On paper, My Architect looks like a film not to miss, a documentary about a son’s search for meaning in his famous father’s life, a father, Louis Kahn, whose creative bravado and revolutionary impact on the science and art of architecture was matched only by his selfish and manipulative treatment of those nearest to him. A documentary that explores not only the structures and monuments Kahn designed, but also untangles the remnants of three families he sired along the way. An artist’s brilliance and genius countered by immaturity and shabbiness.
Unfortunately, actually viewing the film is much less interesting than what was promised by breathless and overly generous critics. Perhaps they were taken in by the earnest and genuinely brave exploration of Kahn’s life by his son, Nathaniel. It’s hard to knock a kid for trying to piece together the life of his father, who died when Nathaniel was a young boy. But what must have been a soul-wrenching exploration comes across as cold, heavy and as boring as some of Kahn’s architectural monoliths.
Louis Kahn, no relation to Detroit architect Albert Kahn, made a radical split from the postmodern architectural camp in the ’50s and ’60s, and he died in the rather undignified setting of a Penn Station lavatory in the early ’70s. He was penniless and had scratched his address off his passport, which led to his body staying in the morgue unidentified for three days. He left behind three women and children by each. Nathaniel Kahn was one of those children, the son of Louis and Harriet Pattison, a landscape architect who worked closely with Louis on some of his projects.
In the film, Nathaniel visits his father’s important contributions to architecture, like the Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California and his career-capping capital building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He explores these with Kahn’s still-living contemporaries such as I.M. Pei and Frank O. Gehry. They tell the tale of a determined yet absent-minded and sometimes cruel artist who had no concept of time or money. He also had no qualms about starting two other families while still married to his first wife, Esther, a marriage that endured to his death, despite the thoughtless and heartbreaking infidelities. We also visit with the two other “wives” and the two other children, who all seem amazingly unvexed and emotionally balanced for suffering through Louis’ “eccentricities.”
For those aficionados of architectural history, you will find this documentary a worthwhile tour of one man’s vision to change the very structure and appearance of our landscape. For those not so inclined, you might find yourself studying the structure and appearance of your watch as you endure this plodding and ultimately forgettable film.
Playing at the Madstone Theatre (462 Briarwood Circle, Ann Arbor). Call 734-994-1000. Opens at the Detroit Film Theatre Friday-Sunday, March 5, 6 and 7. Call 313-833-3237. Opens March 12 at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, west of Telegraph). Call 248-263-2111.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].