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My Architect

The Uncertainty Principle of Documentary Filmmaking

About.com Rating 2.5 Star Rating

By Jurgen Fauth

Louis Kahn in

Louis Kahn in "My Architect"

While he designed buildings all around the world, renowned architect Louis Kahn kept three families, living within miles of each other, until his death in the men's bathroom of New York's Penn Station. In "My Architect," Kahn's son Nathaniel attempts to trace his father's confounding life.

The scarred child of Estonian immigrants who grew up poor in Philadelphia, Louis I. Kahn did not find his distinctive architectural style until he was in his fifties. Among his buildings, some of the most important and influential of the twentieth century, are the Salk Institute in La Jolla, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the capital of Bangladesh. Influenced by ancient ruins, Kahn's style tends to the monumental and monolithic, heavy buildings that neither hide their weight nor the way they're put together.

In "My Architect," Nathaniel Kahn visits his father's most important works toting time-lapse cameras and quotes from architectural luminaries including I.M Pei, Frank Gehry, and Philip Johnson. But his real interest is in "Lou's" private life. In addition to his life-long marriage, Kahn had children and families with two more women, including Nathaniel's mother Harriet. In his quest to understand his father's personal and professional choices, Nathaniel reunites with his half-sisters and gets decades-old gossip from Aunt Posie at her kitchen table in Massachusetts.

While I found some of Kahn's designs fascinating -- especially his magnum opus in Bangladesh and a futuristic boat that opens up into a floating concert stage -- the mixture of private and artistic isn't as insightful as it might sound. The influence of Kahn's mysticism on his work is touched upon but left unexplored, and the prodding into his triple life is hampered by the Uncertainty Principle of documentary filmmaking: as his subject's son, I suspect Nathaniel Kahn is not getting straight answers out of anybody. The reasons why Lou was found dead and penniless in a train station are never sufficiently revealed. While the power of Kahn's designs translates reasonably well on film, I imagine "My Architect" would have worked just as well as a personal essay with a nice photo spread for Harper's Magazine or The New Yorker.

"My Architect" has an exclusive two-week engagement at Film Forum in New York from November 12 - 25.

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