the address on his passport because he was about to leave his wife for her) to express some anger at being abandoned by Louis, I wanted to turn the camera back on the director and ask, And what are you feeling? My Architect is an intensely personal film, but there’s something noticeably held back about Nathaniel, despite or because of his affable demeanor in the film, the eagerness to please of a small man as tentative as his father seemed full of certitude and recalcitrance. And while Nathaniel’s generosity is touching, it’s his ambivalence that talks.

Early on in My Architect, there’s a lighthearted sequence at the Salk Institute, where Nathaniel gives us the grand tour, pronounces the building a deeply spiritual place, and shares with us his disappointment that it yields so few insights about his father. Then we see the grown-up son rollerblading around the complex’s spacious plaza. It’s a lovely scene, filled with a sense of play, the rare capacity to enjoy something you don’t fully understand. No one in his right mind would call Nathaniel Kahn a victim — he went to Yale, became a theater director and, on the evidence of My Architect, seems set for a thriving career in film. But in that bittersweet roller-skate around the premises, with Neil Young’s plaintive “Long May You Run” playing on the soundtrack, we see him as his father’s son, tracing circles like an eternally lost boy.

MY ARCHITECT | Directed by NATHANIEL KAHN | Produced by SUSAN ROSE BEHR and KAHN | Released by New Yorker Films

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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