A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 50 – My Architect

My Architect – April 19th, 2010

Over the weekend while I was visiting my friend J, we talked a little about Louis Kahn. He designed one of the dorms at the college we both attended and I’ve been curious about this documentary for a while. J has seen this, but I hadn’t, so this is a new view for me and a new view for Andy. We enjoy documentaries, but we don’t own nearly enough of them for my taste.

I don’t think I truly have the language to explain Louis Kahn’s aesthetic. He’s a fascinating architect, but his designs are not to everyone’s taste. There’s a lot of concrete and stone and flat, bare surfaces. Look him up. Look at the Salk building and you’ll see a good example of his work. It’s distinctive. I like it, but I’m honestly not sure I can articulate why. I like it even though I freely acknowledge that many of his buildings can be difficult spaces and that the masses of concrete can give the impression of a military bunker. Maybe that’s part of what I like. It’s certainly unapologetic.

But the documentary is about more than just Kahn’s work. It’s made by his son, Nathaniel. It’s about his life as a whole, encompassing his work and his sense of self and his spirituality and his families. And yes, that’s families, plural. He had three, and they didn’t know each other until after Kahn died. And it’s about his son, who never really knew him, since he wasn’t Kahn’s son by his wife. He saw him once a week or so. That was it. So the whole documentary is about Kahn, but also about the man making it, which gives it a bit of a sense of egocentricity, but it works. It works, I think, because the documentary makes it clear that Kahn existed through his work. So exploring him through his buildings and peers really does seem to be the perfect way to know him.

It’s a sad story in many ways. Nathaniel Kahn, Louis Kahn’s never-publicly-acknowledged son (though his name is on Nathaniel’s birth certificate and he never denied it to Nathaniel or his mother), asks his mother if she’s ever been angry at Louis for how he treated them, for leaving them alone. He’s clearly confused by her denial and continued faith towards a man long dead who didn’t give her what she or Nathaniel wanted or needed. At the outset, he seems to have a larger-than-life vision of his father. Towards the middle, one of his father’s former coworkers cautions him not to put his father up on too high a pedestal, because he had his faults, same as anyone. And those faults are mentioned by many, but for every fault made public for the camera, the people Nathaniel speaks to also have praise for Louis Kahn’s skill and vision. It’s made melancholy not only by the people who remember Louis Kahn fondly, but who clearly want to share with his son just who his father was. In one scene, Nathaniel reveals to Robert Boudreau, who worked with his father on the Point Counterpoint II (a barge made to be a water-based stage for a symphony orchestra), that he is Louis Kahn’s son. Boudreau is struck speechless, then shares that he saw Nathaniel as a little boy at Louis’ wake. He hugs him and tells him “You are Lou.” Then he walks away. It’s one of several points in the movie where I really felt close to tears, both because of Louis Kahn and his son and their disconnected and reconnected lives.

To be honest, listening to his biography in this documentary I was reminded strongly of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. He too was frequently in debt and plagued by commissions that fell through or didn’t pay what he needed. He too had another family. He too seems to have polarized many people with his ideas and ideals when it came to architecture. If I was a serious student of architecture and architects I’d probably be able to say more about it, but I merely dabble. It’s a curiosity to me, not a passion. So I enjoyed this from the perspective of a casual observer who enjoys documentaries and the stories of people’s lives and architecture and architects who go against the grain. You don’t have to like Louis Kahn’s designs or life choices to empathize with Nathaniel, and I think that’s what makes this movie succeed.


April 19, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

My Architect

April 19, 2010

My Architect

We’ve been watching a lot of movies lately that we’ve seen many times before, so Amanda and I made an effort to watch something new today. We chose this strange and personal documentary about Louis Kahn and his son’s journey to discover him through his buildings and the people he worked with and sometimes against. It’s a disarmingly honest movie, and it pulls no punches. It portrays through interviews and archival footage an obsessive man who had little time for dealing with people.

Nathaniel Kahn is an illegitimate and unrecognised son of Lou Kahn. Twenty years after Lou’s death Nathaniel sets out to see all of Lou’s buildings and meet his half-siblings and try to discover what kind of a man his father was. Nathaniel had been eleven when Lou died, bankrupt and alone in a bathroom in Penn Station. There’s a lot of anger in the movie. Nathaniel is hardly a dispassionate documentarian, and he asks some strong leading questions. But there’s also a lot of reverence.

Reverence for the artist. The driven and uncompromising artist who thought in absolutes about architecture. There’s a great bit of archival footage of Lou giving an architecture lecture and going on about listening to the materials you’re working with and respecting their wishes. He has a dialog with a brick that wants to be an arch. It’s a nonsensical lecture that reveals a lot about the thought process behind Lou’s bizarre work.

There were several moments in this movie that had a lot of emotional impact. I wasn’t expecting that. Like some of the brilliant reveals of the unexpectedly spiritual interiors to the big solid concrete edifices that Kahn is known for creating. It’s a deceptively simple film with a much more potent emotional core. Something nice for a Monday evening.

April 19, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , | Leave a comment