My Architect: A Son's Journey is a first-person documentary with the subterranean pull of a superb confessional novel.
The filmmaker, Nathaniel Kahn, is the only son of the celebrated architect Louis Kahn (1901-1974) and his sometime-collaborator, the landscape architect Harriet Pattison.
It wasn't until after his father died of a heart attack in a men's room at New York's Penn Station that Nathaniel, then 11, laid eyes on his half-siblings: Alexandra Tyng, the daughter of Anne Tyng, an architect who worked in Louis' office, and Sue Ann Kahn, the daughter of Louis' wife, Esther Israeli, a medical technician who supported Louis for two decades and enabled him to open that office in the first place. This movie charts Nathaniel's struggle to know his father better and to learn if he and his half-sisters could be a family.
As an observant and insightful director, as well as a questing son, Nathaniel is so sensitive to every aspect of his story that his film transcends domestic drama and the conventional outlines of a "portrait of an artist." My Architect is a passionate, lucid piece of nonfiction filmmaking: the rare commentary on an artist's life and oeuvre that itself becomes a sublime and soulful work of art.
Louis Kahn was a culturally assimilated Jew - his Orthodox first cousin, the rabbi who officiated at his funeral, has little to say about him. But he still faced the gentlemanly anti-Semitism that permeated his profession, and he would fit right into the roster of haunted and sometimes impish renegades compiled by Yiddish fiction writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Louis didn't carry on with all three women simultaneously, but he did maintain contact with them and his children. His juggling of three households within miles of each other and his Philadelphia office recalls Singer's novel (and Paul Mazursky's movie) Enemies: A Love Story. Each woman loved Louis despite - or perhaps because of - his willingness to sacrifice everything for art, and his inability to navigate the practical world of courting clients and negotiating deals.
As in Singer's short stories, there are magical and biblical or folk-tale-like elements to Louis' destiny. This small, obsessive man bore terrible scars from his boyhood in Estonia: At age 3, he snatched a glowing coal into his apron and the apron burned up in his face, leaving marks around his mouth and on his hands. His mother (not his father) took it as a portent of greatness. (After all, as an infant, Moses, too, grabbed a glowing coal and put it in his mouth.) Louis' preferred sketching instrument turned out to be charcoal.
Louis died bankrupt. Police found him with the address scratched out from his passport, so his body lay unclaimed at the city morgue for three days. (He'd just returned from India.) Nathaniel's mother took this detail as a sign that he was about to leave his wife for her, but Anne Tyng and Nathaniel doubt it.
What registers to viewers is that Louis, who never prized material possessions, left life stripped of his material identity - and that the mystery surrounding his demise in part compels his son's crusade to understand him.
In a way, this film has the same trajectory as Tim Burton's Big Fish. Like the son in Burton's movie, Nathaniel demands to know the facts of his father's life. But as Louis' mystical streak grabs hold of him, and his architecture casts its spell, Nathaniel increasingly seizes on "the tactile detail threaded into a no less palpable presence of the invisible, the supernatural, the divine" (to quote The Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature on I.B. Singer). This son's journey takes him into the realm of the spirit. Only there can Nathaniel reconcile the contradictory fragments of his personal and artistic patrimony.
What's remarkable about My Architect is how Louis Kahn's buildings and the feelings he inspired in his colleagues and neglected loved ones make his soul concrete. As Nathaniel interviews Louis' two mistresses and daughters, the cabbies who drove him around Philadelphia, the still-angry urban planner Edward Bacon who clashed with the architect over Philadelphia's future, and fellow master architects such as Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei, Louis Kahn emerges as an unself-conscious visionary.
Nathaniel's own recollections accumulate while he gathers testimony; the glimpses he got as a boy into his father's essence are amplified by the love and creativity Louis put out into the world. That process of filling-out and enlargement comes into focus when Nathaniel shares a pamphlet of sketches Louis made for him called The Book of Crazy Boats and then tours the actual "Crazy Boat" Louis made for wind-orchestra leader Robert Boudreau. It's a barge that metamorphoses into a floating bandstand and looks as sci-fi futuristic as Captain Nemo's Nautilus.
Boudreau's sudden comprehension that Nathaniel is Louis' grown son marks one of the few instances in movies of raw feeling captured to perfection - a tribute to Nathaniel's poise as a man and a moviemaker.
Louis found his artistic voice when a stint as architect in residence at the American Academy in Rome enabled him to visit classical ruins. From then on, his signature creations would echo the purity of the ancient builders' geometric shapes and their organic use of environments and materials. He became known in part for his monumentality. His most amazing buildings, such as the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and the Capital Complex in Bangladesh, have the architectural equivalent of epic sweep. Yet they don't conquer the landscape; they complement and complete it.
Nathaniel's choice of angles and lighting and his willingness to linger over Louis' crowning achievements put over the usefulness and humanity of those achievements and bring home their aesthetic and spiritual potency. My Architect conjures an electric serenity from the aura Louis gave off as a man and from his towering artistic legacy.
My Architect: A Son's Journey
Released by New Yorker Films
Time 116 minutes