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Father Figure 

Many years ago a colleague of mine left his wife and two young children to take up with a former student, a beautiful young woman just turned 20. A friend of mine defended him because he was a poet for whom "different rules applied." I was appalled by that sentiment then, and remain so to this day.

And yet the notion that artists have the right to trample on those who care about them is fairly widespread. Consider how the world tolerated despicable personal behavior from Beethoven, Picasso and sundry others. But ought great artists be given a free pass? As a culture are we enablers because we don't hold creative people to the standards of personal behavior we would require of most others? This is a subject matter that Nathaniel Kahn wrestles with in My Architect, an Oscar-nominated documentary about his father, the renowned architect Louis I. Kahn.

Particularly for those unacquainted with his work, My Architect makes clear that Louis Kahn, who died at 73 in 1974, was a great artist, a man with a unique vision and a stubborn determination to see his ideas made manifest in stone and steel. Badly burned on his face at age 3 and called "Scarface" all through his years growing up in the Philadelphia slums, Kahn worked hard, earned a scholarship to Penn and married well. But success came slowly; he was 50 before he was able to open his own firm and 60 before he landed the projects that constitute his legacy. In all, he built far fewer buildings than the other leading architects of the 20th century, but such contemporaries as Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei regard him with a respect bordering on awe and hail him for his enduring influence.

Kahn's buildings include the Salk Institute in California, the Yale Art Gallery and, his masterpiece, the capitol building of Bangladesh. Kahn's exteriors are heavy and foreboding. They look like medieval fortresses with soaring arches or huge oval apertures often slashed with crossbeams. Like his own marred visage, from the outside Kahn's buildings are memorable but unappealing. But there is a keen strategy to all that exterior weight. For inside, he was able to create immense spaces of thrilling beauty.

Unfortunately, Kahn's imagination was not bound by considerations of economy or practicality. Those who worked with him on the Kimball Art Museum in Dallas remember with derision his annoying attempts to tinker with his designs long after it made financial sense. Philadelphia city planner Ed Bacon, who fired Kahn from a huge downtown redevelopment project, is even more contemptuous of Kahn's utopian but unworkable notions. Kahn's uncompromising idealism alienated many potential clients and may have contributed to such unrealized projects as the Israeli national synagogue in Jerusalem.

Such self-absorption also exhibited itself in Kahn's private life. He was married for 45 years, and he and his wife, Esther, had a daughter, Nathaniel's half-sister Sue Ann. Meanwhile, living within several miles of each other, Kahn maintained two other families. With firm colleagues Anne Tyng, Kahn fathered a daughter named Alex, and with Harriet Pattison he had Nathaniel. All three families knew about the existence of the others, but they never met until Kahn's funeral. Kahn's faithful secretary, Kathy Conde, kept them all at arm's length with a steady stream of unreturned calls, obfuscation, half-truths and outright lies.

Anne Tyng eventually ended her relationship with Louis, but Esther never asked for a divorce, and Harriet believes to this day that Kahn was just about to move in with her when he died. My Architect portrays that as highly unlikely. Kahn would promise his "wives" anything to please them for a moment even though he kept far fewer promises than he made. Every summer Kahn said he'd join Harriet and Nathaniel for a vacation in Maine. And every summer mother and son would travel ahead as arranged. And the wait would begin, but Kahn would never arrive.

Louis Kahn was the kind of man who expected his women to step on the same hoe over and over again. Esther, Anne and Harriet were the kind of people repeatedly surprised when the hoe handle bonked them in the forehead. From what we gather, Louis Kahn routinely used people. His professional colleagues speak of the excitement of his projects, but most of them could not endure the episodes of abuse or long sustain the hours it required to work with him. He was obviously disloyal to all those in his personal life. Many of his friends were shocked to learn he had a son he had never acknowledged. Harriet's foolish devotion to him left her alienated from her own family and habitually lonely. My Architect concludes with footage inside the Bangladesh capitol where an ardent admirer argues that the beauty of the building justifies Kahn's lifetime of betrayals. But the son who was an afterthought to his father doesn't buy it. And neither do we.

click to enlarge Nathaniel Kahn (right) interviews architect Philip Johnson about Nathaniel's father, the legendary Louis Kahn, in Nathaniel's personal documentary, My Architect.
  • Nathaniel Kahn (right) interviews architect Philip Johnson about Nathaniel's father, the legendary Louis Kahn, in Nathaniel's personal documentary, My Architect.
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