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Daddy was an architect
NATHANIEL KAHN’s documentary, MY ARCHITECT, is a passionate and moving quest to find out the truth about his famous father. Nick Barley and Paul Dale investigate.
et‘s start with some facts: 1. Louis Kahn was the
2. Louis Kahn was a scar-faced. two-timing. fucked- up lover. 3. Louis Kahn was someone's daddy.
()r. to be more precise. he was three people’s daddy. only each child had a different mummy. and neither knew of the other‘s existence until they met at his funeral. One of those children. now an adult. has created a film about his father and it‘s the latest in a spate of groundbreaking documentaries at the forefront of contemporary cinema.
The film may be called My Architect. but this is a million miles from dreary pillar-and-beam platitudes. Filmed by Nathaniel Kahn. it is part biography. part paean to a dead father. and part detective story. Young Nathaniel was just I I when his father was discovered dead from a bean attack in the toilets at Pennsylvania Station. New York City. He had mysteriously scratched out his address details from his passport. and lay in a morgue for three days before his family could be traced.
‘I wanted to see what I could find that was left of my father.‘ says Kahn over a crackly phone link from New York. ‘I suppose it's almost a universal curiosity. you wonder after someone is dead. what is left of them? And if that person is your father it‘s heightened. It started rather tentatively. but I soon realised this is deeper than I‘d thought.‘
Nathaniel‘s account traces the life of his elusive father. from its beginnings in Estonia ('he was born in 1901 or 1902. he wasn‘t sure which‘). and an early accident when Kahn's clothes caught fire — causing terrible bums to his face and hands — through childhood in Philadelphia (‘his schoolfriends called him scarface. so he took to arriving in school at last bell‘). Perhaps it was these setbacks that shaped Louis Kahn's solitary. secretive personality.
‘My father was a character.‘ explains Nathaniel. ‘Somebody who had many sides and I felt that his life would be better portrayed by many people sharing their stories. It becomes a kaleidoscopic portrait . . . yet with all these points of view. you‘re still only scratching the surface.‘
Fortunately for Nathaniel. his father was a celebrity. even
10 THE LIST 26 Aug—9 Sep 2004
if only for the last ten years of his life. and as well as shooting amusing visual essays of Kahn‘s buildings. the filmmaker has gained access to archive footage of the man himself. And it‘s all the more evocative because Nathaniel is able to interview people who knew his dad (including fellow architecture superstars Frank Gehry and IM Pei). in the stunning setting of the buildings he designed. As clues in a mystery go. these ones are pretty telegenic.
‘What began to make it more like a movie was when the interviewees were inhabiting those spaces.’ agrees Nathaniel. ‘There was a tension that was very exciting and also freed me from having to show Louis‘ architecture as the object. And made it more something that was physical. that was a place that I‘d gone to. to find him . . . Iiterally.‘
As it unfolds. the film becomes increasingly personal in its quest to unpick Louis‘ complex love life. Far from being the traditional dispassionate observer. Nathaniel becomes implicated in the story. and we witness extraordinary scenes as Kahn Junior travels to his own mother's house in search of more clues. He probes at the way in which his mother accepted a solitary life as a single mother. visited occasionally and in secret by the architect. ‘Aren't you ever angry at him'.". asks Nathaniel insistently. facing his mother outside her beachside Maine borne. ‘No.' she replies. gently. ‘Really‘.’ Didn’t you know what you were getting into‘.” he asks. aware that he‘s implicated in the reply. ‘()h. come on Nathaniel.‘ she replies. fending off tears. the documentary relationship dissolving before our eyes into one of mother and son.
Ultimately. it is Kahn's architectural achievements which hold the film together. and in particular a vast parliamentary building in Bangladesh. A local architect stands in front of the structure. 0Cntly weeping at the importance of this building. ‘Kahn had an enormous amount of love for everybody.‘ he says. ‘And in order to give that kind of love. he sometimes did not see his very closest ones. I think his son will understand that his family life had to suffer for this.~
My Architect is on selected release from Fri 3 Sep.
‘YOU WONDER AFI'ER SOMEONE IS DEAD. WHAT IS LEFT
OF THEM? AND IF THAT PERSON
IS YOUR FATHER IT'S HEIGHTENED'
Louis Kahn’s designs include the parliamentary building in Bangladesh (above). Nathaniel Kahn only spent a few full days with his father (below): he says he remembers every minute