Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Mysterious Life and Work of Louis Kahn

The documentary film My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003) tells the story of director Nathaniel Kahn’s quest to find the father he only vaguely knew. Nathaniel’s father Louis, a legendary architect on par with Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry, lived for his work and, possibly for this, very few truly knew him. He only created a handful of works: a few in the United States, a few in India. But Kahn’s few works are celebrated for their mystical use of geometric forms, concrete, brick, and natural light. One critic said that visiting a Kahn work “can change your life.” Bankrupt and lacking identification, Louis died of a heart attack in 1974, when Nathaniel was only 11. We soon find out that Nathaniel was Louis’s illegitimate son and that his father, in fact, had three families. One was his wife and daughter; the other two were secretive relationships about which most of Louis’s closest friends and colleagues were unaware.

In Nathaniel’s attempt to discover who his father was, few questions are answered and even more mysteries are unfurled. We only get the roughest sketch of the great, if contradictory, man. Having emigrated from Estonia as a young boy, Louis attended UPENN and worked all of his life to establish a lasting legacy. He was, like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead (I realize that he was based on Frank Lloyd Wright), totally uncompromising in his artistic vision, even if that meant losing many clients in the process. In the respectful, even awestruck, way in which Nathaniel photographs his father’s work: light streaming inside buildings, close-ups of the purposely unpolished concrete, perfectly symmetrical squares and crosses of a ceiling, artificial waterfalls cascading next to concrete rectangles, red sunset surrounding brick cylinders, and a young boy standing stationary and gazing at the permanent structure in the background (this is a motif Nathaniel utilizes); the point seems to be that Louis may have abandoned young Nathaniel, and no one may have known him aside from his work, but does this really matter if all of this is sacrificed for great art? That is, did Louis give humanity something greater than a father’s love?

It’s a beautiful and moving film and one that asks lots of interesting questions about art, form, the balance between work and family, art and society, love and faithfulness, social conventions, and costs of leaving a mark on the ever changing world.      
Here's a link to the My Architect website:
Here's the trailer:

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