My Architect

dir. Kahn

Opens Fri Feb 5

Cinema 21

My Architect isn't really about architecture. It's not even about its subject, Louis I. Kahn, except insofar as the late master builder and his immortal buildings remain an enigma to his son Nathaniel, the filmmaker behind this extraordinary documentary. Nathaniel Kahn's film is about the void created by a father's absence from his children's lives, and the way that void is continually filled and depleted by the father's reputation.

More specifically, My Architect questions the conceit that artistic genius needn't be beholden to petty human strictures like family. Complicating matters is the (well-documented, apparently unarguable) fact that, unlike most fathers who abandon their families for the sake of their art, Louis I. Kahn actually was a genius. Though he never built many structures, the few major works he did complete, such as a library at Phillips Exeter Academy, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, are legendarily influential. I. M. Pei defends Kahn's limited output by telling the camera "three or four masterpieces are more important than 50-60 buildings." Thanks to the film's generous cinematography, even a neophyte can understand why Kahn's work is revered. Though not all of it is strictly beautiful, or even terribly functional--some early buildings are revealed as failed experiments--the boldness of design, the frankness of material, and the sheer magnitude of his structures are impressive.

My Architect is an attempt to lay claim to a father who belonged to everyone else, but not to his own son. It's about the way details linger in the mind of a son whose father exists only in fragments, and the way those fragments are recapitulated into memory. But where Kahn became famous for asking his materials how they wanted to be used--"I asked brick, 'What do you want, brick?' And brick said, 'I want an arch.'"--one can't help wondering what might have happened if just once he'd asked his son.