Bastard with a camera
Can you get to know someone after they are dead?
The answer, for Nathaniel Kahn, is a resounding yes. He took a film crew along as he made a self-prescribed, quasi-curative search to understand and bid a final farewell of sorts to his deceased father. This conjuring up of the past in the captivating My Architect: A Son’s Journey resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, and it allowed the illegitimate son of legendary architect Louis I. Kahn to loosen a knotted legacy of myths, mysteries, contradictions, triumphs, failures and uncompromised artistic vision.
Louis died face up in a restroom in New York’s Penn Station from a heart attack in March 1974; he was 73. He was one of the most important architects of his generation. He had just returned from India, bankrupt and alone. It took authorities three days to notify his next of kin, because Louis had crossed out his address on his passport. He left behind three families: one with his wife of many years and his daughter, and two with women with whom he had had long affairs and illegitimate children. All three families lived within miles of each other in the Philadelphia area but never crossed paths until his funeral.
Louis’ only son, Nathaniel, was 11 years old at the time and was not mentioned in his father’s obituary. Twenty-five years later, Nathaniel, no longer satisfied with a child’s keyhole glimpse into his father’s world, wanted to know more about that man. Nathaniel’s quest to glean any information he could from his father’s past environs took him from Pennsylvania to Texas and then to Bangladesh and locales beyond. What he discovered was a man influenced by circumstance and frustration: an accidental tourist who trusted his work more than his personal relationships and who, even in the wake of international fame, kept his feet firmly planted in the trenches of his art rather than dancing on a pedestal.
My Architect includes interviews with Louis’ peers, the man who first happened upon his body, university colleagues, lovers, clients, an emphatic detractor, admirers, such architectural luminaries as Frank Gehry and Philip Johnson, and even the cabbies who spirited Louis around Philadelphia. The film visits such buildings of his as the Trenton Bathhouse (1954-1969), where Louis first discovered himself, and the Richards Medical Towers (1957-1962), where the world finally discovered him. And it talks of his immigration from Estonia as a child, an accident that left his face scarred from fire, his early days as a piano player in silent-movie houses and his desire to leave a permanent imprint on the world.
Nathaniel has divided his film into such sections as “Beginnings,” “The Immigrant,” “Looking in Philadelphia,” “Heading West,” “Dreams of a Better City” and “The Truth About the Bastard.” He uses time-lapse photography and a soundtrack that includes orchestral arrangements and music by Neil Young, Hank Williams and Aaron Copland for dramatic effect. And he escorts us into a world of mostly concrete and brick, in which modern buildings have the transcendent feel of ancient ruins and combine the elements of geometrical clarity, primitive power, natural light and the spirituality of space into timeless monuments.
Nathaniel never gets incontestable proof that Louis had marked out his passport address because he had finally decided to leave his wife and move in with Nathaniel’s mother. But he does find that walking through his father’s buildings is like walking through his mind. And he does end up with a clearer image of a short, scarred Jew with a funny voice who changed the course of architecture in the face of prejudice and derision and who usually answered even the most mundane questions with a philosophical lecture.
Louis left no physical proof of his presence in the home of Nathaniel’s mother, but he did send Nathaniel a postcard one day, with a telling postscript: “Your father does not feel like a conquering hero. Someday, I hope to teach you to be a better man than I am.” That day never came. But at least Nathaniel has found the right time and place to say his goodbye.