In his riveting documentary My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn, son of the famous architect Louis Kahn, describes himself as a "half-breed." The term refers to the fact that Nathaniel's mother, Harriet Pattison, came from a Protestant family in Philadelphia while his father was a Jewish immigrant from Estonia. More significant for Nathaniel, however, is the fact that his parents never married. His father remained married to his wife, with whom he had a daughter, and he also fathered a second daughter with another mistress.
Although Nathaniel had weekly contact with his father, Louis Kahn died when Nathaniel was eleven. Throughout his life, the son has been filled with resentment and confusion over experiences such as waiting at a vacation house in Maine for his father to show up as promised, and being devastated when he never appeared. Nathaniel made My Architect as a way of coming to terms with who his father was as a man, as a father, and as an architect. The film, which was nominated for an Academy Award, succeeds in achieving all three of these goals.
To begin to understand Louis Kahn, a prominent architect who nevertheless died penniless in a men's room in Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, Nathaniel interviewed his mother, his father's other mistress, his half-sisters, relatives of each of his parents, one of his father's architecture professors at Yale, and leading architects who were friends and colleagues of his father, as well as the man who found Louis in the men's room and called the police.
We follow Nathaniel on his journey, and each interview offers a fascinating nugget of truth that helps the son, and the viewer, begin to fathom who Louis Kahn was.
Nathaniel's quest inevitably involves coming to terms with the relationship his parents had. In one powerful scene he confronts his mother, an architect who had worked for Louis, asking her point blank how she could have accepted her humiliating role as Kahn's mistress. As Harriet awkwardly attempts to explain their relationship, we realize that for her it was well worth certain embarrassing moments, such as when she was asked to step into a back room at the office when Louis' wife was visiting. Clearly, Harriet does not harbor the resentment that Nathaniel feels towards Louis.
Nathaniel elicits a response similar to Harriet's when interviewing his father's other mistress--also an architect--Anne Tyng. Although Anne ended her affair with Louis when he refused to marry her, she appears to have valued the opportunity to collaborate with him more than she resents him. The strong feelings she still harbors for Louis cause her to break down in tears when discussing their relationship.
Part of the genius of My Architect is in the way it captures Kahn's unique magnetism in attracting these two articulate, talented women--who each retain strong feelings for him despite his less than chivalrous treatment of them.
On another level, the film works as a fascinating history of Kahn's development as an architect. We see Kahn's relatively unexciting earlier works--such as a library in New Hampshire or the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California--from which it would have been difficult to predict his utterly entrancing masterpiece--the capitol buildings in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Nathaniel's interviews with leading architects--Frank Gehry, I. M. Pei, Moshe Safdie, Philip Johnson, and Robert A. M. Stern--enlighten us as to his father's highly respected place in architectural history while also adding perspective on how Louis dealt with his colleagues and clients.
By the end of the film we have become aware of Kahn's interlocking roles as a charming but flawed man, a phenomenally disappointing father, and a brilliant architect.