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My Architect

film review by Jameson Simmons

Early in My Architect, a deeply personal portrait of the late Louis Kahn, the writer/director of the documentary – Kahn's illegitimate son Nathaniel – sits down with Philip Johnson, a renowned architect in his own right and a contemporary of Kahn's. Johnson describes Louis Kahn as the only architect of his era that you could really be friends with. Frank Lloyd Wright's famous narcissistic temper made him "too cantankerous"; "Mies," says Johnson with a pause, referring to Mies van der Rohe, "there was no way to talk to him"; and Le Corbusier "was just mean." This is exactly the kind of detail that makes My Architect so engaging as a documentary. Because it is a family history wrapped around an artist profile, the film's analysis of Louis Kahn mixes personal familiarity with architectural history and the exploration of the mind of a creative genius.

Not only does the film probe the complex family life of this accomplished but little-known world architect, but it also searches through his life's work and his relationships for clues about the man. Kahn was in many ways a mystery – he designed many great buildings in locations from his native Philadelphia to the California coast to Bangladesh, but died bankrupt in the men's room of Penn Station; he was married to his wife Esther from the age of 29 until his death at age 72, but Nathaniel and his half-sister Alex were born to separate women who had affairs with Kahn during that time. Nathaniel was 11 when his father died, and although Kahn spent time with each of his three families, he never lived with Nathaniel and his mom. For him, the project is about starting with his memories of his father and learning about the aspects of Kahn's personality that he didn't have access to as a child. For the viewer, the process moves in the opposite direction – beginning with a famous architect and exploring his personal side. Because of Kahn's intense devotion to his work, Nathaniel's film must examine his buildings as well as his personal history.

Johnson's interview is easily the longest of those in which Nathaniel speaks to his father's colleagues, from icons of Kahn's day like I.M. Pei to present-day superstars like Robert A.M. Stern and Frank Gehry. Johnson expresses regret that he never got to know Louis Kahn better, and this serves as a fitting introduction to the film, since Nathaniel has the same regret. It's an intimate emotional journey for Nathaniel, but what makes it engaging to the audience is that he has more than just interviews with Kahn's family and colleagues to sift through. He also has the buildings themselves, as evidence which helps him learn more about his father. It's this aspect that makes the film resonate for me – my father is an architect, too, and his buildings, while perhaps less world-renowned (so far), have just as much to say about his personality and what he believes in. The film (for me at least) is an exploration of what it means for someone to leave such physical evidence of himself with his work; an architect's buildings are more than shelters or containers, they're works of art – standing as monuments which express the creativity and perspective of their designer.

I'm a designer as well, and I think it plays a significant part in my bond with my dad, both of us doing something creative and applying our decisions to the shape of what we output. It's easy to overlook design, or to forget that it's a creative art form, because it's so ubiquitous. But every man-made item in our world is the product of design. None of these things simply came to be; someone had to decide ahead of time how it should be made, how it should work, and what it should look like. To me, design is planning ahead – looking at a problem and deciding how to solve it. So, any item can tell you about its designer by expressing the decisions that he or she made. I work in graphic design (on paper and on the computer screen) which encompasses such qualities as form, perspective, color, texture, and focus. I also dabble in photography and filmmaking, which involve many of the same elements – although color is expressed as values of light, and focus is expressed more literally (in graphic design, its meaning is closer to "emphasis"). Architecture also works with these components (even light; using the form of a structure to affect the interplay of light and shadow), but it adds the element of space, which is unique among art forms. (Even three-dimensional pursuits like sculpture can't claim this, because rarely are sculptures so large that you can move through them like a building.) In fact, architecture adds a fourth dimension to the concept of perspective, because as you move through or around a building, you incorporate a temporal element in your appreciation of it. All of this is to say that when you look at a building not as a structure but as a product of design, there are myriad ways of appreciating and understanding its meaning as a work of art. Nathaniel attempts to use this analysis of the buildings his father designed to enhance his understanding of the man. He's lucky that so many of Louis Kahn's buildings are public (museums, science centers, capitals); most of my dad's work has been residential, so I don't have the ability to show up and walk through the buildings anytime I want.

Among the better known projects (and one of Kahn's favorite) is the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, California. This is the one I was most looking forward to, because I've always had fond memories of visiting it with my family and hearing my dad talk about it. (The Salk Institute tour guide was pretty awesome, too.) Constructed primarily of concrete and teak, the Salk Institute campus perches on a cliff overlooking the coast, with a large central plaza between the main laboratory buildings. The offices are aligned along the plaza such that each has an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean, and scientists love the functional element to the buildings – large undivided lab spaces and interstitial levels between floors for easy access to pipes and conduits. At one end of the plaza is a fountain, with a stream running from it across the entire length of the space. The campus is at once placid and imposing, and it fits seamlessly into its natural setting. Nathaniel is faced with the challenge of capturing this (and the other buildings on his tour) on film. This is by no means easy. (In fact, when Nathaniel speaks to local architect and Kahn collaborator Shamsul Wares inside Kahn's final building, the Capital Complex of Bangladesh, Wares is tearfully upset when he learns that no more than ten minutes will be devoted to this structure in the final film.) As Nathaniel explores the topic of architectural appreciation, the film made me think about architectural photography (or cinematography) and the challenges of translating an experience that involves space. So much of the beauty of a building's design is only available if you stand in just the right spot – in fact, many of the details are entirely obscured by the structure itself. Taking a picture from one perspective leaves out so much valuable information. (Even the time of day that you take a picture can be important; I remember a photo my dad showed me from an architecture book of a plaza in Italy, I think, which had been designed so that at the right time of day in the right part of the year, the shadows of the buildings would perfectly bisect the concourse between them.) Consider, however, that while we can only take in one of these perspectives at a time, the architect must consider all of them when assembling the design. Pretty impressive, no?

Kahn was a proponent of weight and symmetry in his work, and attempted to bring a taste of the solid, dominating structures of ancient Rome into the modern styles of the '50s and '60s. He was intensely devoted to perfection, working on his projects all hours, which is why Nathaniel and his half-siblings saw so little of him, and why the architecture lesson is such an integral part of the film. As Nathaniel surveys each building, he's thinking about what his father was trying to say when he designed each work. Nathaniel digs for specifics in his father's architectural approach, and learns more about the ideas that tantalized him. Does Kahn's admiration of symmetry indicate a religious component? Is his fascination with showing the materials and processes of construction (rather than hiding them as most buildings do) a way of encouraging the appreciation of inner beauty, perhaps a byproduct of the scars his face held from a childhood fire? It's telling that both of Kahn's mistresses (Nathaniel's mother Harriet and Anne Tyng) were collaborators of his. (Anne was an architect in his office, and Harriet was a landscape designer.) It seems that Kahn was only capable of truly expressing himself through his work, and the women who could participate in that are the ones whom he was most able to get close to. His wife, Ethel, was aware of the other women but strove unsuccessfully to keep Louis away from them; I was left wondering if she sensed this creative bond and if it fueled her jealousy. What's impressive about Kahn is that as detached as he was and as unwilling as he was to commit to any of them, all of these women wanted to stay in his life. When Nathaniel asks his mother why she put up with being sidelined and even locked in her office when Ethel paid a visit to Kahn's firm, Harriet says that she got to be with Louis and work with him and "that was the price I paid." Thirty years after his death, she remains in love with him and has never married. It indicates a very profound love.

For me, My Architect was about architecture as a pursuit, and about appreciating buildings and seeing what they can tell us about their designers. It was about the creative process and the passions that fuel us as humans, and especially as artists; and it was about taking advantage of the opportunity to learn about someone through his art, which was very personal for me. So, in a way, I saw the architectural lesson first and the family story second. For most, I imagine it would be the other way around, and if I've left out the family stuff, it shouldn't indicate that the film lacks heart. It's very poignant, and Nathaniel does an excellent job of conveying his experience without personalizing it too much. Perhaps that indeed is why I was able to take such a personal story out of it for myself – the film is constructed in such a way that the emotional beats are universal even though they tell the story of specific people and events.

Incidentally, this film also includes probably the funniest line I've ever heard in a documentary. (Its humor is most likely enhanced by contrast to the serious tone of the rest of the film.) At one point, Nathaniel is speaking with one of his father's collaborators on the Salk Institute, and he asks if the guy ever went drinking with Kahn. The guy chuckles and smiles, "Oh yeah." Then, after a pause, "You should ask my first wife." As much as I disapprove of the wanton boozing, I have to love that line. If you ever need to indicate just how bad something was, the line "You should ask my first wife" says it all.


In related news, my architect is celebrating his birthday today. Happy birthday, dad!

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