Finding His Father

Nathaniel Kahn’s searching documentary about his world-renowned father, Louis I Kahn

Pennsylvania train station in New York City. March 17, 1974. A dead body found in the men’s restroom. Who cares who died? The dead body is sent to the hospital. It remains unidentified for three days. The man had scratched out his home address on his passport. When the man’s identity was discovered, not only the whole of the United States but the whole world was shocked. Because that man was not merely anybody – it was world-renowned architect Louis Isadore Kahn. This is the beginning of the documentary film ‘My Architect: A Son’s Journey’. The incident of Kahn’s death is narrated in the film by showing the place where he died in the station as well as the newspaper cutouts. Kahn’s son Nathaniel made this biographical documentary on Louis Kahn 30 years after his father’s death. But Nathaniel is not simply his son. Officially the public knew that Kahn had no son and only a wife Esther. But it was soon revealed after his death that he had two other families, one with Anne Tyng and another Harriet Pattison. Nathaniel is Pattison’s son and was only 11 when Kahn died. My Architect is a first-person documentary with Nathaniel Kahn as the director, writer and project honcho. He sets out on a journey to reconcile the life and work of Louis Kahn, revealing the haunting beauty of his father’s monumental creations and taking us to the rarified heights of the world’s most celebrated architects and deep within his own divided family. He talks to the people who knew him well: family, friends and colleagues. Many architects are interviewed by Nathaniel Kahn such as Frank Gehry, I M Pei, Moshe Safdie, and Philip Johnson and so on. Louis Kahn’s first masterpiece work was Yale University Art Gallery. This is considered as his experimental structural work. In the next two designs he also shows brilliance at the Richards Medical Research Laboratories, University of Pennsylvania and Jonas Salk Institute, California. Besides the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban (National Assembly Building), Bangladesh, Kimbell Art Museum, Texas, Philips Exeter Academy Library, New Hampshire have made him most famous. Kahn was born on February 20, 1901 in Arensburg on the Estonian Island, then part of Russia. His Jewish family migrated to the United States in 1906 where they lived extremely impoverished. Their condition was so bad that Kahn’s father could not even afford a pencil to write. In the year 1995 Kahn’s family members changed their names. Louis Kahn used to be Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky. In the film one thing is very clear, admitted by all those interviewed – Louis Kahn loved his work. The reason behind his success was nothing but that. Outside work, everything else was minor to him, even his wives and children. Sometimes he disappeared for days from home. No one could find him. When asked after returning home he would say that he was very busy working. He never thought about money if he found an outstanding work. He was never anxious about whether he would be paid sufficiently or not but remained always concerned how to make good architecture. The film is spontaneous as Nathaniel Kahn went with his camera to meet people he was seeing for the first time in his life. When Nathaniel Kahn visits a Jewish religious leader, the man says that Louis Kahn had no son, so who was he? Nathaniel Kahn shows him his birth certificate. After that the man agreed to speak to him. Kahn had just returned to America from India prior to his death. He died at the Pennsylvania train station. The doctors’ report was he died of a massive heart attack. But why did he cross out his name on the passport? Only later it became known that this world-renowned architect was head over heels in debt.

Published in the daily New Age in 2009