Built to Last

'My Architect' director Nathaniel Kahn talks about finding his father in the monuments he left behind

Maybe you talk every day to the man and the woman who gave you your life. Or maybe you were adopted and haven't met them yet. It doesn't matter. Either way, the questions are the same. Who are these people? Did they make you who you are? And how are they different from the people you imagine them to be?

Parents--and the power they possess over us without really wielding it--have been the subjects of rich cinema from The Godfather to Big Fish. But I don't know if the questions related to them have ever been addressed as directly, or with as much feeling, as they are in My Architect. It would be enough for this film to be a documentary about an absentee father made by the son who was left out of his obituary, a son who freely refers to himself as "illegitimate." But the parent in question is Louis I. Kahn, a visionary 20th-century architect. And he has left behind, for first-time director Nathaniel Kahn, the most visceral, physical evidence of obsessive work and familial neglect that a filmmaker could ask for: his buildings. (Nathaniel Kahn will appear in person on Saturday, March 27 at the Oak Street Cinema screening, which concludes the Susan Himmelman Shapiro Twin Cities Festival of Jewish Film and is co-presented by "Get Real: City Pages Documentary Film Festival.")

Somehow I doubt that My Architect got an Oscar nomination this year because Academy voters are particularly enamored of architecture. Early in the picture, near the ocean in La Jolla, California, Nathaniel shows us a Kahn structure of concrete and bolts, a work so severe that I wondered at first whether Dad had missed his calling in prison construction. But the director allows us to see how the Salk Institute frames the sky. And in another subtle framing, he steps on camera to let Jack McAllister, who helped his father build the place, pose a query of his own to the son:

How old were you when Lou died?
I was 11.
That's what I thought. Did you know him well?
I have a sense for him. And I saw him once a week, maybe.
That's all, huh? Did you travel with him?
No, no. That's why I wanted to talk to you, because you spent a lot of time with him.
Yeah, my family did.
Your family did, too?
He used to spend Christmas with us.
Really.
He loved Christmas, yeah. He absolutely loved it. I remember him lying on our bed, watching cartoons with the kids.
Warts and all: Nathaniel Kahn and Louis Kahn in 'My Architect'
Harriet Pattison courtesy of New Yorker Films
Warts and all: Nathaniel Kahn and Louis Kahn in 'My Architect'

Hearing that your father spent Christmases with somebody else's kids--the Christmases you missed with him--would be more than most sons could bear, never mind bare on film. But that's precisely the nature of Nathaniel Kahn's public project.

"I never expected him to suddenly come through with this thing," Kahn says of McAllister's anecdote, speaking by phone from Philadelphia. "You go in with a certain plan, and then other things happen."

Some of the impromptu power of My Architect, Kahn says, came from the man holding the camera: Robert Richman, who worked with direct cinema pioneers the Maysles brothers. "I think the quality of Bob's shooting is that the camera is listening," Kahn says. "A lesser cameraman would have stayed on the subject, letting him say, 'Your father used to have Christmas with us,' and then you hear the off-camera voice saying, 'Mm-hmm. That's interesting.' But Bob knew that something would probably happen if he panned to me, and of course it did. I mean, you can see it all over my face."

Nathaniel Kahn planned the movie from the start as a series of scenes rather than a biography of spliced interviews. (The film's subtitle is A Son's Journey.) He had plotted out beforehand whom he would interview, and when, and what questions he would ask. Sometimes the scenes held surprise, as at the Salk Institute. But there is nonetheless a deeply architectural quality to the movie: a structure that anticipates emotion the way great buildings anticipate people.

If the film were a ceiling, there would be three arches: first, the story of Louis Kahn, a tough and nomadic eccentric who returned from Rome changed by its ancient monuments, determined to construct similarly open and permanent works of steel and brick across the continents. His personal life, as that cursory phrase would imply, came second--one of many things, such as money and wardrobe, that seemed beyond his planning abilities. This story ends in 1974, when Louis died of a heart attack at age 73, in Penn Station--a traveler to the end.

The second arch is the story of the film's making itself, which unfolds like a present-day detective story. Nathaniel throws light on his father's intensely private life by interviewing the women, and the children by those women, who loved him. (Louis Kahn's widow Esther died in 1996.) This story ends when the movie does, but has also continued beyond it. ("Suddenly I have family members all over the place," Nathaniel says during our interview. "Maybe the Oscar thing helped.") But its culmination comes in Nathaniel's frank interview with his mother Harriet, and the unsparing questions suggest something of the father in his son--a similarly cold commitment to art.

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