When the visionary American architect Louis I. Kahn died in 1974 at age 73, his front page New York Times obituary listed a wife and a daughter as his only survivors. Not quite.
For Kahn, a flawed man whose buildings were impeccable, left not one but three families, all living within a few miles of each other in the Philadelphia area but never sharing the same physical space until the funeral.
Nathaniel Kahn remembers looking for his name in that obituary though he knew he wouldn't find it, looking for some tangible acknowledgment that the person who died when he was 11 without ever living with, much less marrying, his mother, someone whose every word and visit he treasured, was actually his father.
"My Architect," Kahn's affecting documentary, is an attempt to come to terms with that father, "the man who left me with so many questions," as well as with the work he created. It is a film that's as much about the emotional connections between children and parents as it is about an architect even his peers are in awe of. "All my buildings," says Philip Johnson, not usually thought of an as underachiever, "don't add up to his three or four."
The success of "My Architect," however, is by no means preordained, as the director's relationship to Kahn is simultaneously an advantage, giving us connections to the man and his work a more conventional documentary could not have managed, as well as a disadvantage not easily overcome.
For Nathaniel Kahn is very much a presence in this film, at times too much so. The title is properly read with the emphasis on the "my," and the work itself is a plea, understandable but disconcerting at times in its nakedness, to be linked irrevocably to his father. Whether it's a shot of the younger Kahn's face reflected in a microfilm reader displaying his father's obituary or a scene of the director in-line skating through the heroic courtyard of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, you can feel Nathaniel's almost compulsive need to put his mark on Louis' life, to achieve the unity that could not be managed while the man was alive.
It is a considerable asset here that Louis Kahn was a creator of spectacular buildings, which "My Architect" discusses at length, and that cinematographer Bob Richman has photographed them beautifully.
The Salk Institute, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, New England's Phillips Exeter Academy library, the majestic, otherworldly capital buildings in Dhaka, Bangladesh, are all frankly exhilarating, and seeing them on screen explains why so many major architects — Johnson, I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, Moshe Safdie, Robert A.M. Stern — go on camera to explain their reverence for his work.
That Kahn became an architect at all, let alone one of this stature, is a remarkable story, and "My Architect" is at its best when telling it, beginning with Kahn's childhood in Estonia and a horrific accident with fire that badly scarred his face for life.
Kahn and his impoverished family emigrated to Philadelphia, and it was the chance taking of a high school course that turned his mind to architecture.
Still, he was almost 50 before he found himself, before a trip through the ancient world helped him to create his aesthetic of timeless monumentality, of "modern buildings with the feel of old ruins."
For an architect this gifted, the path was not easy. He had ferocious battles with city planner Edmund Bacon, still irascible on the subject, about Kahn's ideas about redeveloping his hometown of Philadelphia, and he spent seven fruitless years working on a synagogue in Jerusalem, a building that, in computer mock-up, looks as impressive as anything he ever did.
Along the way Kahn not only married, he had liaisons with two women in his office, designer Ann Tyng and landscape architect Harriet Pattison, Nathaniel's mother, that resulted in children. The filmmaker interviews both women, neither of whom ever married, probing them about their hopes, their dreams, their reasons for staying in relationships that did not seem to have a future.
It is in Nathaniel Kahn's questioning of and discussions with the film's cast of characters that "My Architect" is most trying. He can't wait to tell everyone he meets who he is, sometimes even manipulating the situation to make the revelation more dramatic. He fishes for compliments for his father's work and asks so many obtuse questions that even his own mother loses patience, speaking for all of us when she snaps, "Oh come on, Nathaniel."
Yet, almost against reason, Nathaniel Kahn makes his compulsions work for him. His irritating ways lead to insight; his insistent need for attention ends up making the film more than it unmakes it. While some of the talking is frankly tedious, the sessions with Louis Kahn's fellow architects and his two mistresses offer perceptions a more detached observer likely would not have acquired.
By the time "My Architect" ends in Bangladesh with a serendipitous interview with a thoughtful architect named Shamsul Wares, both the director and the audience have come to an understanding about Louis Kahn that is perhaps more precious for the difficulty with which it's been acquired.
'My Architect' MPAA rating: Unrated A New Yorker Films release presented in association with HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films. Director Nathaniel Kahn. Producers Susan Rose Behr and Nathaniel Kahn. Executive producers Susan Rose Behr, Andrew Clayman, Darrell Friedman. Written and narrated by Nathaniel Kahn. Cinematographer Bob Richman. Editor Sabine Krayenbühl. Music Joseph Vitarelli. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223, and the Regency Lido Theater, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach, (949) 673-8350.