Quest for Kahn
As an architectural journalist, viewing Nathaniel Kahn's documentary about his late father Louis is an unsettling experience, in that it starkly exposes the inadequacy of attempting to capture architecture in print.The austerity of the Richards Medical Towers comes into sharp relief when they are inhabited by diffident students who wonder whether it wasn't possible to 'make the pillars different colours of something - something to give a little pizzazz'. The monumental Salk Institute reveals its more accessible side when a small child treats its open spaces as a playground, hopping and skipping through the architecture under the sort of sunlight which can only be captured on film.
While the interviews that pepper the documentary were dashed off in a single take, Kahn reports: 'I probably filmed those Yale buildings 15 times, and I still don't think I've done it right.The moment we got away from the feeling of fiwe need to show what this building looks likefland instead used the buildings as a stage set, letting people use them as a way to jog their thinking, that was when they became interesting and easier to deal with.'
The drama that is played out against the architectural backdrops is Nathaniel's quest 'to see if it is possible to get to know somebody after they are dead'.Louis Kahn's unusually tangled private life involved an enduring marriage and two longstanding affairs.Each relationship produced a child, including Nathaniel, Louis' illegitimate son.Louis'strategy for dealing with such conflicting demands was blanket neglect.
A shadowy presence throughout Nathaniel's childhood, Louis is equally elusive in the film.The documentary is shot through with historic footage showing Kahn working and walking his way through the narrative like an enigmatic ghost.
Bringing his personality to life is left to others, although they too seem to struggle.
Theories about the relationship between Kahn and his architecture are half-mooted, but left hanging in mid-air. Jack MacCallister, project architect for the Salk Institute, briefly suggests that Kahn's empathy for buildings that show the scars of the construction related to the fact that he himself was badly scarred as a result of a childhood accident, but quickly retreats saying: 'I've never said it before and it's probably bullshit.'
Others refer to Kahn's rootlessness.A Jewish immigrant born in Estonia into extreme poverty, he came to America as a small child and moved 17 times in the following two years.He often conjured up the vision of a family house with a window framing a view of a woman preparing a meal.The implication, never quite spelled out, is that he idealised stability to such an extent that he could never commit to the reality - and inevitable imperfections - of domestic life.
The pain this caused is much in evidence.Knowing that Nathaniel spent his childhood waiting for his father, it is impossible not to wince when MacCallister, a mere employee, casually mentions that 'he used to spend Christmas with us'. But the buildings themselves play a key role in the posthumous reconciliation between father and son.The final word goes to the Bangladeshi architect, who accosts Nathaniel at the the National Assembly in Dhaka to say: 'He gave us democracy. To love everybody, he sometimes did not see the very closest ones.
And that is inevitable in one of his stature.' In the final analysis, personal shortcomings are insignificant compared to the generosity and the strength of the buildings, so beautifully conveyed on film.
My Architect is released on 13 August