My Architect
"What makes My Architect different from art docs that rely on talking heads, gallery discourses and dodgy memories is the personal touch."

The title is a turn off. The subject matter - documentary about an obscure Jewish American architect who died penniless in the lavatory at Pennsylvania Station, New York, 1974 - is hardly sexy. And yet Nathaniel Kahn's investigation into the life and work of this man who happened to be his father comes closer than anything to understanding the single minded, obsessive and selfish nature of the artist, reafirming a common misconception that success and failure are measurements of creative talent.

Louis Kahn was in every sense remarkable. The fact that he is little known reflects not a jot on the value of his contribution. Nathaniel's film is a journey of discovery. His father, who never lived with his mother, died when he was 12 years old.

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As an architect, Louis was a maverick, refusing to accept bread-and-butter commissions, constantly striving to reach beyond fashion to a personal statement contained within an original concept. Seldom was he allowed to fulfill his dreams, as with the great synagogue in Jerusalem, but when he was - the supreme example being the parliament in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which took 23 years to build and was completed nine years after his death - the results are breathtaking.

He didn't fit the mould of architect as establishment figure. His family arrived from Estonia when he was a child, lived in a cramped top floor apartment in the seedy section of Philadelphia and learnt to play the piano. His face was scarred, as if from burns, and he was short.

He married Esther when he was 24 and had a daughter. Later, he started a relationship with Anne, who worked for him, with whom he had another daughter, and then, later still, Nathaniel's mother. These women, who did not meet, lived within close proximity of each other. Despite the complexity of maintaining three families, partially in secret, he insisted that "work was the only thing you could rely on" and often rolled out a carpet in the office and slept there.

What makes My Architect different from art docs that rely on talking heads, gallery discourses and dodgy memories is the personal touch. Nathaniel is searching for the heart and soul of a man he hardly remembers and yet manages to make the journey as emotional and absorbing to his audience as it is for himself.

"He owned nothing," Esther said in a recorded interview. "Only books and neckties." One of his colleagues describes him as "Utopian, impracticable. He was uncontrollable." Only one of his projects made money. When he died, his firm owed half a million dollars.

And yet tears well into the eyes of a Bangladeshi intellectual when discussing his work. He had that effect on people.

"Who else talked about matter in spiritual terms?"

Reviewed on: 17 Sep 2004
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A son searches for the spiritual heart of his architect father through his life and work.
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EIFF 2003

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