"Gonna take a sentimental journey; gonna set my heart at ease." Quoting those lyrics, from one of my favorite old songs, seems an appropriate way to begin a review of My Architect. Why? Because this film is a documentary about the journey of a son trying to discover the truth about his deceased father. Writer/director Nathaniel Kahn, the illegitimate son of famed architect Louis Kahn, spent five years putting this splendid film together -- and it emerges as a showcase of his father's genius as well as an artistic triumph for himself.
Before seeing My Architect, I didn't know anything about Louis Kahn. However, while living in the San Diego area, the building I most admired there was the Salk Institute in La Jolla. And I knew the Institute had been featured in Coma, a popular sci-fi thriller. Imagine my surprise to find that Kahn designed this awe-inspiring place! If I'd been keeping up with Architecture, I'd have known Kahn created plans for some of the most important buildings of the twentieth century, including the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the incredible National Assembly Building of Bangladesh in Dhaka.
But the respected architect's private life was another story. Although married to one woman who gave him a daughter, Kahn carried on long-standing affairs with two other women who each bore him a child. In effect, he had three families -- all living within a few miles of each other. In 1974, he died of a heart attack in the men's room in Pennsylvania Station, and his obituary stated that he was "survived by his wife, Esther, and a daughter, Sue Ann." Not a word about eleven-year-old Nathaniel or his third child.
After he became an adult, Nathaniel's curiosity about his father got the best of him. "As a little boy, I didn't see much of my father's world -- I just had a key hole-size glimpse of it," he explained to Martin C. Pedersen of The Metropolis Observed. "But what I saw of it was fascinating. You also want to know about the man who came before you. I'd made other films, but this is something that I had avoided for a long time, because it's scary to go back. You don't know what you're going to find. There's always the risk of embarrassing yourself: here comes what appears to be a nearly middle-aged man asking questions that a child asks."
Despite these fears, Nathaniel persevered. He interviewed people his father had worked with, the women in his life, even his other children. He found archival footage of his father talking with students, working in his office and walking down various streets. And he visited every one of Kahn's glorious buildings. "I always felt like his buildings were monumental and beautiful, but in a way they seemed distant when I first saw them," Nathaniel told Pedersen. "But as I moved through them -- and later filmed them -- I felt the tremendous acts of imagination that had gone into making them. "
I'm pleased Nathaniel filmed these extraordinary buildings in a way that allowed me to appreciate more than how they look. I also got a feel for how wonderful it would be to spend time inside them. My favorite? The capital building in Dhaka. It took my breath away. That one happens to be Nathaniel's favorite, also. And it's where he ends My Architect. "I knew that we were done; there was nowhere else I could go," he declares, adding that mythological stories always end this way. "You journey to the end of the earth and find the answer."
(Released by New Yorker Films; not rated by MPAA. Opened in Denver on March 19, 2004, at the Chez Artiste.)