My Architect (9/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

Louis I. Kahn died in the menís restroom at New York Cityís Penn Station in 1974. He was alone, bankrupt, and had erased his address from his passport so nobody knew whom to contact.

So what? So, Kahn was a world-renowned architect who led a secret triple life with a wife and daughter, a mistress (Anne Tyng) and daughter (Alexandra Tyng), and another mistress (Harriet Pattison) and son (Nathaniel Kahn). This is the filmed record of the quest of son, Nathaniel, to find out who his father was.

Itís a journey that takes the better part of two hours. We meet Kahnís contemporaries, including I.M. Pei, his wife and both of his mistresses, all his children, and all his buildings. We also meet him through archival footage. Itís a fascinating trip.

Kahn was a workaholic who neglected his women and children for the benefit of his work, but he had no ambition to make money. He wanted to create art in the buildings he designed.

The only thing that disappointed me was that while Nathaniel, who wrote, produced, and directed this, asks his mother, Harriet, tough questions (which she answers), he refuses to answer the tough questions she asks him. I thought this was less than courageous on Nathanielís part. If heís going to put his own mother through the ringer, and if sheís honest enough to answer his questions in front of the whole world, the least he owes her is to respond to her two questions. But all we get is her questions and silence. However, to give Nathaniel his due, he did put her questions in the film. He had to power to cut them and we never would have known about them.

Kahn is a true enigma. The victim of a horrible burning accident when he was three years old that left his face scarred for life, he apparently possessed enormous charm. Except for one man, everyone interviewed praises him, although most criticize his treatment of his family and the women in his life. Kahnís reaction when his second mistress, Harriet, tells him sheís pregnant, was, ďOh, no! Not again!Ē

That one man is Ed Bacon, who emotionally defends his decision to terminate Kahnís participation in the rebuilding of downtown Philadelphia in the 1960s. Kahnís idea was to have everybody park their cars outside of downtown and walk into downtown. As strongly as Bacon makes his case, I wish theyíd have done that in Los Angeles (I wish that GM hadnít bought up our electric train system, the best in the world in the Ď40s, and ripped it out to replace it with freeways so they could sell cars and gasoline, too). Philadelphia could have had a new, modern city, but for Bacon, who accuses Kahn of having only aesthetics as a goal, at the expense of practicality. Today Kahnís ideas look not only workable, but desirable.

At the end, after a much too quick tour of the Kahn-designed Capitol Building in Bangladesh, a project that took 27 years to build, a building so astounding it must be seen to be appreciated, the film contains a moving and eloquent explanation of Kahn dichotomies by Bangladeshi architect Shamsul Wares with tears in his eyes. Whatís remarkable about this is that itís off the cuff and unrehearsed, an analysis that comes from Waresí head and heart.

This is a spellbinding, emotional journey. 

January 23, 2004

The End