Before dying of a heart attack in a men’s room at Manhattan’s Penn Station, Louis Kahn produced just a handful of well-known buildings. For every commission that worked out, two or three others seemed to crumble under the weight of his perfectionism. Still, he managed to earn a reputation, one that today seems as well deserved as ever, as the most important architect to emerge in the second half of the 20th century. I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi: They all looked up to Lou.
Kahn, who was 73 when he died in 1974, liked to use the simplest materials he could get his hands on, mostly brick and concrete. He shaped them into primitive but powerful geometric forms—a huge square inside a huge circle was a favorite motif. He didn’t settle on a style of his own until a revelatory stay in Rome around the time he turned 50, but his signature buildings are graceful and filled with light, with the clean, ornament-free lines typical of modern architecture. They have the presence and the monumentality of ruins, too.
To put it mildly, Kahn was something less of a hero to the members of his own family. For Nathaniel Kahn, the director of a terrific new documentary called My Architect, which opened this week in New York and will appear in cities across the country over the next few months, Kahn was primarily just a distant father—an occasional, unreliable presence. Nathaniel, who was 11 when his father died, was one of Kahn’s three children, each by a different woman. The architect married Esther Israeli in 1930, and their daughter, Sue Ann, was born in 1940. Kahn later began an affair with Anne Tyng, an architect in his Philadelphia office; that relationship produced a second daughter, Alexandra. Finally there was Harriet Pattison, a pretty landscape designer who had Nathaniel, Lou’s only son, in 1962. Kahn could never bring himself to leave Esther, though, and they remained married until his death.
The public didn’t know much about this at the time, though the three families, who lived within a few miles of one another, did. (“Besides his wife,” his obituary in the New York Times reported simply, “Mr. Kahn leaves a daughter, Sue Ann.”) According to Nathaniel, he and his half-sisters didn’t cross paths until the day of their father’s funeral.
In part, then, the film is a reframing of that old art versus life question—namely, does the great humanism of Kahn’s buildings do anything to mitigate the pain he caused the people nearest to him? The pain part is certainly clear enough. During the film, Nathaniel recalls Kahn’s visits, which were rare and usually announced at the last moment. His mother would whip up a martini and a five-course meal, and after dinner, Kahn would read to Nathaniel or tell him stories about his childhood in Estonia, before he and his family left for Philadelphia, when he was 4. Then he and his mother would drive Lou home, sometimes in the middle of the night, dropping him off at the end of the block where he lived with his wife. Kahn would send postcards to his son from the far-flung places he’d gone to work or lecture. “Dearest boy o’ mine,” begins one mailed from Bangladesh or India, “the architecture here seems like gingerbread bakery to us. To the people of the east it’s an expression of delight. I think of you always, and with all my love, Daddy.” Then there is a P.S.: “Your father does not feel much like a conquering hero. Someday I hope to be able to teach you to be a better man than I.”
It can be tough to tell from photographs why women and other architects fell for Kahn as hard as they did. But in the film footage Nathaniel has managed to dig up, the architect’s charisma is impossible to miss; even with his scarred face (the result of a childhood accident) and ink-stained fingers, as soon he opens his mouth you understand his appeal right away. He can turn a couple of sentences about a brick arch into a kind of love poem. And the architects Nathaniel meets with to talk about Kahn certainly sound like they’re still smitten. The prolific Pei says, almost wistfully, “Three or four masterpieces are more important than 50, 60 buildings. Quality, not quantity.” Gehry calls Kahn a “mystic,” then says, “My first works came out of my reverence for him.”
Kahn’s architecture did have its detractors. Though his powerfully wrought and human-scaled work offered an implicit critique of high modernism, which had grown cold and aloof by the 1960s, Kahn continued to cling to some original modernist ideals, primarily the rejection of ornament. That stance put him out of step as the postmodern notions of contextualism (the idea that buildings should take formal cues from those around them) and historical quotation (the idea that it was OK to use classical columns, for example, on an otherwise modern-looking facade) began to gain momentum in the years just before his death. Still, few could deny that Kahn’s work has aged better than that of either the International Style modernists who preceded him or the postmodernists who followed. Very few of his buildings look dated. And the ones that have been taken care of, like the near-perfect Center for British Art at Yale, haven’t lost a bit of their power.
There is something about walking into a Kahn building that makes analysis seem superfluous, if not silly. The best ones just succeed—not simply at keeping out the rain or the cold but at suggesting something important about our relationship with the built world. It may sound too basic, or too sappy, to say that the reason for Kahn’s continuing appeal is that he sought an architecture that was more concerned with the timeless than the fashionable. But it’s also the truth.
And perhaps that explains why, despite several scenes that must have been tough for Nathaniel to get through (specifically the ones in which he pointedly questions his mother about why she stayed loyal to Kahn), he shows a remarkable lack of bitterness in the documentary. What he displays instead is a kind of wounded, quiet charm, along with a voracious desire to learn as much about his father—his work and his life—as he possibly can.