Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Review: My Architect: A Son's Journey

The details of Louis Kahn's death open this 2003 documentary, which does an excellent job of mixing the best elements of artistic retrospective and family examination, with a hint of mysterious, mystical quest. The architect who was known for his big ideas and few masterpieces died in the bathroom of Penn Station in New York, alone and unidentified for a few days, because he had crossed out the address on his passport and just returned from a trip to India. His obituary in the NYT famously mentioned only one wife and one daughter as survivors, but Kahn actually had two other women in his life and two other children: another daughter and a son, Nathaniel, whose film and story this is. He was 11 when his famous father died.

The action is set up in a sort of journey: through his father's life, among his works, among his family members and the people who knew and still held strong emotions about him. The director/son is candid at times (he admits he doesn't like the Richards Medical Research Building at U. Penn) and probing (asking his mother -- the third "wife," if you will -- whether she really believes the last thing Kahn told her before he died) and not overly sentimental but still sensitive. Put another way, he manages to balances his own huge personal investment in the man while at the same time being a very able objective guide to the man and the architect.

The film is a great introduction to Kahn's works, which evoke ancient structures with modern materials, and ends with what is perhaps his greatest work: a capital complex for a young, poor, but proudly independent nation (Bangladesh). There are also cameos from some of the greatest architects of our time -- Pei, Stern, Gehry, Johnson (now also gone himself) -- as well as an appearance by Kahn's nemesis in Philadelphia (the home city that barely shows any of his work): the city planner Edmund Bacon, father of Kevin Bacon.

If you enjoyed Capturing the Friedmans, that other 2003 documentary that won such acclaim for probing a conflicted man, there are similar scenes of a family trying to reconcile their feelings in front of the camera. Kahn, of course, was by no means a criminal, and his hidden life was not as horrible, but I was still interested to see how so many of the people who knew him were ready to forgive him in light of what they saw as his genius or vision.

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