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Architect Louis Kahn designed some of the most enduring monuments of the 20th century -- hauntingly beautiful laboratories, light-filled museums, the precisely ordered Parliament building for Bangladesh.

His private life, however, was just the opposite -- unstable, secretive, chaotic, in many ways unknowable even to those closest to him.

When the architect died in 1974 of a heart attack, alone and destitute in the men's room at New York's Pennsylvania Station, he left behind three separate families who lived within miles of each other but never crossed paths until his funeral.

His only son, Nathaniel, one of two children born out of wedlock, has attempted to unravel the mystery of Louis Kahn in a film. Called My Architect, the intensely personal and poignant tale will have its Baltimore premiere tonight at the Walters Art Museum. (It opens Friday at the Charles Theatre as part of a national "rollout" that will bring it to nearly 50 cities by midyear.)

Kahn was considered one of the greatest architects of the century, a deity for generations of students, and his geometric compositions of brick, concrete and light helped change the course of architecture.

But to Nathaniel, Kahn seemed as elusive as a ghost, dropping in unexpectedly for meals at the home outside Philadelphia where Nathaniel was raised by his single mother, landscape architect Harriet Pattison.

As he grew older, Nathaniel wanted to learn more about his famous father and the lives he led. In 1997, he set out to retrace Louis Kahn's steps -- as an architect and as a man.

"You get to a certain point in your life, if a parent is a mystery, whether alive or dead, that you can't go on without knowing some of these answers," he said. "I reached that point. I had never met many of my relatives, and they weren't getting any younger.

A filmmaker living in Philadelphia and New York, Nathaniel recorded every step of his journey, in effect letting viewers learn what he did, when he did. The odyssey took five years and led him from the East Coast to California, Texas, India and Jerusalem.

The resulting film is as complex as its subject. It's a visual feast of extraordinary architecture. It's a detective story filled with clues about the mysterious leading character. It's oral history, social science, an unvarnished look at the workings of an unusual American family.

Most of all, it's a love story about a father and son, and the child's yearning to find out more about the parent he never really knew.

"I set out to make a father-son story -- a story about a son looking for his father," Nathaniel, 41, said in a recent phone interview. "That is the thing we kept coming back to. That's the thread we wanted."

The film is titled My Architect because Kahn was an architect of both buildings and people. "I wanted to imply ambiguity," Nathaniel said. "He's an architect, but he's also the architect of me. He designed me, on some level."

Many people search for their roots; few make successful films about it. Since opening last fall in New York and Philadelphia, My Architect has received praise from critics and audiences alike. It's one of 12 finalists for an Academy Award in the Best Feature Documentary category.

With its distinctly "son's-eye view," My Architect raises questions about the nature of families, love, fidelity, parenthood, religious faith, art, identity. It also underscores the irony of a man who created monumental works of public architecture but whose personal life was an enigma. At the same time, the film demonstrates, as Louis Kahn puts it in the film, "how accidental our lives are really, and how filled with influence by circumstance."

What makes the story so compelling is its clash of elements -- the contradictory and puzzling central figure, the powerful buildings he created, the nagging questions about his parallel lives.

Had Nathaniel set out to make a scholarly film about his father's struggles and achievements as an architect, judging by the footage he obtained, he would have had arresting material. But by drawing on his family ties and secrets, he added a human dimension that is likely to intrigue even those with little interest in architecture.

"I always knew that this story, because of the power of Lou's buildings, would have great impact on the big screen," the filmmaker said.

"I wanted to make a film that gets people thinking about architecture on a lot of levels -- the nature of things that are designed," he continued. In one sense, "this is about the architecture of an American family. It's a complicated one and not a very conventional one. But there is an architecture there."

Wandered the world

Born in 1901 on the Estonian island of Osel, Louis Kahn immigrated with his family to Philadelphia at the age of 4. Poor but talented in art and music, he made money teaching drawing and playing piano for silent movie houses. He later won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied architecture under Paul Cret.

After teaching at Yale University and working for other designers, Kahn opened his own office in the 1950s and grew to become one of the nation's most highly regarded architects, a celebrity long before architects were household names. He also taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kahn came of age in an era when modernism reigned and architects believed that buildings had the ability to change people's lives for the better. He had an epiphany of sorts after a trip to Greece, Rome and the pyramids of Egypt. After that, his best buildings combined the clean lines and bold geometries of modern architecture with the monumentality and mystery of ancient ruins. They're also characterized by expressive use of materials and natural light.

Kahn's masterworks include the Yale Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn.; the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.; the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh in Dhaka; and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

In his portfolio are also many projects that never got off the drawing board, including large-scale developments for Baltimore's Inner Harbor and the Maryland Institute College of Art campus.

Kahn led a nomadic existence, always traveling in search of the next commission or to oversee work on far-off projects. To the outside world, he was happily married to the former Esther Israeli and raising a daughter, Sue Ann. Short, bespectacled, scarred in the face by a childhood burn, he hardly seemed the womanizing sort.

But outside his marriage, he had long-term relationships with two other women who bore children by him. One was Anne Tyng, a talented architect who worked in Kahn's office for 10 years, on projects such as the Salk Institute. She had his daughter Alexandra.

The other was Nathaniel's mother, who worked in Kahn's office on the Kimbell Art Museum, among other projects.

Alexandra's last name was Tyng. Nathaniel's last name was always Kahn. Neither was mentioned in the front-page obituaries about the architect.

As part of his quest to learn more about his father, Kahn filmed interviews with Anne Tyng and his two half sisters, as well as his mother. Esther died before he began making the film but is shown in archival footage. How much did she know about the other relationships? Were there any others? Some questions are raised but not answered.

Nathaniel recalls his father's visits -- always made with little warning that he was on his way. Each time, Nathaniel's mother rushed to whip up a big dinner. In the film, she says that she believed until the end that he would someday leave Esther and marry her.

Nathaniel does not seem so sure. But he notes that the two women, who didn't marry his father, never married anyone else either -- and seemed to benefit from their relationships with him. In those days, he says, the chance to collaborate with an architect of Louis Kahn's stature was a heady experience -- especially for women.

"Opportunities to work at that level were pretty scarce," Nathaniel says. "The women got a good deal out of it, too."

Portrait in montage

Besides talking to family members, Nathaniel gleans information about his absentee father from cab drivers and a secretary. He visits his father's studio and the college campus where he taught. He unearths filmed lectures and television interviews featuring his father. He even locates a man who saw his father dying in the train station men's room.

Some of the revelations are heartbreaking. One of his father's colleagues volunteers that Kahn spent Christmas one year at his home -- playing and rolling on the bed with his children. To Nathaniel, who never shared a holiday with his father, the casual remark lands like a punch in the stomach, and the camera captures it.

A client recalls seeing Nathaniel as a little boy with his father, but being instructed "never to tell anyone that Lou had a son."

Nathaniel's mother, who worked on the Kimbell museum, wasn't invited to its opening -- because Esther would be there.

As part of his journey, Nathaniel interviews others who lift the film far above the level of maudlin genealogy, including architectural luminaries such as Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry, I. M. Pei and historian Vincent Scully. Each contributes insights that add to Nathaniel's --and the viewers' -- understanding about Louis Kahn the architect.

Kahn was not as charming as Pei or as polished as Johnson, and he was Jewish in a largely Gentile world. Though he was disappointed about not getting commissions for a synagogue in Philadelphia or the Kennedy presidential library, colleagues say, it was remarkable that he got the work he did. Nevertheless, he was an artist more than a businessman and lost money on many of the buildings he designed. Though still traveling around the world, he was bankrupt at the end of his career.

Not everyone was a fan. Edmund Bacon, longtime planning director of Philadelphia and irascible as ever in retirement, makes it clear that he's glad Kahn never built much of what he designed for Philadelphia. Researchers at the Richards Medical Towers in Philadelphia say it isn't a particularly pleasant place to work, despite the acclaim it has received as a work of sculpture.

No one person offers a complete picture of Louis Kahn. But by the end of his journey, Nathaniel has constructed a cinematic montage that begins to show who he was.

Nathaniel believes his father loved him, in his own way. As evidence, he points to a book his father made for him. Called The Book of Crazy Boats, it is filled with whimsical drawings of sailing vessels.

One drawing looks like one of the Kahn buildings Nathaniel later visited as an adult. Perhaps the sketch in the book was the genesis of its design?

"If you wonder, 'did my father love me?' I have The Book of Crazy Boats," Nathaniel says over the phone. "How many children have that? There was love there.

"I wish he had been there a lot more," he adds. "But I also don't feel it's my place to judge him. What I wanted to do was understand him."

My Architect

What: The film, presented by the Maryland Film Festival and New Yorker Films. Filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn will participate in a Q&A; session afterward.

When: 7 o'clock tonight.

Where: Walters Art Museum, Charles and Centre streets.

Admission: $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, and no charge for Friends of the Festival.

Call: 410-752-8083 or see / myarchitect.asp.

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