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February 9, 2004

My Architect

I saw a very good movie this weekend - My Architect: A Son's Journey. It's a film about architect Louis Kahn made by his son Nathaniel Kahn. The intriguing part of the story is that Louis Kahn had three families: his wife, and her daughter, a daughter by another woman, and then a son by yet another woman - Nathaniel Kahn.

Kahn died in 1974 in a bathroom in New York's Pennsylvania station. His son takes up the quest to find his father, which means journeying to his buildings as well as talking to people who knew him.

N. Kahn's film is nominated for an Oscar as best documentary, and this past weekend it won a Director's Guild Award in that category.

It's a beautiful film, with better cinematography and sound than you might expect from a documentary. And that's good, because at least part of the story of understanding Louis Kahn is appreciating his buildings.

Perhaps the most affecting building comes at the very end, when Nathaniel travels to Bangladesh. Louis Kahn designed the National Assembly building in Dhaka. The building is huge, and the impact is all the greater when you hear that this huge building was constructed essentially by hand - the workers bringing in the concrete bucket by bucket. The building was completed after Kahn's death, but the impact on Nathaniel Kahn - and on us - is palpable.

At least one criticism I've read knocks the movie for having focusing too much on Nathaniel and his quest to know his father. But that's what keeps the moving from becoming a Travel Planet documentary - the struggle to make sense of this man, what he left behind, and what he was and wasn't to those around him. I'm an architecture buff, but I felt the balance was just right. (One of my favorite parts was his visit to one of Kahn's early buildings, the Richards Medical Center in Philadelphia. He talks to people who work in the building, and they criticize it - too sterile, doesn't work, too cold - and Nathaniel himself admits that as much as he wants to like the building, he can't. That little surprise was the point at which I realized that this wasn't going to be a simple pean to Kahn's talents, but more complicated exploration - much like the man himself.