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Kahn man: Rhonda Lieberman on Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect.

We do not "own" the facts of our lives at all. This ownership passes out of our hands at birth, at the moment we are first observed.

--Janet Malcolm

LOUIS I. KAHN'S NOT-HUGE OEUVRE includes a disproportionate number of masterpieces: the Salk Institute, Yale's Center for British Art, the Kimbell Art Museum, the Phillips Exeter Academy library, Bangladesh's capitol. Modern buildings with the presence of ancient monuments, they exude the timeless, sacred quality that invites you to transcend--not to historicize.

When Kahn died suddenly in Penn Station in 1974, with illegible ID, the police were unable to identify the body for days. It turned out that this short, Jewish architectural titan had had three separate families simultaneously--all living within miles of each other in Philadelphia--that he'd been secretively visiting for years. He had a child with each "wife"--two daughters and a son, Nathaniel, whose documentary film My Architect: A Son's Journey opens nationally this month. A workaholic who lived at his Walnut Street office (napping on a little carpet when he got too tired), Kahn had his secretary field calls from the three women looking for him--when he wasn't schlepping across the world overseeing his far-flung, influential buildings, or across Philly from "family" to "family." An architectural nomad and a mystic ("unintegrated," my therapist would call him).

Eleven years old when his father died, Nathaniel Kahn first appears in his film reflected in the microfiche of his dad's obituary, which mentions the "real" wife, Esther, and "legitimate" daughter, Sue Ann, but not him. "The whole film is a parenthetical phrase to that obituary," said the fortyish, Yale educated filmmaker when we spoke on the phone. "This is the part they didn't say." Undertaken with the reverence of a son seeking to know his elusive progenitor, his journey is also, perhaps inadvertently, a stunningly literal "return of the repressed"--rewriting the Great Man's story from the point of view of someone close who had been edited out. In nearly every segment of My Architect, the filmmaker "outs" his dead dad's secrets to colleagues, clients, anyone who knew him, as he inserts himself into the "official story" that excluded him.

If Kahn's oeuvre embodies timeless Beauty disconnected from messy life, his son's film seeks Truth by attempting to reconnect what his father compartmentalized. Like an analysand working over the family in absentia, the son envelops his father's Myth in history: "Film created the opportunity to have a dialogue with him, even though he's been dead for thirty years" is how he puts it.

Nathaniel combs the world for traces of his father, seeking out anyone (even Philly cabbies) who might have observed him. With a fetish for artifacts rivaling any art historian's, he tracks down Kahn's buildings, colleagues, clients, lovers, and stuff. As true to materials as his dad, no form of contact is too literal: He rollerblades on pater's plaza at the Salk Institute in La Jolla (to the sappy strains of "Long May You Run"), even palpates his neckties, as if to channel the dead. His personal journey faces all the quagmires of art history as he attempts to connect the Stuff with the Life. Not surprisingly, he's left with a deeper sense of mystery than ever. Since Kahn "left no physical evidence" in the house, he's a challenge for both curators and mourners. Nathaniel had long felt his dad "hadn't really died [and] was out there somewhere, living a parallel life."

Nathaniel returns to Yale--bastion of Old Boys, High Culture, and two Kahn art museums--to consult Professor Vincent Scully. Kindly disposed to the son's odyssey, Scully mythologizes Kahn into the Great Men/Great Works narrative of architecture (for which Scully is famous). With sweeping gestures, as if triggered by the plush British Art Center engulfing them, the urbane pedagogue customizes his hero discourse for Kahn, the (nonobservant) Jew: "In Jewish mysticism, G-d can only be known through his works; [so] the works of any Jewish architect might be the works of G-d." Nathaniel follows up, G-d bless him, "Did anybody know that Lou had three families, all at once?" The twinkle in Scully's eye turns icy as he registers the info. "For years I didn't know Lou was married." He then recovers his poise and adds, "That was part of his mystery."

"Of course the question that people would always bring up," Nathaniel said to me on the phone, "is 'Look, we have the art, do we really need to know the story of the guy who made it?'" They imply that the rest is for yentas. Yet what's most moving of all is to see how that kind of Art does come from someone's life. Some people still see Great Architecture as something conceived and erected into the canon by Yahweh-like creators. For Kahn's son to take his father's Architecture and put it into history--particularly family history--is powerfully transgressive. It takes considerable chutzpah for the son to reconnect his father's immortal oeuvre to the mess, people, compromise, loss, and life from which we aspire to Art in the first place.

Born in 1901 in Estonia, Louis Kahn (ne Shmalovsky) emigrated to Philadelphia, where he studied at the University of Pennsylvania. His face scarred with burns from a childhood accident, he resembled a short Andy Warhol in a bow tie. Fellow legends Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, and Frank Gehry portray him reverently as an "artist" among operators; apparently his uncompromising attitude lost him lots of work. As the camera moves through Fort Worth's luminous Kimbell Art Museum in an aesthetic bliss-out climaxing in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," a cut to Robert A.M. Stern brings us down to earth. "Don't put him up on some gigantic pedestal," the architect admonishes his colleague's wide-eyed son. "Don't think he was always trying to be a prince. He was very much trying to be a player." A droll shot shows Kahn energetically pitching mean-looking nuns at a conference table, as the voice-over explains that he was at that point big bucks in debt. Architect Richard Saul Wurman diagnoses Kahn's destiny: "He spoke his truth and he was not controllable.... Frustration and failure are really the things that make ya," Wurman sagely observes, near a splendid town house. "Maybe he was made by being short and ugly and Jewish and having a bad voice and not wanting to be good with people.... Maybe he was made by that--because it made him go internal. So you can't just say, 'Isn't it a shame?' ... We're made by those things."

Kahn was a late bloomer, pushing fifty, when he toured the ancient world and found his way. The wife who supported him during the struggling years comes across as a dragon lady in Chanel-ish drag who totally doesn't get him: "I used to say to Lou, 'You know, Lou, if you would put some of your energy into making money, you'd be a billionaire!'" Dead when Nathaniel began to film, Esther speaks from a videotaped archival interview. "He owned nothing!" she carps from the afterlife, exasperated. "He didn't believe in owning anything--books and neckties!"

Anne Tyng, in contrast, was a young shiksa at his firm in the '50s. Both "other" women were the kind of enlightened nonconformists you had to be to be a lady architect in those days--serious idealists sacrificing everything for "the work." They both wound up living alone in brilliant houses (of course), each with a not-quite recognized child. Kahn kept in touch by showing up intermittently for much-awaited fly-by-night visits. "Lou was not a domestic person," says Tyng, handsome, eightyish, in long earrings and a caftan: "He always said that work was the most important thing, that you cannot depend on human relations." She smiles poignantly or indulgently at the high-mindedness that determined her life. "You have to be philosophical about it," Kahn said when she got pregnant, with daughter Alexandra. She still maintains that the "ideas that you work on together connect you." She later left him, but "didn't really want to," she admits, melting a little as she holds Nathaniel's gaze.

The next, much younger woman is landscape architect Harriet Pattison, the filmmaker's mom. She worked in a room in Kahn's office (which was sometimes locked in case the wife dropped by!) "Yes, it was nerve-racking, and it was humiliating," she confirms serenely as her son probes for indignation. When a project she'd worked on--the Kimbell--opened, she wasn't invited: It wouldn't look right. "1 felt so, so happy and delighted to work on things," she remembers fondly. "When we were working on projects we were just completely absorbed with the ideas.... So that was the price I paid. It was worth it." Until the very end she believed he was going to leave Esther and come live with them. Oy.

Friends of Esther's warned the "others" not to show at Kahn's funeral. Of course they went anyway--they weren't that "philosophical." Nathaniel recalls that Esther "looked right through me." Did she know? "Oh, sure," said Nathaniel when I asked. "We all knew about each other. All three families knew."

Art, unlike life, permits do-overs: the illusion that one can get things right with craft and persistence. Nathaniel was particularly excited about the shot where he watches Esther on videotape. "Unlike any other medium," he enthused ("since this is an art publication"), "film literally allows you to have a scene in which you are talking to someone who's dead! And having a dialogue with them--and on the screen you are both equally 'alive' because you are both just particles of light on a screen." Like the timeless space of the unconscious, everything is still there, everything is still in play. In the editing room, the dead coexist with the living, and Nathaniel can infinitely tinker with relationships, auteur of his undead family reunion.

At one point, as the camera pans up the imposing Phillips Exeter Academy library, a sleek cathedral of books and Old Boy privilege, Nathaniel's voiceover addresses his dead dad directly: "I always believed that in the end you'd chosen my mother and me--that was the myth I lived on. But you didn't really choose any of us, did you?"

"Why weren't you more angry?" people asked the filmmaker, who added that finding the tone was the hardest part. At times curious, at times bemused, Nathaniel's vibe is bland, ingenuous, and unconvincing--minus any note of grievance that might be more authentic (and disempowering). Anger is a huge aesthetic problem: It alienates your audience. Nevertheless, a scent of unctuousness betrays overscrupulous emotional laundering. The admittedly reverential "son's journey" ultimately crumbles like a flimsy device, barely containing the juicy oedipal fiesta that makes the film such a creepily compelling artifact (if you like that kind of thing). Why be angry when you've had the last word? Nathaniel can speak to the dead by making the film, but they can't talk back.

Like Auntie Mame, this son's journey wraps in the Far East, where an Indian colleague commends his father's highly evolved consciousness. The filmmaker, floating on a barge in Bangladesh, contemplates his dad's spiritual complexity, feeling the elder's presence in the magnificent capitol he built in Dhaka. For a master builder, Kahn is paradoxically the nomad who won't be territorialized. The son who pored over his traces must finally come to terms with finding him no place--or everyplace.

While Nathaniel Kahn never fully illuminates Louis Kahn's mystery, he takes him off the pedestal and allows us to see him as a complicated, compromised person and spirit--and the filmmaker inadvertently reveals his own disconnectedness in the process. According to Freud, we destroy Pompeii when we unbury it. Nathaniel can give his father's myth a proper burial only when he finally digs up the dirt.

Rhonda Lieberman is a contributing editor of Artforum.
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Title Annotation:My Architect: A Son's Journey; My Architect: A Son's Journey
Author:Lieberman, Rhonda
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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