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Studying a visionary father

Stewart Oksenhorn
Filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn, right, talks about his father, Louis Kahn, with architect Philip Johnson in a scene from "My Architect." The documentary shows tonight and tomorrow at the Wheeler Opera House.
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In Jewish mysticism, notes architect Philip Johnson in the documentary “My Architect,” God can only be known indirectly, through his works.

Much the same could be said about Louis Kahn, the late architect who is the subject of his son, Nathaniel Kahn’s, film.

By any account, Louis Kahn was a remarkably elusive character. He essentially had three families, fathering three children with three different women and keeping up some semblance of a relationship with all of them, even though he remained married his entire adult life to one wife, Esther.

Fervently passionate about architecture, he spent more time in his office than with his various families. He had a notoriously difficult time landing, and then maintaining, clients.

When he died, at the age of 72 in 1974, it was an event surrounded by some mystery: Returning alone from India, site of one of the few projects that he actually saw completed, Kahn suffered a heart attack in the men’s room at New York’s Pennsylvania Station. Kahn had crossed out the address on his passport, and his body wasn’t identified for three days.

Nathaniel Kahn – the product of Louis Kahn and Harriet Pattison, a landscape architect with whom he worked in the early ’60s – knew his father only from the visits, typically unannounced and late at night, he paid at irregular intervals. So in “My Architect,” Nathaniel embarks on a journey to get to know his father through those who knew him and the buildings he created.

As with the Big Guy Upstairs, the clearest picture of Louis Kahn comes through in his magnificently spiritual buildings. The best and most renowned of his works – the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India; the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in Southern California; the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; and the unsurpassable Capital Complex at Dhaka, Bangladesh, – are all templelike structures, and profoundly connected to the landscape and light.

Through these buildings it is easy to get a glimpse of the architect’s essence – uncompromising, idealistic and brilliant. When Nathaniel Kahn interviews his father’s nemesis, Philadelphia planner Edmund Bacon, it comes as no surprise to find that Louis Kahn was dreadful when it came to big, bureaucratic group projects.

If Louis were tall and handsome – rather than being short, odd-looking and badly scarred from a childhood fire – he could easily have been the inspiration for Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead.”

The most penetrating part of “My Architect,” along with the introduction to Louis Kahn and the architectural greats – Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei – paying lavish tribute to him, are the scenes at Kahn’s buildings. Nathaniel wanders around the sites and talks to people who work and live in the buildings.

Director of photography Bob Richman lingers on the buildings in a way that practically allows them to speak for themselves. Particularly effective is a long time-lapse shot of the Salk Institute, the sky and sun moving across the Pacific Ocean.

The Bangladesh Capital Complex, too, is breathtaking. And to hear a Bangladeshi architect talk about Kahn’s creation reveals the potential power of architecture. The architect praises not only the beauty of the building, but what it represented to the country. “It gave us democracy,” he concludes.

“My Architect,” nominated for an Academy Award last year, is less interesting when Nathaniel indulges the more personal sides of his quest to know his father. A scene where he questions his mother, asking if she is angry about how Louis treated her, distracts from the subject.

“My Architect” could well have been cut from its longish 116 minutes, and the story of the complex visionary Louis Kahn would remain intact.

“My Architect” shows at the Wheeler Opera House tonight and tomorrow.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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