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Louis I. Kahn:
In the Realm of Architecture

. "My Architect"

When you contemplate a documentary made by a man in search of understanding a father who virtually abandoned him and his mother, who had two other families, and who died suddenly of a heart attack on a return trip back from India, you might think its basis is a self-therapeutic purge of haunting demons. In that, you would be partly right.

But if that motivation for a filmed investigation seems over-personal and self serving, it must be quickly added that the father in question, Louis I. Kahn, is also a highly accomplished, relatively un-heralded architect of our times, a visionary who designed monumental buildings in his own highly original way, including the Exeter Library, the Salk Institute and the National Assembly in Dacca, India. On the personal side, he was also an eccentric who marched to the beat of his own hammer, much to the detriment and perplexity of those he threaded through his life.

The documentary starts with pictures from the family album. But, as with every element in this story, there are many more layers of meaning behind them than what comes immediately to mind. These pictures show that there was a time Louie Kahn literally bounced young Jonathan on his knee. How, then, was he inclined to cut off all contact with his son to the day he died in 1974 at the age of 73?

As the filmmaker's interviews and other testimony reveals, it was an attaction to other womem that reconstructed a life that was as much all his design as any of his buildings. He actually didn't abandon his women -- he just kept them secret -- in their separate room in the construction of his life -- as he pursued his art.

As an architectural giant, he was a near failure in the business realm. As I.M. Pei tells us in an interview with Jonathan Kahn, (one of several with major figures in the field) Louis wasn't the type to overlook a client's late request for a change to a previously agreed upon plan. His inclination toward stubborness and confrontation, his unwillingness to compromise, led to the loss of important jobs -- a major reason why his works were few though his talent was so big.

Documenting the serenity and the patterned solidity forming the spaces and lines of the Salk Institute, one may wonder why the genius behind it didn't become as much a household name as Lloyd Wright. Seeing the majesty of the National Assembly building, the planes, oval shapes and dimensions of light and size, one wonders why he hasn't been compared to Frank Gehry (who also pays homage to Kahn). Besides raising such questions, this documentary serves well to provide the answers, explaining how the blame for such an omission can be laid at the doorstep of his own bizarre personality.

Which is not to imply that he wasn't endearing. Louis Kahn was short of stature and scarred for life by a fire in his early childhood. His voice was screechy, and he was burdend by a work ethic that was as demanding as it was, on occasion, fulfilling. Despite all that, those involved in his life seem to have harbored an enduring love for the man. Jonathan Kahn's quest for the total and true identity of his father, serves the purposes of documentary filmmaking on complex and unexpected levels.

The presentation of Kahn's works made me reflect on the difference between sculpture and architecture. As the power of a sculpture is derived from its external surface, the power of an architectural design only begins with the exterior. The creativity of the exterior of the National Assembly in Dacca is overpowering and could hold you enthralled for days. But studying outer surfaces and shapes are only the beginning of the artistic expression contained within the construction. That interior, only parts of which are documented here, are nothing less than breathtaking. To those who took a journey to Bilbao to witness a Frank Gehry masterpiece, a pilgrimage to Dacca might well be in your future.

Rarely has a film that seems so intimately necessary for one person's sense of understanding and need to forgive personal betrayal been, at the same time, so revealing of the singular struggle and peculiarities of a genius and the imprints he left behind. There's certainly a share of vanity in the project -- a need for the filmmaker to establish to the world that he was his father's son. In facing a potentially hurtful exploration, Jonathan Kahn armed himself with a crew and camera -- the credentials of a documentarian. But the drive to fill a personal emptiness leads, in this case, to so much more to value... for a global and far more objective audience, and may be lauded for the totality of its accomplishment.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  




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Jonathan and Louis Kahn,
from a scrapbook moment in the filmmaker's boyhood


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