Keep it in the family
'This isn't so much a story about architecture, ' Nathaniel Kahn says of his film My Architect. 'I set out to look for my father like Telemachus searched for Odysseus. It's a road movie made more interesting by the fact that Lou made a series of really special places to see which brought me and the audience closer to him.' Louis Kahn had three families, one with his wife, and two with women with whom he had long-term affairs. Already an acclaimed documentary maker, Kahn's only son Nathaniel had been trying various ways to explore his on/off relationship with his father, who died suddenly when he was 11 years old. He has spent the past five years meeting those who knew and worked with him, filming these interviews in and around all of Kahn's most influential buildings.
Through the film, Nathaniel has clearly satisfied his longing for his often absent father.
'Before the film, his buildings seemed more remote and cold than the man I remembered.
Even though he was unavailable in so many ways, my overriding memory was of a warm, undistracted, fun and engaged man.' Interviewed in the film, I M Pei says that he has only seen pictures of Dacca but that he wants to know whether the building works for the people. I asked Nathaniel how his view of Kahn's work was altered through making the film.
'I had certainly expected to find the serene, the spiritual and the monumental, ' he says. 'What I didn't expect to find was the part of it that was filled with romance, intimacy and emotions such as longing, an emotion not generally ascribed to his work.
So the act of filming them allowed me to find those other warm aspects of his personality within the piece. The works are a pure expression of himself.' Architecture films rarely manage to capture these qualities in a building. For Nathaniel, this was a priority. 'When filming the buildings, ' he says, 'I had to ask 'is this just a pretty view or is it an emotional view?'.
I wanted to communicate the emotional, as well as the structural, intentions.' The buildings are used as dramatic settings for meetings, encounters or activities. 'Each encounter was then intended to reveal a different aspect of my father. I also wanted to find some way of interacting with the buildings.' Nathaniel is filmed roller-skating at the Salk Institute, dancing around the arid central courtyard, skipping back and forth over the narrow channel of water running down its centre. He is seen filming the Richards Medical Research Building, asking students what they make of it. He chats about Kahn to his old friends and colleagues, leaning up against the buildings and glancing around them.
'I wanted to make sure I kept the story moving for the non-architects while ensuring that they were still learning something, so I tried to find ways that would amplify the emotional elements, ' he says. 'Once we had set up the shots, the architectural elements really spoke for themselves.' What comes across strongly in the film is how Kahn's background influenced his concern for man's joy in using a building or a city. 'Lou was a poor Jewish kid on the streets of Philadelphia and that city gave him everything. He had much to aspire to beyond his own station. The institutions of man, libraries, museums, and zoos were his salvation. As a kid, the idea that you could walk into a library and simply borrow a book - for free - was fundamental to his way of looking at things. The encounters that you had on the street each day without spending a dime were what shaped the places that he made. When he came to design his own city at Dacca, these practical considerations were at the forefront - how a boy would navigate from A to B, what he might be thinking about was paramount to him. The symbol always came after.'
For the next generation, some of the fundamental failures of the Modern Movement to indulge those whose lives it purported to improve are now evident. Kahn's work, on the other hand, still possesses a humility and concern for those using the buildings that develops with age.
'Form may well follow function but how you experience that function in your own life will shape the form, ' Nathaniel says.
'Indeed, some of the Modernists had a certain level of privilege which may have meant that their experiences were more theoretical than Lou's. In his earlier years he was not so contemplative. Later in his life he certainly became more aphoristic and theoretical, but the 'floating balloon' qualities to his ideas were always well tethered to the ground.
His most successful ideas were the practical ones. Lou never asked: 'What would be cool?
What hasn't been done before?' For him, these things got in the way of asking what a building should actually do.' In terms of their physical expression, his buildings have developed a patina and retained a quality of antiquity while the white boxes of the Modernists aren't looking so white. Nathaniel talks of a 'desert' quality to Kahn's architecture.
'There was a great moment that didn't go in the film where well-known Israeli architects Ada Karmi and Moshe Safdie reenact a visit they took with Lou right after the six-day war to the Medieval monastery of Marsaba in the Judaean desert. Ada remarked that Lou had seemed like an old man on the journey out there but that on arrival he was literally 'dancing', completely at home in that desert landscape. He looked at the huge buttresses saying: 'Gee, I wonder about the space inside'. After that visit, Ada thought about his architecture as 'desert' architecture. The Salk Institute certainly has that quality.' Kahn's untimely death not only left Nathaniel bereft but also meant that a number of projects that could have changed the world remained unbuilt. Unrealised plans for his home city of Philadelphia were a constant source of frustration for him. The film also explores the complex issues surrounding Kahn's stunning unbuilt synagogue on the site of the original Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem, destroyed in 1948 by the Arab Legion.
It shows a computer-generated walkthrough of what might have been.
Nathaniel adds: 'Today, with the ascendancy of ultra-religious factions and continued tensions in Muslim/Jewish relations, it is unlikely that such a symbol could be built. I think one of the great tragedies of the Hurva project is that it would have been a phenomenal monument - a Kahn building that would have made a worldwide impact.'