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At What Price Art?

In 1974, renowned architect Louis Kahn was found dead in a men’s room at New York’s Penn Station. The circumstances of the death of Kahn, a secretive man, only compounded the mysteries that surrounded his life. Bankrupt, he was on his way home from India, having completed plans for one of his greatest architectural achievements, the National Assembly in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and had inexplicably scratched his address from his passport. His obituary said he left behind a wife and daughter; in truth, two additional children survived him, as did their mothers.

Nathaniel Kahn, the younger of the architect’s covert offspring, was only 11 years old at the time of his father’s death. In Nathaniel’s wonderfully rich and affecting cinematic portrait of his father, “My Architect,” the filmmaker sets out to unravel the mystery of Louis Kahn’s private life by a journey through his public works and in conversations with those who knew him. On its face, the film is a voyage of personal discovery by a son who rarely spent a whole day with his father, an attempt to integrate warm and tender memories of a loving parent with the pain of abandonment. But “My Architect” is a far more textured film, questioning the nature of memory, the reverence with which we treat great artists and the moral latitude we grant them. It is also a profoundly moving meditation on the complex odyssey toward love and forgiveness.

By all accounts, Kahn was a charming, brilliant, exacting and flawed man. Born on an island off Estonia at the turn of the century, his face badly scarred by a childhood accident, Kahn immigrated to America at a young age and overcame grinding poverty to become one of the world’s most acclaimed and controversial architects. (Indeed, Philip Johnson refers to him in the film as “the most beloved architect of our time.”) Although he chose architecture early on as his life’s work, it was not until he was almost 50 that Kahn achieved professional maturity. It was his wife, Esther, who kept the family going in the intervening years, while Lou (as he was commonly called) struggled to make it as a Jew in an almost exclusively gentile profession and to define his artistic vision.

Kahn’s midlife epiphany occurred on a trip to Greece, Rome and Egypt, during which he was deeply inspired by the monumental and timeless majesty of ancient ruins. Part philosopher, part architect, Kahn’s numinous considerations of light, silence and time invested his buildings with a spirituality that belied the crudeness of the materials he chose to work with — mostly brick and concrete. In “My Architect,” Yale art historian Vincent Scully speculates about Kahn’s drive for perfection by observing that in his understanding of Jewish mysticism: “God can only be known through his works. Since the messiah has not come yet, the works of any Jewish architect might be the works of God, so the work has to be perfect.” Beyond these metaphysical considerations, one senses in Kahn’s work the immigrant’s striving for recognition, his desire to achieve a legacy of lasting importance and physical permanence.

It is this public bequest that his son mines as he struggles to flesh out a very personal portrait of his father. Each building represents a touchstone on this path, and so each is lovingly filmed and scrutinized not just for its structural precision, but also for its human imperfections. A colleague of Kahn’s on the Salk Institute project observes that Lou embraced the superficial flaws of his buildings — the pitting of the exposed concrete, for example — in the same way that he embraced his own scarred face, in a willful attempt “to own it.” The filmmaker is fortunate, too, in that he is able to draw on a wealth of archival material, including his father’s architectural plans and drawings, which reveal a spontaneous, emphatic, painterly style not often associated with architectural renderings. Kahn’s vigorous and forceful character is also effectively invoked through the use of carefully selected material from a treasure trove of archival footage. Though short in stature, his charisma and contained power are all there, as well as a certain restless unease. The close-ups of his nervous, rough, charcoal-stained hands are particularly moving and subtly suggest the very tactile, painstaking and somewhat lonely process at the root of Kahn’s sublime artistry.

Nathaniel relies, as well, on the recollections of his father’s former students and contemporaries, and Lou Kahn’s particular genius is deftly sketched in a series of informal but penetrating interviews with such architectural luminaries as I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Moshe Safdie and Frank Gehry. What emerges is an account of a quixotic but brilliantly imaginative dreamer, a generous-spirited, driven and principled artist in a profession more often ruled by economic expediency. I.M. Pei observes that he lost fewer clients than Kahn did, but “three or four masterpieces are more important than 50, 60 buildings.”

Nevertheless, it is the long roster of unfinished and never-realized works that haunts the film, particularly the ghost of the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem, which is here rendered in a computer-generated architectural simulation. It was to have been built alongside the ruins of the original synagogue destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948 and was conceived as a cultural and spiritual center to serve Jews of all denominations. But the project became mired in the labyrinth of Middle East politics and was ultimately abandoned. It is one of the many ironies of Kahn’s life that only in Muslim Bangladesh was he finally able to fulfill his vision of religious harmony.

But Nathaniel is not simply a chronicler of his father’s life and work; he is a protagonist in this story. As such, he intelligently avoids an irritating ubiquity and achieves a sensitive and engaging presence in the film that is never false or sentimental. Aharon Appelfeld has said that memory is an act of construction, not of recovery. Indeed, because of his father’s elusive and abbreviated presence in his life, this is largely true of Nathaniel’s quest, but more complicated still as he works not only to solve the mystery of his family, but also to create one.

In a scene toward the end of the film, Nathaniel sits with his half-sisters in one of the few private homes designed by their father, the Fisher House in Hatboro, Pa. (Kahn, a thoroughly undomesticated nomad who often slept on a rug in his office, never designed a house for any of his families.) Sue Ann, the eldest “legitimate” child, gives each of her half-siblings one of their father’s trademark bow ties — a moving, albeit mediated inheritance for a son who, earlier in the film, had noted wistfully that his father never left him any physical evidence of his presence. Nathaniel asks tentatively, “So, are we a family?” It is a rare moment in the film when viewers feel, elliptically but poignantly, Nathaniel’s longing and his loneliness as a boy.

Astonishingly, and some might say disingenuously, love, not anger, is the prevailing emotion in the film. Despite his reputation for bullying and pushing his staff to the brink of endurance, despite the egregious ethical lapses in his private life, Kahn seems to have won the lasting devotion and forgiveness of many of his colleagues. And so this glimpse of the pain he caused his families highlights an underlying but compelling question in “My Architect”: How did he get away with it? How did Kahn manage to juggle a consuming career and three separate families and, for the most part, to retain the love not only of his colleagues, but even of the women he compromised?

Neither Nathaniel’s mother, the accomplished landscape designer Harriet Pattison, nor the dignified and eloquent architect Anne Tyng — both of whom came to work with Kahn in his office in the 1950s — ever married. Their sense of loneliness and loss are still palpable, as is a vein of anger. But Tyng weeps silently as she confesses that she never wanted to leave Kahn, and Pattison still believes that upon his return from India, he intended to leave his wife and come live with her. Nathaniel gently challenges his mother: “You’ve got to admit that what he did to us was pretty bad…. Aren’t you ever angry with him?” But for impractical, romantic Harriet there is also a steely-eyed recognition that, although she often felt furious and humiliated, she was thrilled to work alongside Kahn and felt great freedom in their love and professional collaboration. She looks squarely at Nathaniel and says, “That was the price, and it was worth it.”

But “My Architect” raises larger and less personal questions. Should artists be held to a different moral standard? And are great works of art worth the human price they can sometimes exact? Nathaniel never directly answers these questions, but in his final interview with the Indian architect Shamsul Wares, who oversaw the construction of the parliament building and mosque in Bangladesh, the younger Kahn seems to make his peace with it. Wares, overcome with emotion, fairly begs Nathaniel to forgive Kahn’s failures as a father, to judge him as a great man who may have loved his son imperfectly because he loved so universally. He compares Kahn to a latter-day Moses and urges Nathaniel to see that it was his father’s immense love of mankind that allowed the National Assembly to be constructed and the foundations of democracy to be laid in one of the poorest nations on earth. It is the conclusion of Nathaniel’s odyssey.

Although “My Architect” could easily have been shorter without sacrificing its integrity, it is a film ofenormous human complexity, emotional insight and, finally, grace. Nathaniel Kahn has put flesh on the mythical skeleton of his father, and he not only lionizes, but also humanizes him. It is the film’s final irony that the master builder has been so powerfully and movingly brought to life by the very son whose existence he never publicly acknowledged.

Toby Appleton Perl co-produced and wrote the 2002 documentary “Secret Lives: Hidden Children and Their Rescuers” and is currently working on a book based on the film. She also co-produced the Emmy-nominated PBS documentary “Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.”

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