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Louis I. Kahn, who died in 1974, was one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century, creating a handful of buildings that, in the words of the L.A. Times, “change your life.” But he left behind an illegitimate son, Nathaniel, and a personal life of secrets and broken promises. MY ARCHITECT takes us on a heartbreaking yet humorous journey as Nathaniel attempts to reconnect with his deceased father. The riveting narrative takes us from the men’s room in Penn Station, where Kahn died bankrupt and alone, to the bustling streets of Bangladesh and the inner sanctums of Jerusalem politics, as well as through unforgettable encounters with the world's most celebrated architects. In a documentary with all the emotional impact of a dramatic feature film, Nathaniel's journey becomes a universal investigation of identity—and a celebration of art and, ultimately, life itself.
The following is excerpted from an interview by Martin C. Pedersen with the director Nathaniel Kahn in Metropolis Magazine © 2003
By Martin C. Pedersen
The Metropolis Observed
Louis Kahn created some of the most important buildings of the twentieth century: the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth; the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California; the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, in Dhaka. His buildings were monumental, deeply rooted in materials, and full of mystery. And yet the deepest mystery surrounding Kahn remained secret throughout his life. When he died of a heart attack, in a men's room in Penn Station in 1974, obituaries said he was survived by his wife, Esther, and a daughter, Sue Ann. But it turned out that Kahn had lived a life split four ways: work, his traditional family, and two women and the children they bore him. Nathaniel Kahn—son of Harriet Pattison, a landscape architect who worked in the Kahn office—was eleven when his father died. Now 39, the writer and director has recently completed a documentary entitled My Architect, a deeply affecting look at a complicated man. For the film Nathaniel interviewed dozens of architectural luminaries—Vincent Scully, I. M. Pei, Frank Gehry, Robert A. M. Stern—and others, including his half-siblings. Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen talked to Kahn about the film prior to its screening at the New Directors/New Films Festival in New York. The film will be released in theaters this fall.
Obviously the search for your father has been a lifelong quest. But what happened in your immediate past that made you want to make this film now?
I think you get to a point where your curiosity gets the better of you. As a little boy, I didn't see much of my father's world—I just had a keyhole-size glimpse of it. But what I saw of it was fascinating. You also want to know about the man who came before you. I'd made other films, but this is something that I had avoided for a long time, because it's scary to go back. You don't know what you're going to find. There's always the risk of embarrassing yourself: here comes what appears to be a nearly middle-aged man asking questions that a child asks. That was difficult.
Was it the sort of film you always knew you were going to make but kept putting off?
No, I kept trying to do it in other ways. I wrote a screenplay about a son who discovers that the father he thought was dead isn't—which of course was always a dream of mine. It sort of reverberates throughout the film. As a little boy, I never quite believed that Lou was gone. I would always look for him in crowds. I'd see a white-haired man turning the corner and think maybe it was him.
Did you always know that you were going to be the main protagonist in the film?
No. One of my biggest struggles was: what would the character of the son—me—be like in the documentary? For a long time I tried to ask interview questions that were more objective. But when I got that footage back, I'd look at it and think, "You know what? This is a movie anybody could make."
The search for your dad is what propels the story, but if someone goes into the theater not knowing about Louis Kahn, they come out knowing a lot more about his architecture.
There was a very fine line to tread there, because the narrative drive of the film is a son looking for his father. But along the way the father happens to be a well-known architect. I felt that it was important for people to experience what his architecture was like. One of the traps that people who write about architecture often fall into is that they merely describe the buildings as objects. When you experience Lou's architecture, it always gives you a feeling.
One of the things I liked about the film was that its narrative wasn't literal or strictly chronological.
Documentaries that are more subject-based often use people as recurring voices. They interview eight or ten people and then sort of manipulate them. It's a pretty tried and true documentary style—the talking-head film—and it's highly effective intellectually. But I think it's highly ineffective emotionally because on a journey you don't suddenly have someone who you met a year ago pop up and tell you something. There is a unity of time and place. I met Philip Johnson once. All of the scenes with him, all of the moments I could use, were in one place, the Glass House. I met Moshe Safdie in the desert and instead of saying, "Let's find a nice place to hang out, because I want to use you in a lot of different places in the film," he and I took a little walk in the desert. It's one of my favorite scenes because it was literally one take. We had this conversation. It happened one afternoon and it was gone. That's the way so much of life is. And always the way I thought encounters with my father were.
How did your view of your dad's work evolve during the making of the film?
I always felt like his buildings were monumental and beautiful, but in a way they seemed rather distant when I first saw them. But as I moved through them—and later filmed them—I felt the tremendous acts of imagination that had gone into making them. I think that he walked through them in his mind. Here was an architect who asked questions, like: what's my building going to be like when it's raining? What's this room going to feel like if I'm sitting in the corner? You can start to think of his buildings as endless acts of imagination. I felt very connected to him by imagining him imagining these places.
How did you approach his buildings as a filmmaker?
One of the biggest no-nos in filming architecture is panning, because that's just moving the camera. People don't pan when they look at something. They move through space. So the filming that I did early on? I threw all of that out. Honestly, I probably filmed those Yale buildings fifteen times, and I still don't think I've done it right. The moment we got away from the feeling of "we need to show what this building looks like" and instead used the buildings as a stage set, letting people use them as a way to jog their thinking, that was when they became interesting and easier to deal with. For instance, the scene at the capital in Dhaka, when the architect comes up to me at the end of the film. We didn't set that up. He kind of accosted me, wanting to know what I was doing. Yes, I knew the top level of the building would be a great vantage point, but it wasn't, "OK, I want you to stand here; this is a good background." Somehow he was speaking from the building. It was a meeting that the building made happen.
That seems to be one of your favorite Kahn buildings. Do you remember seeing it for the first time?
Absolutely. We had a number of friends over there who acted as guides for our crew. When we arrived I told one of them, "I want you to take me to the capital, but I don't want to see the building until I can really see it." So the guide said, "Well, why don't we blindfold you?" As we got near the building, I could actually hear the open space around it. They took me out of the car. The ground got soft. We walked over some grass. Then I could hear birds. The traffic was behind us now. Our guide—whose name was also Kahn, spelled K-H-A-N—asked, "Are you ready?" I said, "Not yet. Give me a minute." I prepared myself, realizing, This is the last building of my father's that I'm going to see for the first time. So in a way I was coming to the end of something too. "Ready?" Khan asked again. "Yes," I said. "Am I facing it?" Khan took off the blindfold and I burst into tears. It was the only time that happened. I've been moved by places before, but seeing that building was so astonishing. It's such an incredible structure. Very pure. Usually it's hard to end a film. But I knew that when I was in Dhaka the film was over. I knew that we were done, there was nowhere else that I could go. And there's something wonderful about that because it's how stories—mythological stories—end.
How long was My Architect in the making?
It's been five years… Making a film like this is difficult. It's hard to raise the money, hard to get up every day with the courage to keep asking these questions. You go through periods where you feel that you just can't face it.
They say the average documentary takes five years. There are reasons for that. Some of them have to do with funding of course, but a good film gives you the feeling that in two hours you've lived a lifetime. Or lived a day. Or lived through an entire war. Somehow it messes with your sense of time. One of the surest ways to achieve that is to actually produce something that takes place over a period of time. I change within the film and that's part of the reason it takes a while to get going. You have to stick with it. It's a narrative that slowly builds. We structured it that way.
A lot of the film is about untangling the mystery of your father. Now that you've made the film, is he less of a mystery to you?
I think so. He's more of a flesh and blood person. Though still enigmatic and mysterious, he's no longer a semi-mythological character. I see that he was a man who had a beginning, a middle, and an end. To some degree the film asks the question: can you get to know someone after they're dead? The answer, I think, is yes.
What do a great architect's buildings reveal about the man?
In college people were always saying, "You just need the text. You don't need to know about the writer's life." That was the big movement in the '80s. To my mind that's a load of crap.
I think it helps tremendously to know about the person. Critics might want you to think it doesn't matter, because their job is to impose on the work what they see and have that be the truth. But knowing something about where the architect comes from, what they struggled with, helps immensely. I think you can feel something different from a place when you know more about the person who created it. It might not help you understand the building architecturally, but it certainly helps you feel it.
You've made a deeply emotional film and yet you don't at any point become visibly moved. Why?
When you're the character in your own story, there's always the danger of becoming operatic. That's why finding the voice for the narration was hard. And why it's important to remember that filmmaking—and architecture—is collaborative. There's an incredible producer [Susan Rose Behr] behind this film, a gifted editor [Sabine Krayenbühl] and a talented cameraman [Bob Richman] whose blood and sweat are all over this film. This is also something I learned from Lou. There were people close to him who not only helped him but helped the buildings to be what they are. Lou carried the flag and stood out front. But there were a lot of people who went into making those details work. I think we tend to forget that and subscribe to this “genius” theory of making things.
I loved the interview in Maine with your two aunts. You could see their emotional shift all in the context of your conversation. It was almost like a feature film.
That was one scene. When you get a little experience making these things you start to realize what works. Sometimes it can come down to sitting people at the right place at a table. The big choice here was: do I put myself in the middle—between my two aunts—or on the side? I sat off to the side and the difference was wonderful, because they're both talking through the camera at me. If I'd been in the middle, I would've been in every shot. In the end, those questions are, oddly, architectural ones. As Billy Wilder always said, "What matters is where you put the camera.”
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