The man who built a mystery: Son of master architect Louis Kahn documents the life, career of his father
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 February 2004)

The life of Louis Kahn, a world-renowned master architect of the 20th century, was a tangled and ambiguous variation on the classic immigrant narrative. He was a dedicated, visionary artist who secretly lived on the edge of chaos and debt. He swaggered through life, but was often desperate. When a heart attack killed him in 1974 he owed half a million dollars and faced bankruptcy, though he stood near the head of his profession. He had designed magnificent buildings but somehow lost money on all but one of them.

Those are among the striking facts in My Architect: A Son's Journey, Nathaniel Kahn's film about him. A finalist for the Academy Award in documentary features, it begins showing in Canadian theatres on Friday.

Anyone who loves architecture will be grateful for the chance to see in detail Kahn's work, above all his masterpiece, the parliament and government buildings at Dacca, Bangladesh. But as his son obviously knows, the dark mysteries of his personality are just as surprising and fascinating.

When he was four years old, in 1905, his parents brought him from poverty in Estonia to poverty in Philadelphia. His schoolmates called him Scarface, in the charming way that children have, because he had been disfigured the year before by a kitchen accident involving coals from a stove. Scholarships took him through the University of Pennsylvania's architectural school, and eventually he began thinking he could make architectural history. But as a Jew he wasn't easily accepted by fashionable Philadelphia in the 1920s.

Richard Wurman, one of many architects who admired Kahn in later years, says in the film, "Blood is important in Philadelphia. I think Lou's blood had a yellow star." Wurman imagines that various other kinds of adversity also helped turn him into the giant he became: "Maybe he was made by being short and ugly and having a bad voice."

He was no prodigy. It took him decades to decide what he wanted to build. In 1951, by then a middle-aged teacher of architecture, he went on a long trip to Italy, Greece and Egypt to study and think about his future. He came home determined that his buildings should have the power of ancient monuments. For the rest of his life, his designs included towers, expansive courtyards, ceremonial entrances. Typically, a Kahn staircase makes you think of a medieval castle.

Kahn and Esther Israeli married in 1930, had a daughter 10 years later, and stayed together till his death. But an affair with an architect in his office produced a second daughter and later he had his third child, Nathaniel, with a landscape architect. The three families lived near each other in Philadelphia, and Kahn saw them when his schedule permitted. The two mistresses apparently stayed in love with him; neither married again or formed another long-term relationship.

Nathaniel, who was 11 when Lou died, constructs his film as an old-fashioned quest, the search for a father he remembers vaguely from short and unpredictable visits. He talks to architects who knew him and visits famous Kahn buildings -- the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex., his two art museums at Yale, and the Richards medical building at the University of Pennsylvania.

At the Richards, Lou's first monumental structure, a woman tells Nathaniel, "It's not a good place to work." (Amazing how often you hear this from people who spend their lives inside architectural triumphs.)

Lou's fellow architects seem to have known little of his life. Vincent Scully, for instance, didn't even know Lou was married, much less that he had three children with three women. Nathaniel meets a rabbi who was Lou's cousin and conducted his funeral service but never knew that Lou had a son. We meet Nathaniel's half-sisters, both mistresses (the wife is dead, and we glimpse her briefly in an earlier interview), and his two aunts. The aunts tell Nathaniel that some members of the family were so mortified by his mother's pregnancy that they wanted him aborted.

Like all eminent architects, Kahn had splendid plans that came to nothing. With the backing of Teddy Kollek, the legendary Jerusalem mayor, he planned a synagogue overlooking the Western Wall, but religious politics got in the way. He lost the chance to rebuild central Philadelphia in the 1950s and 1960s, apparently because he was too imperious to compromise with the people in charge. Edward Bacon, the city planner who beat off Kahn and imposed his own vision on the city, shows up in the film and demonstrates, in an unintentionally funny scene, that after several decades the memory of Kahn's arrogance can still throw him into a wild rage. Kahn was hard on co-workers, too. One of them, Jack MacCallister, tells us there were things you had to forgive him, such as phoning you at 3 a.m. to denounce something you had just done.

Kahn never built in Canada, but his influence has been felt here. Jack Diamond, whose new opera house is now going up in Toronto, did a master's at the University of Pennsylvania in 1962 and became one of many architects who forever after spoke of Kahn as a major inspiration. Frank Gehry, whose design for a revived version of the Art Gallery of Ontario was recently unveiled, recalls that his first works were influenced by his reverence for Kahn.

A collaborator of Kahn's, Duncan Buell, says: "He was a thoroughly honourable guy, except for the way he treated the women in his life, and that was not honourable." It is a characteristic of great lives that they often leave human wreckage in their wake -- the wretched children of Picasso, the suicide-prone descendants of Hemingway, the alcoholic offspring of Churchill. Biographies of titans typically show brief glimpses of sad-looking children who often grow into sadder adults, but they seldom tell their own stories -- and when they do, their memories are usually drowned in bitterness and blaming.

But in My Architect, a great man's more or less discarded son, now a middle-aged theatre director and filmmaker, steps out of the usual obscurity to give subtle and illuminating testimony. Both resentful and respectful, both touching and honest, Nathaniel Kahn accomplishes what we expect from first-class documentary makers. He leaves us wondering once more at the astonishing varieties of human character.

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