Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Power, Strength...and Love — My Architect, A Son's Journey

"It gave us an identity, it gave us hope," says the teary-eyed Bangladeshi of Louis Kahn's capital structure, built there shortly before he died.


Louis I. Kahn was one of the most important architects of the 20th century, influencing many of the other now great names in the field, such as I.M. Pei. This documentary, made by his son, magnificently captures his essence.

Like an ancient ruin, the capital of Bangladesh is at once a larger-than-life enigma, a thing of great strength and beauty, and a testimony to a civilization. Unlike an ancient ruin, however, this building gave a living civilization—one of the poorest countries in the world—a place to house its government.  

And yet, Kahn died shortly afterward. His son, Nathaniel, was only 11. As an adult he made this documentary to find his dad. He wanted to find out: Who was he? Who were the women in his life? 

How did he create such massive, and yet profoundly spiritual buildings? Why, if he loved humanity enough to contribute these buildings at great cost to himself, did he not seem to be able to provide a stable home environment, or be committed to one woman? 

This film is remarkable for its radically honest portrayal of a father, lover, artist, and visionary, by a person who might not have been up for such a task: his son Nathaniel. His personal journey adds interest to the narrative and keeps it from becoming a dry art history lecture.

The Salk Institute is a highlight. Every office in this building for biologists has an unobstructed view of the ocean. The film lets us discover the spirituality of the place, as Nathaniel explores it.

Remarkably, Nathaniel also interviews Kahn's wife, as well as his own mother (who was another lover of Kahn's), and manages to ask some very hardball questions. The pain is evident. But so is the love, and the dedication to Kahn.

Kahn is an ugly man, with prominent scars crossing his face. But his artistic vision and charming personality were such that he was able to attract women not only to be paramours but to work tirelessly with him on the buildings.

Kahn was very hard to work with, from a business perspective. He spent millions on his projects, and died broke. He frustrated the contractors by constantly interjecting new ideas. He was addicted to his work and spent endless hours away from his family. He was stubborn and would fight with people if he disagreed with them.

He once proposed a series of parking structures for the city of Philadelphia. The idea was that people could leave their cars and walk. It was rejected. A very humorous moment in the film comes when the former mayor defends that rejection, utterly insulting Kahn's lack of practicality.

This film will challenge your notion of art and architecture, it will challenge your notion of marriage, it will challenge your notion of purpose. If at first you find the buildings not to your taste, give it time, by the end of the film you might end up a convert. Kahn's creations are a testament to love and power. They leave a legacy of a visionary artist on the world, and a vivid personality of a father on a son.

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