This Property is Condemned: My Architect

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I had planned to be lenient on Nathaniel Kahn’s self-serving vanity project My Architect. However, in light of the film’s recent Oscar nomination for best documentary, an undeserved nod that shuts out the vastly superior Stone Reader, I’m left with little choice but to wield my hatchet.

My Architect should be chiefly remembered as a case study of a filmmaker at odds with his own best footage. There are electrifying, elucidating moments embedded within this rigor mortis of amorphous irrelevancy. Instead of probing his interview subjects, as a more accomplished director might have done, Kahn turns on his heels and bounds in the opposite direction just as the going gets hot.

In piecing together the mystery of his late father’s secret lives, Kahn tracks down anyone with even the most cursory acquaintance to architect Louis Kahn. Kahn the younger would have done well to be more selective in his choices. Many of the interviews (such as those with an elderly rabbi whose impenetrable pronouncements require the use of subtitles; a ship captain who doubles as an orchestra conductor; and a stranger who may or may not have discovered Kahn the elder’s dead body at Penn Station in 1974) are either dull or pointless, often both.

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Then, just as we have sunk into our chairs for a nap, arrives the salty, raspy-voiced nonagenarian Edmund Bacon to jar our senses awake with profane delight. Bacon ought to star in his own documentary: here’s a man who first rode a skateboard at age 92 to protest a mayoral ban on skateboarding in a park that he had designed. In the four or five minutes allotted to him here, Bacon burns up the screen. A priceless debunker of Utopia, this dean of Philadelphia architects takes umbrage to the notion that Louis Kahn should have played a greater role in Philly’s urban planning. “No, no, no, no, no!” Bacon splutters with rage in a scene that refreshingly counteracts the stifling fascism of Our Polite Society.

Kahn the younger commits a much graver offense than giving short shrift to Bacon and the other famous architects (Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, the wily Robert A.M. Stern) whom he splices in apparently for the sake of sound bytes. Sometimes in the course of creating a work of art, we discover what our real subject is, and it may be something other than what we had set out to create. In interviewing the two women with whom his father had long-term extramarital affairs, Kahn uncovers the real story, the heart, the nugget. Whether cowardice, shallowness, inexperienced judgment, or some other malady takes the blame, I only know that Kahn blinks before the great, inherent drama of his father’s legacy and walks away from it.

Louis Kahn wasn’t much to look at. He bore disfiguring facial scars from a childhood accident. Yet his two surviving “wives,” fellow architects Anne Tyng and Harriet Pattison, remain deeply in love with him decades later. Neither married nor had a significant other after their affairs with Kahn ended. The look on Tyng’s face, the edge in Pattison’s voice—how does Kahn’s son miss these? Pattison, the filmmaker’s mother, believed during her lover’s lifetime—and she still believes—that the architect was preparing to leave his marriage and devote himself to her. The mother-son tensions give My Architect some much needed bite and nuance. In one emotionally raw interview, Pattison challenges her little auteur: “What do you think? Do you think it’s a myth, Nathaniel?”

I could have watched and listened to this genuine human drama for hours. Unfortunately, the 116-minute running time affords infinite space to consistently out-of-focus long shots; to inane footage of Kahn the younger rollerblading to a dopey Neil Young song across the Salk Institute plaza; and to copious undistinguished photography of the unwieldy monstrosities (such as the Salk Institute) that comprise Louis Kahn’s life work. Much more so than an Oscar, My Architect merits a wrecking ball. – NPT

February 6, 2004

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