Finding a Father - The search for Louis I. Kahn

Louis I. Kahn is considered to be one of the greatest architects of the 2nd half of the 20th century. While there was no denying his genius, he had a whole lot of twisted relations with the women in his life. He had one official family and 2 others, who all lived within 7 miles of each other in Philadelphia. Nathaniel Kahn is his illegitimate son and was only 11 when Lou died in 1974. Nathaniel remembers his father from the weekly or more intermittent visits, but says that he never really knew him. When Kahn died, Nathaniel scanned the obituary in the NYT and was disappointed that it did not mention him and only mentioned his 'official' family. In My Architect: A son's journey, he tries to find his father and also himself and his own ties to him.
The movie won a host of international awards and was also nominated for the Oscars in 2004. The good thing about such movies is that a few years later no one wants to check them out and they are simply lying on the library shelf waiting to be picked up. This movie is not the most slickly made documentaries, or well-shot and is edited a little sloppily. In short, technically the movie is far below standards. But there is a really powerful story - full of the drama and excitement. It is extremely well-written and well-structured and you will be surprised how good this movie really is.
Lou was was short, ugly due to burn scars as a child and had a raspy voice. But Lou overcame all that and internalized his battles. In the words of B.V. Doshi, the famous Indian architect he was the only person who could talk about the material in such profound spiritual terms and calls him a 'yogi'. While his buildings are geometric, well laid out with lots of natural light and a respect for the medium, Kahn's own personal life was quite the converse and tragic in many ways. As a Jew he discriminated against and failed to get many commissions. His genius rests on a rather small body of work.
That he was brilliant and influential was never a doubt and his illustrious peers - Philip Johnson, I.M Pei, Frank Gehry and Stern attest to it. Nathaniel asked I.M. Pei to compare his own extremely successful career with his father's and Pei replied , "The test of an architect is not money he made in his lifetime but what his buildings would mean 40-50 years later and the test is to see if they endure." I.M. Pei jokes about how his Chinese descent allowed him to be more patient with clients and he did not push his ideas too forcefully. "Lou, he would never do that." He explains to Nathaniel, "It is not quality that counts and not quantity."
I thought one of the best depictions in the movie was to show Nathaniel roller-blading at the centre of the Salk Institute (the only project on which Kahn's firm made a profit). Slowly, Nathaniel begins to understand his father and his work.


As the documentary progresses one cannot but marvel at Kahn's vision, his genius and his desire to make 'monumental' works. At the same time, one cannot get rid of the thought of how he treated Nathaniel and his mother. He was a difficult man to work with, often demeaning and humiliating his co-workers. All of them including the two female architects who he did not marry agree that he was driven and nothing mattered more to him more than his work. Quite surprisingly, all of them have nothing but love and respect for him. For a chance to work with him and be a part of his vision, they seemed to be willing to condone all his faults. But he was not a harsh man. Philip Johnson said he was perhaps the only contemporary who he could talk to as a person (Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier were too egotistical and cantankerous).
In the final leg of the journey Nathaniel travels to the sub-continent since the last big projects in Kahn's life were in India and Bangladesh. Kahn had his last home-meal with B.V. Doshi and his family while working on the I.I.M. Project in Ahmedabad before he flew back to USA. He never made it home and died of a heart-attack in Penn Station. The other project was the Sangsad Bhaban, the Parliament Building of Bangladesh. It is rather ironic that while Kahn's designs for the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem have been shelved for more than 30 years due to infighting and politics; one of the poorest countries in the world, and that too a Muslim one, built his greatest work. For the parallel personal story within the movie, the moment of catharsis comes after Nathaniel spends five days in that building and talks to the local architect and then finally understands and finds his father.
It was fantatic film and in retrospect the roughness and the home-video quality was perhaps consciously done. This movie done in any other way would have eroded this deeply, sad and personal story of the son of a famous father.
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Razib Ahmed said...

Nice post. I just like to say that Louis I. Kahn is a very respected figure in Bangladesh. He gave Bangladesh perhaps the best piece of modern architechture.

Hirak said...

Thanks! I hope you saw the movie. The the last part of the movie is all about the Sangsad Babhan and the Bangladeshi architect was rather upset to find out that after five days of shooting Nathaniel was going to devote only 10-15 minutes of his movie to the building. It truly is national treasure.
Gives me another reason to visit Dhakka.

Ashutosh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ashutosh said...

Interesting. You may like to read 'The Power Broker', the sweeping biography by Robert Caro of Robert Moses, the obsessive man who built New York city.

Wild Reeds said...

Excellent post, lovely blog.