My Architect: A Son’s Journey

by Laura McLaughlin


A son loses the father he never really knew and, years later, goes on a quest to know his father through them. He documents his journeys across the globe as he visits his architect father’s buildings, former colleagues and lovers, and his half siblings. Nathaniel Kahn’s film, My Architect: A Son’s Journey, is not so much about the iconic buildings designed by his father Louis Kahn as it is about relationships, family, life and love.


His father, Louis Kahn, was a Jewish immigrant and renown architect who designed buildings like the Phillips Exeter Library, the Yale Art Gallery, and the Bangladesh Capital Building. Nathanial was Louis’ third child. Kahn remained married to his first wife, with whom he had a daughter, throughout his first and second affairs that resulted in children. Both women with whom he had affairs became single mothers who received little support from their families and had to temporarily quit their jobs and move to secluded places when they were having their children. Nathaniel Kahn was only 11 when his father died, supposedly after promising his mother that he would leave his wife and come live with her and their son. While Nathaniel seemed skeptical about this in the film, his mother asserts that it was true, and that Kahn had crossed out his home address on his passport right before he died to symbolize this.


The film alternates between revealing the late Kahn’s extraordinary talent through his architecture, and his extraordinary ability to disregard the women in his life and their children. Many of the people interviewed in the film acknowledge this, some in a tone of condemnation and some in tone of that sympathizes with him as a genius that could not be expected to keep his personal affairs if he was going to devote himself to his work. Arguably, despite the latter type of commentators, the film represents a shift in how we tell history: Rather than ignore the moral shortcomings of great men, our culture is increasingly taking an interest in them, no longer starkly separating the personal from the public. In Kahn’s documentary, his father’s mistresses are allowed to speak frankly about both their disappointment and love for his father, humanizing him and adding meaning to his works.


Despite his less-than-ideal family life, Kahn designed the ideal home. His vision for the house was that you would look through the window and see a woman making dinner; “a very romantic idea” according to his eldest daughter Sue. Kahn’s longing for this ideal family life is reflected in his work, as his other ideas are reflected in his public buildings. Sometimes they aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing from the outside or practical, but they seem to have been designed with the people who would be in them in mind: The Salk Research institute in California offers a view of the Pacific ocean from every office, and Kahn’s plans for Philadelphia which were never used reveal a utopian vision where people would leave their cars in circular garages outside the city and walk within it.


Early in the film, Vincent Scully, a former history of architecture professor at Yale who admired Kahn’s work says that, according to Jewish mysticism, “God can only be known through His works…and so the works of any Jewish architect might be the work of God…it’s as if Kahn is in some way communicating that God is in the work, so it has to be perfect,” when asked about Kahn’s extreme perfectionism. Modern architecture is sometimes criticized as being brutal or hostile, but Kahn’s buildings convey sympathy and are inviting while still being awe-inspiring. They have a certain spirituality to them.


Nathanial interviews his aunts, who bluntly say that their brothers wanted his mother to have an abortion, and that they disagreed with them and were glad because otherwise he wouldn’t be there with them. However, they criticized his mother saying “there’s a certain Romanticism,” that “drives me up a wall,” and is “so impractical,” perhaps referring to her enduring love for Louis Kahn and desire to form a family with him. Interestingly, critics of Kahn throughout the film denigrate his works by called them “impractical,” instead of functional. His buildings had a spiritual component and existed not only for a utilitarian purpose but to inspire. According to Kahn, “in wonder lies the source of all we will ever learn or feel.” This wasn’t a vague Romanticism so much as a statement about his fundamental values.


After interviewing his mother about his father in a critical tone that suggested that she shouldn’t be so forgiving of him, Nathaniel interviews his mother’s friend in whose home his mother stayed when she was pregnant. Susana Jones speaks with sympathy about Nathaniel’s mother Harriet, saying that she wasn’t receiving any support from her family who was against her relationship with Kahn and her pregnancy. She said one of Harriet’s sisters offered her a man who would marry her shortly before giving birth so that her child could have a name, and who she could divorce two weeks later. Jones called this “a travesty of marriage” and encouraged Harriet to stay with her instead and not worry about giving her baby a last name. She argued for Harriet’s love of Kahn, saying that it was “a very true love, a life-long love…and you can’t judge that because that kind of love is on the side of life and is a very good thing.” This is precisely the kind of “romanticism” Harriet’s family so disapproved of. Although Harriet also calls is Romanticism, and although it is indeed Romantic in sense, it is a statement of fundamental values concerning marriage. Nathaniel’s mother Harriet had more than Romantic ideals to guide her when faced with two choices, one that would have left her with less love, and that other that was difficult and even painful, but that created a life-long love for both Kahn and their son. The film speaks to the truth that God makes all things good, and the idea that something meaningful can come out of a bad situation or someone’s mistake. Even though there are dozens of books written about Kahn as an architect that details his technique and philosophy, without his son there never would have been a documentary that gives as much insight into him as a person. The story of him as an architect is not an isolated series of events that end in buildings, but a piece of a greater narrative of him as a father.

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