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By Rick Kisonak | April 14, 2004

Louis I. Kahn was a great architect. He scored less well as a human being, however, and even more poorly as a father. As famous at the peak of his career as Frank Lloyd Wright or I. M. Pei, Kahn came into his own late in life by building a handful of visionary structures. While he was erecting these, he crafted with equal zeal the illusion of living a more or less traditional private life. With a wife, Esther, and a daughter, Sue Ann, at home, he appeared to all the world to be your typical genius-for-hire. Appearances, it turned out, were deceiving. The reality was the designer lead a secret life which included long relationships with two other women each of whom bore him a child. One of them was Nathaniel Kahn, the director of this fascinating and heartbreaking film.
In his award-winning documentary, Kahn chronicles his struggle to piece together the puzzle of his father’s life. Begun 25 years after his death, the picture is in part devoted to the senior Kahn’s biography and it’s sad to think of the filmmaker seeing the dozens of old photographs and miles of news footage of his father used in the movie for the first time as he made it. His narration is all the more moving for the frank but untheatrical manner in which it is delivered. Sounding somewhat like a grown man reading an overdue class report, Kahn recounts an accident which occurred during infancy and scarred his father’s face permanently, a childhood spent in Philadelphia immersed in study and the winning of a scholarship which led to college and the discovery of his love for architecture.
For much of his adult life, Kahn and success were strangers. His wife supported the family for the first twenty years of his career. He didn’t open his own office until he was nearly fifty and even then didn’t find his voice until a fateful trip in the course of which he happened to visit a series of ancient ruins. These inspired the vision that guided him to greatness, the notion of creating modern buildings with the feel of ancient monuments. In the final decade of his life, Kahn designed all of the buildings on which his reputation rests. Among them are the Yale Art Gallery, the Kimball Art Museum in Dallas, the Salk Institute in California and his towering masterwork, the capitol of Bangladesh.
Through interviews with friends, contemporaries, coworkers and even the two women with whom Kahn had secret families, the filmmaker assembles a portrait of a charismatic, deeply mystical, unforgiving, self-centered man who seemed to realize that he had only a limited time in which to do the work he was put on earth to do and to believe that his genius gave him a sort of moral free pass exempting him from the rules by which lesser mortals lived.
There are words of praise from other great designers. “Building three or four masterpieces,” Pei assures the son, “is more important than building fifty or sixty buildings.” “He was a yogi,” declares the Indian architect who worked with Kahn on the Bangladesh project (which, like the Taj Mahal, took 23 years to complete), “He had reached a state of superconsciousness.”
There are the director’s own recollections of encounters which were fleeting and too few. He talks about the time his father spent the day and drew for him a little book about “crazy boats.” He remembers the way the world famous figure would show up suddenly, stay a few hours and then insist on being driven to his real home in the middle of the night. He shares a strange and poignant artifact, a postcard on which Kahn wrote to his son “Someday I hope to teach you to be a better man than I am.” Aside from this, we are told, Kahn “left no physical evidence he had ever been in our home, not even a bow tie hanging in the closet.”
And there are Kahn’s survivors, the two women with whom he had affairs (Esther died in 1996) and the children of all three relationships. The director and his half sisters-who never met prior to the funeral of their father-convene late in the film to share memories and assess what the three of them are in relation to one another. It’s bittersweet when they make the decision to “be a family because we want to” not because of who their father happened to be. It’s downright tragic when Sue Ann, Kahn’s “real” daughter, brings out two of those old bow ties. It’s clear from the look on Nathaniel’s face they symbolize everything he’s been denied.
That’s why we understand Nathaniel Kahn’s decision in the end to let his father go and perhaps wish his mother had brains and backbone enough to do the same. “Mom,” the filmmaker asks at one point, “what he did to you and me is really bad, don’t you think?” Staring out at the ocean from her home in Penobscot Bay, Maine Harriet Pattison, who never married and never stopped holding Kahn in awe, says “no.”
Louis I. Kahn died bankrupt at the age of 73 in a Penn Station men’s room. With a single exception, every one of his projects lost money. He owed the people with whom he did business more than half a million dollars. In My Architect, we meet those he owed infinitely more. It’s a testament to his son’s resilience and spirit that he offers such a loving, wonder-filled account before closing out the books forever.

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