My Architect Review

The architect Louis Kahn died in Penn Station in New York in 1974, bankrupt and leaving three families behind him. Never really knowing who his father was, his son, through this fine documentary, sets out on a journey to discover the man through his works and the people whose lives he touched.

The documentary format has seen a boom in recent years and certain films have enjoyed unexpected success. There is certainly a market for the investigative documentary, whether it’s examining social issues in Super Size Me or Farenheit 9/11 – or the examination of popular and notorious public figures seen Nick Broomfield’s work and Oliver Stone’s Commandante. Gradually we are seeing more personal documentaries making their way into cinemas – the forthcoming Tarnation looking like being the ultimate in reality self-documentary – films which take a lead from the surprising success of Capturing The Friedmans, which was as much about the destruction of a family trying to come to terms with who their father was after charges of child abuse were made against him, as it was an investigation into the claims themselves. My Architect presents what appears to be another view on a public figure – the architect Louis J. Kahn – but more than bringing the architect’s designs to the attention of the world (and deservedly so), the film is also an attempt by the architect’s son – as the film’s subtitle “A Son’s Journey” suggests – to find out something for himself about a father he never really knew or understood.

The architect Louis J. Kahn had achieved worldwide acclaim and a certain measure of success with his controversial and original designs, but the 73 year-old man died penniless and alone after suffering a heart-attack in Penn Station, New York in 1974. Although he was married for many years to his wife Esther, Kahn had two other families living in close proximity, each living a separate existence, although aware of each other. Nathaniel was his only son, born when the architect was 61 years old. Nathaniel’s mother had always believed that he was about to leave his wife definitively and was making the journey to move in with them on the day he died. Nathaniel has always suspected that this was a comfortable myth, but with very little knowledge to go on, he decided to investigate, find out who his father was, what kind of man could envision the works he designed and at the same time live such an irresponsible lifestyle with the women in his life.

The director visits all his father’s buildings and makes contact with family members, (including many family members he never knew about) and discovers sides to his father that he never knew. The director will go anywhere for the slightest scrap of information, interviewing other architects and contemporaries, taxi drivers who drove him to his office, people who live and work in his buildings, even a man who saw his father the night he died in Penn Station. The picture he builds up is of a man who was born in Estonia, whose face was horrifically disfigured with the scars of an accident with burning coals when he was 3 years old. He learns of his artistic ability and the temperament that goes with it – more than just a brilliant designer or architect, he discovers that Kahn was an artist who remained restless until he discovered his own style in his 50’s, inspired by the monumental magnificence of the structures of ancient Egypt and Rome. Fellow architects judge Kahn’s brilliance on achieving the purity of his vision, never compromising or making concessions to city planners, and the architecture seen in the film is amazing – The Salk Institute of Biological Studies in Jolla, California is a bold structure, judged to imbued with spirituality. The building does not stand alone, but connects with the environment, making marvellous use of the light and space around and inside it.

The director’s search takes him to Israel in an attempt to see if his father’s Jewish roots played any part in the spirituality of his work, but it doesn’t take him any closer to understanding who his father was, nor do the meetings with various members of his extended family, who all have their own personal impressions of who the man was. The director too has his own view, but distrusts it – he wants to know what the essence of the man was for himself. He is fortunate enough to meet some astonishingly wise and eloquent people in India and Bangladesh, who knew his father and who understood him, and they provide the comforting words as well as the key to who the director’s father was, in the brilliance of his work and his failings as a person. Nathaniel Kahn discovers his father in the magnificent Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India and in the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh – 25 years in the making and only completed 9 years after his father’s death, but it has tremendous significance for the people of one of the poorest regions on the planet. What the director discovers there is the perfect monument to the enigma that was his father.

DVDMy Architect is released on UK Region 2 DVD by Tartan. The DVD includes a booklet insert with an essay on the film by Trevor Johnston.

VideoThe picture quality is excellent throughout. The film is transferred in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with no signs of any print damage or dustspots, although there are of course some issues with the quality of archive footage used. Colours are strong and warm and the image carried a fine amount of detail. It’s almost flawless – the only minor issue I noticed was that edges can sometimes appear a little harsh against light backgrounds, but this could well be down to the nature of the filming (on video, I presume).

AudioThe film comes with three choices of soundtrack, a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a DTS 5.1 mix. All of them are first-rate, with perfect clarity, tone and warmth. Obviously, being a documentary, there isn’t a great deal of activity across the surround sound spectrum, but the wonderful music score by Joseph Vitarelli – which seems to be perfectly pitched for the monumental grandeur of Kahn’s architecture and the melancholy longing of his family and the people he touched – makes equally good use of both the surround mixes.

SubtitlesThe film is English language, but there are no hard of hearing subtitles provided.

ExtrasDirector’s Q & A (23:20)A post-screening Q&A with the director is divided into 11 chapters or can be played continuously. It’s interspersed with a number of deleted scenes that did not make the final cut, including one or two additional buildings created by the architect, not seen in the film. Kahn talks about the film’s structure, his use of archival footage and explains some of the choices he made or was forced to make in the process of making the film.

UK Exclusive Interview with Nathaniel Kahn(33:07)This is an excellent and substantial interview with the director and it’s much more in-depth than the Q&A session. Kahn talks about the whole documentary filmmaking process, the five years it took to make the film, the 200 hours of footage that had to be cut down, and the leap of faith required to set out on a journey when you don’t know where you are going.

Original Theatrical Trailer(1:59)The theatrical trailer sets up the premise and the tone of the film very well.

OverallMy Architect could easily have taken all sorts of missteps, being too focussed on the public figure of a celebrated architect, failing to capture the essence of his buildings, even being too maudlin and personal – but the director successfully navigates past all these pitfalls, as well as the formal hazards of too many interviews and talking heads. What he achieves is a well-measured, restrained and controlled treatment of a very personal and emotive subject – an attempt to by a son to discover who his father really was – and at the same time achieving a more universal meditation on how much we can really know about someone by the people they touch and by what they leave behind. Tartan’s DVD presents the material well, with fine A/V quality and a good selection of extra features that enhance the experience of watching the film.


Updated: Apr 13, 2005

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