In his 72 years, the architect Louis I. Kahn created two types of things: buildings and families.
The former category includes the Salk Institute, the Yale Art Gallery and the Capital Complex in Bangladesh. ("He has given us democracy," says a Bangladeshi man, fighting back tears.) These enduring monuments, principled and vigorous, are timeless works of symmetry, geometric clarity and primitive power -- God, reflected in architecture, offers one expert and admirer in Nathaniel Kahn's documentary My Architect, the story of Louis Kahn's life and work.
The latter category includes Nathaniel Kahn himself, who was the architect's son, and whose name didn't appear in Kahn's front-page obituary in The New York Times. That's because Kahn, who lived in Philadelphia, had three families. A wife and daughter anchored a homestead in the city. Nathaniel's mother, a landscape artist who lived on the outskirts of town, prepared full-course meals, on very short notice, for furtive and infrequent family dinners, after which she and Nathaniel would drive Kahn home to his wife. And there was yet another Philadelphia woman with a daughter by Kahn. All three families finally met, tensely, at his funeral in 1974.
Kahn was 61 when Nathaniel was born, and Nathaniel was 11 when Kahn died. Now Nathaniel, a playwright and filmmaker, has assembled a thorough biography of his peripatetic (and libertine) father, and a dogged and tender autobiography of his own hazy memories of the necessarily eccentric, introspective man.
My Architect is as straightforward as a documentary can get: There's virtually no cinematic technique here, just interviews, narration, old footage of Kahn, and images of his work. Nathaniel explores his father's immigrant history -- at age 3, just before leaving Estonia with his parents, his face became badly scarred in an accident at home -- and his sometimes-controversial designs. ("You can only do it if you honor the brick.") A late bloomer, he began his landmark work at age 50. At the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught in the 1960s, we see his only Philadelphia building as people talk about it. Some like it, and some, including his son, don't.
Nathaniel meets a lot of old pikers and kibitzers in his search, and he even chats with the cabbies who drove Kahn around Philadelphia. That's a slightly pointless choice to make for a documentary, but it certainly shows the lengths to which Nathaniel went to extract the most microscopic memories about his phantom father. One old friend, the architect Philip Johnson, calls Kahn the most "beloved" architect of his time: a great mind, a dedicated artist and a nice guy. His father's cousin, a rabbi, wonders harmlessly why Kahn didn't have more wealth to show for his busy and celebrated life.
The bankrupt Louis Kahn died a somewhat enigmatic death, by heart attack, in a men's room at Pennsylvania Station. He had just returned from India, and his body lay unclaimed in the Manhattan morgue for three days because he had scratched out the address on his passport. Nathaniel can't quite penetrate this enigma. But he still does an admirable job of assembling the known world of his memorable father.