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For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.

(Photo by Harriet Pattison, a New Yorker Films Release © 2003)

photo caption:
FATHER AND SON IN A RARE MOMENT TOGETHER: Nathaniel Kahn (upper left) enjoys some time together with his famous architect father Louis I. Kahn circa 1970.
end caption.


"My Architect: A Son's Journey": Oscar-Nominated Documentary Uncovers Secret Life of Absentee Father

Review by Kam Williams

What would you do if your father was a famous architect who denied your existence while he was alive and then failed to provide for you in his estate after he died? If you're Nathaniel Kahn, son of the world-renowned Louis Kahn (1903-1974), you'd make an Oscar-nominated documentary in which you supply excuses for your absentee parent's failings while heaping adoration on this father you barely knew.

There is a precedent for such a forgiving gesture. In 1998, Tessa Blake did a biopic entitled Five Wives, Three Secretaries and Me, which which was about her father, Texas multi-millionaire Tom Blake.

We live in an age where anyone with a video camera might fancy themselves a filmmaker and claim their 15 minutes of fame, especially if they are willing to shine some light on skeletons in the family closet. In the case of My Architect: A Son's Journey, Nathaniel Kahn reveals the lurid aspects of his father's sordid private life, though he does simultaneously pay tribute to the man's considerable professional achievements.

When Louis Kahn passed away in 1974, he left behind an enviable legacy, having created some of the most important buildings of the 20th century. Among his works were the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and the National Assembly in Bangladesh, to name a few.

Kahn's obituary recounted his impressive resumé but no mention was made of the fact that he was also a trigamist who had secretly kept three separate families for years. In fact his cousin, the rabbi who had delivered the eulogy at the funeral, had vehemently denied the existence of any illegitimate children to squelch rumors which had started circulating. Now, some 30 years later, he finally concedes their existence when Nathaniel confronts him with the truth on camera.

Each "wife" had a child with Lou and lived near the others in Philadelphia, which is where Kahn had his office and taught at the University of Pennsylvania. However, they never met until the funeral. Nathaniel, who was 11 when his father passed away, describes his father as this mysterious figure who arrived about once a week during the evening and who let himself out during the middle of the night.

Nonetheless, because Kahn was the only dad he'd ever known, Nathaniel loved him and he still does. What makes the movie riveting is not its subject, but the huge hole evident in the biographer's soul, a space he desperately tries to fill by speaking with those once close to his father.

He gets together with his two siblings, Sue Ann Kahn and Alexandra Tyng, dumbfounding them with entreaties such as, "Are we a family?" Later, he has his dad's secretary, Kathy Conde, explain how she helped Lou juggle the competing demands of three separate households. "Tell them you don't know where I am," was a frequent order, she recalls.

The movie is at its most touching when Nathaniel asks his mother, Harriet Pattison, "Are you ever angry at him?" because his father had never left his first wife as he'd repeatedly promised. "No," she answers wistfully, and adds that, while working as an architect in his firm, he routinely left her in a locked room in the back so that his women could never accidentally cross paths.

My Architect contains insightful interviews with leading architects I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Robert A.M. Stern who reminisce about Kahn's lasting contributions to their profession.

The compelling issue is why did Louis Kahn lead three lives? The answer suggested is that he was shaped by being "short and ugly and Jewish with a bad voice," in Philly at a time when "Lou's blood had a yellow armband," meaning he was affected by anti-Semitism. While the discrimination he encountered was undoubtedly harsh, it does not pardon Kahn's subsequent destructive behavior.

Very good (three stars). Unrated.

end of review.

For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.


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