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USA 2004
Directed by
Nathaniel Kahn
116 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
5 stars

My Architect: A Son's Journey

Synopsis: When architect Louis Kahn died in 1974, he left behind a handful of major buildings, a wife and daughter, and 2 children by other women who lived only a short distance from the family home in Philadelphia. Thirty years later, his only son Nathaniel tries to make sense of his elusive father's life.

Undoubtedly documentaries have found an appreciative audience in recent times because their makers have chosen timely and contentious issues and used entertaining means to present them. But one can also suggest they that are filling a vacuum created by the failure of conventional narrative film to produce anything that is genuinely stimulating. Whilst CGI briefly opened the door to creative possibilities, beyond the animated film it has quickly fallen into a vat of dull excess.

In this environment, documentaries are succeeding because they engage the audience's thought processes rather than suspending them, as is the traditional role of movies as conceived in Hollywood's unrelentingly escapist 'Dream Factory' model. When movies are evidently reduced to being celebrity-driven, CGI-enhanced regurgitations of basic plot and character templates, cinema which turns to the real world assumes new interest. This is so not only in respect of acquiring knowledge about that world but because we are part of the same fabric it causes us to reflect on our own experience in a way in which fictional cinema can only aspire, and very rarely succeed in doing.

My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn's documentary about his father, Louis Kahn, satisfies both these criteria superbly. Not only does it comprehensively fulfil the usual informational criterion expected of a film about an artist's life work, more exceptionally, it manages to get behind the public and private life of its subject and address, as far as this is ever possible, the secret life beneath. Credit must go to Kahn for his dogged mining of the archives of his father's life, which ended in the men's room of New York's Penn Station in 1974, but even more impressive and effective than the thoroughness of his investigation is the non-linear, oblique way in which he presents his subject.

We all know the names and works of the great modernist and post-modernist architects - Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Frank Gehry and so on. Perhaps because he only ever realized a few major buildings and his crowning achievement, the National Assembly of Dakha, is in Bangladesh, compared to these Kahn is an unknown. In bringing Kahn's work to greater public awareness, My Architect is valuable and certainly a must-see for any student or amateur of the art. Kahn fils, who has a background in environmental documentary film-making, takes us chronologically through his father's works and as far as the film medium allows, gives us a very good sense of it. Through a combination of archival footage and interviews with living architects who knew and/or worked with Kahn we also get a sense of its historical value and his working practice.

The most compelling aspect of the film however is the son's search for a father about whom he knows little. This is where the film opens a window on its subject in a remarkable way. The director of course had an advantage in being intimately connected to his subject. This not only gives a natural ease to his investigations and, equally, ease of access to many of the people close to his father, including his own mother and half-sisters, but the film is also so well-put together, combining word and image, past and present, with an unusually effective use of music as to as make the ghost-like figure of Kahn senior almost palpable. As a portrait of the warp and woof of any creative individual's life My Architect is a rare achievement. As a film it no doubt will be counted as amongst the very best of the year.




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