There have been myriad books written about architect Louis I. Kahn, whose monumental creations were like ancient Roman buildings transplanted into some near-distant future. His structures, among them the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, made him among the most studied and revered figures in the architectural world; Vincent Scully, professor emeritus of art history at Yale, says of Kahn's achievements, "God is in the work...it is timeless." So Louis Kahn the architect was of no mystery to anyone; his buildings still stand, his acolytes still preach, his friends still live and speak lovingly of him.
But Louis Kahn the man was an enigma to even his closest friends, many of whom did not know Kahn was married, much less maintaining three separate families, all living within a few miles away from each other in and around Philadelphia. The Estonian-born Kahn, who came to the United States when he was four in 1905, had a wife, Esther, whom he married in 1930; they had a daughter, Sue Ann, a decade later. In 1954 he had a second daughter, Alexandra, with designer Anne Tyng; eight years later arrived a son, Nathaniel, whose mother is landscape designer Harriet Pattison. These families sort of knew about each other but never interacted; Kahn was a genius and an eccentric and, as such, was to be forgiven his peccadilloes. He saw Alexandra and her mother when he could, Harriet and her son when time allowed; he came and went about once a week, more facsimile than father, which didn't stop anyone from loving the man.
Nathaniel, now in his early forties, has made a documentary, My Architect: A Son's Journey, that sets about to decipher the inscrutability of his old man's life -- and his death in a bathroom in Penn Station in 1974, where he suffered a heart attack and possessed only a passport with the address crossed out. (The great man was penniless, as much overspender as overachiever.) Nathaniel wants to know the man he seldom saw, who died when he was a child; to accomplish this he goes to talk to his father's friends and touch his father's buildings -- Nathaniel's other brothers and sisters, for whom Louis had, perhaps, the most affection.
My Architect, recently nominated in the documentary category in this year's Academy Awards, is the sentimental counterpart to fellow nominee Capturing the Friedmans, which chronicled the dissolution of a family; Nathaniel wants to put one back together again, in a way. He puts himself in the center of this story, narrating every action, every revelation, every emotion elicited by his discoveries. He occasionally pushes his father to the margins just as he's coming into focus. It's cute on occasion, as when Nathaniel stands at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and struggles against the wind to keep his paper yarmulke on his head. And in a film of fiction, it might (no, it would) have been an unbearable scene -- overwrought, indulgent, saccharine -- to see a man in his late thirties strap on a pair of Rollerblades and glide on a smooth concrete pavilion designed and constructed by his father, while on the soundtrack Neil Young sings "Long May You Run," with its lyrics about "trunks of memories still to come." It works here only because you sense Nathaniel trying to connect with his father; skating on the grounds of the Salk Institute is as close as Nathaniel will come to psychically connecting with his father's achievements.
But Nathaniel will sometimes take it too far. It's particularly distracting, and even a little distancing, when he waits till the end of a lengthy interview to tell one of his father's former collaborators and friends that he is in fact Louis' son. He does it solely to capture the man's reaction on film -- the shock and sobs that follow as this man recalls seeing Nathaniel last when he was a young boy at Louis' wake. What's intended as poignant feels oddly inappropriate; others were told off-camera who Nathaniel was, so why not this poor ambushed fellow?
Nathaniel will talk to anyone who he believes knew his father: his half-sisters, Anne Tyng and his own mother, colleagues and collaborators (among them I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry), former students, even cab drivers who would ferry Louis to his office. Nathaniel, desperate for information, believes everything everyone says to him, even though it's obvious many of the anecdotes are half-remembered at best, or mangled by the passing years. Nathaniel gives special weight to a man who claims to have been in the train station's bathroom when his father was dying. But the man says little and remembers even less; you will be forgiven for doubting his story, even if Nathaniel does not.
Still, Nathaniel, unlike most sons of absentee fathers, has a detailed road map to follow: the history books devoted entirely to Louis (including a collection of letters he wrote to Tyng in 1953 and '54) and the buildings that stretch from Connecticut to California to Bangladesh. There's also copious footage from an old documentary about Louis; we hear and see the man for ourselves, without the filter of the forlorn son trying to make sense of the enigma. In the end, maybe, Nathaniel sees his father's buildings as living relics; full of light, they're also full of life, none more so than the building in the capital of Bangladesh. And, just maybe, Nathaniel knows his father a little better than most sons who grew up with a dad always around the house. It doesn't make up for his not being around, then or now.