an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 3, February 2006, ISSN 1552-5112




“My” vs. “Architect”

On My Architect: A Son’s Journey[1]

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein

Documentaries work with “documents” though, since Meliès and Lumière, the antagonism of “documentary vs. fiction” has been far from absolute. The “truth” sought by documentaries is not necessarily contained in the documents they display but can, just like in art, flow out of the film in the form of a message that transcends the documents presented.

Which truth is Nathaniel Kahn is looking for? Obviously, it is an intimate truth linked to the knowledge that a son wants to obtain about his father. It is a truth that appears in the form of a desire because here a son is trying to establish a “postmortem” contact with, or even a belated recognition by, his father. The film is honest and succeeds in telling this intimate story giving us the impression that here some “truth” has been discovered and conveyed.

The problem is that, in principle, this truth has nothing to do with architecture. The fact that Louis Kahn is “the greatest American architect of the 20th century” is a completely different kind of “truth” – if it is one at all.

Different truths need different methods of inquiry. The worst of all verdicts that could be made about this film is: You cannot make a film simultaneously about your father and about a famous architect – even if your father is that famous architect.

I concede that such a verdict would be too harsh, first of all because the film attempts – with a certain degree of success – to rethink some of the relatively rarely discussed links between architecture and spirituality, between architectural space and its symbolizing power of personal experience.

However, even this subject is not approached in a manner that architectural subjects should be approached – that is, critically. It is presented on an almost purely emotional level.

It is therefore all the more surprising that Nathaniel relates, exposes, and analyses the complicated “family life” of Louis Kahn in such a critical way. Having married Esther Israeli in 1930, Kahn had relationships with Anne Tyng in the 1950s and with Harriet Pattison in the 1960s. The three children from three different women know hardly anything about each other. During the film many things hard to swallow are discovered, discussed, and speculated about. Nathaniel interviews his half-sisters and aunts who make contrasting claims about Louis Kahn; in the end even his mother does not agree with some of Nathaniel’s own ideas. The result is a rather strong statement about Louis Kahn “the father” although, or perhaps because, things are left open ended. Nathaniel sketches the image of an obsessed, tormented man who certainly did what most human beings would find impossible to do.

Unfortunately Nathaniel does not invest ten percent of the same critical attitude into the examination of Louis Kahn the architect. This is particularly regrettable because the idea of willfully mixing together an emotional story about a son and a father on the one hand, and the search for “spirituality in architecture” on the other, could have been very interesting. In order to achieve this however, it would have been necessary to eliminate the “great” from the word “architect” that clings to everything Nathaniel wants show about his father in this film. Just a little of the irony and distance that is present in the “family matters” part could have solved a large part of this problem.

 Still, the attempt as such remains fascinating: a son tries to retrieve the spirit of his father by experiencing it through architectural space. The fact that Kahn himself was somehow obsessed with “spirituality” in architecture might even be secondary here. In Nathaniel’s film however, these possibilities remain at the level of pure suggestion since he suppresses the very contradictions and ironical constellations that would make such a “mixture” interesting. Instead of skillfully playing out “My” against “Architect,” he compresses the film’s concept into the strange-sounding formula “My Architect.” By doing this he sacrifices the opportunity to say something really valuable about Louis Kahn the architect. This is all the more deplorable since he has a real talent for filming architectural space or human living space as such.

One of the most naïve strategies used by Nathaniel is the introduction, towards the end of the film, of a kind of prologue by the Indian architect Doshi on Kahn’s Ahmedabad building in India. Doshi suggests that Kahn would have been a kind of guru, or perhaps even a seer with paranormal capacities. It is almost obvious that Doshi says this more out of sympathy for Nathaniel than out of conviction; in any case we can be certain that he would not write it in an architectural review. In the next sequence, the Bangladeshi architect Shamsul Wares, with tears in his eyes, makes similar statements.

This is an unacceptable strategy. Nathaniel could have interviewed another Indian architect, for example Charles Correa, who would have declared that in India and Bangladesh Kahn would never have “solved a problem” but simply have “made a theatrical gesture.”[2] That he would never really have been “concerned with the Indian psyche” and that his monumental brick boxes represent “willful mannerism in an ocean of poverty.” That, finally, Kahn “failed in Ahmedabad on the level of poetic invention.” I am not suggesting that Correa is more right than Doshi, but in any film on architecture it is indispensable to address such criticism if one wants to establish the significance of an architect.

Nathaniel had himself driven to the Dhaka building blindfolded in order to experience a sort of empathic shock effect on his arrival. This seems to be characteristic of his entire approach at least with regard to the architectural – not human – significance of his father. He wants to establish an intimate truth about a public person by simply making those intimate truths public. But this is insufficient. Out of a more dialectical account of the irreconcilable qualities of “My” and “Architect” could have emerged a more significant description of the personal experience of architectural space in the 20th century and beyond.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 3, February 2006, ISSN 1552-5112



[1] My Architect: A Son’s Journey Dir. Nathaniel Kahn, Perf. Edmund Bacon, Edwina Pattison Daniels, DVD. Lewis Kahn Project, Inc. (2003)

[2] Charles Correa, “Chandigarh: The View from Benares” reprinted in Chandigarh: Planning and Architecture architec.htm#arch