In search of an architect and a father

Two people, neither of whom I can remember, told me that I should watch Nathaniel Kahn’s film about his father Louis Kahn, arguably the greatest post-war architect. I couldn’t remember why the people thought it so good, but I imagined that it was an insightful examination of his architecture. And it is, but the film is given an extra edge by the story of Kahn having a wife and two mistresses by all three of whom he had a child.

My Architect is Nathaniel’s search for his father. It begins with an account of how Kahn was found dead in 1974 in a men’s toilet in Pennsylvania Station in New York. Because Kahn had crossed out the address in his passport his body wasn’t identified for three days. Why had he crossed out his address?

Nathaniel’s mother, Harriet, the youngest mistress, was convinced it was because Kahn was about to leave his wife, Esther, he’d lived with since he was 28 and come and live with her. She had worked with Kahn and described how she worked in a locked room—because Kahn’s wife came to visit. This sounded like abuse. Her son in the film questioned her about her conviction that Kahn was on his way to live with her when he died, suggesting that there was no evidence that that was what Kahn intended and that the story was a myth. His mother, now living alone by the sea in Maine, refused to accept this. She knew that Kahn was coming to her. It was a myth that had sustained her for 25 years.

Kahn’s obituary made no mention of a son. It mentioned only one daughter, Sue Ann. This pained Nathaniel, who revered his father but didn’t know who he was. His father would arrive unannounced at their house on the edge of Philadelphia, tell him stories, stay for a short while, and then be driven home by Harriet.

Kahn would tell him stories of his early life, how he was born in an island in Estonia and came to the US when he was 5. As a child Kahn had stared at hot coals in a brazier and been so attracted by their light that he’d put them in the pocket of his apron. This apron burst into flame and burnt his face, leaving scars that were clear in all the pictures we saw of Kahn.

There was film of Kahn included in the documentary, but mostly the clips left him enigmatic. But one high point, picked out in Wikipedia, was his account of how he became an architect: “When I went to high school I had a teacher, in the arts, who was head of the department of Central High, William Grey, and he gave a course in Architecture, the only course in any high school I am sure, in Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Egyptian, and Gothic Architecture, and at that point two of my colleagues and myself realized that only Architecture was to be my life. How accidental are our existences are really, and how full of influence by circumstance.”

Kahn’s career did not really begin until he was 50. He didn’t find his “voice” (or whatever architect’s call it) until he spent time in Rome, Greece, and Egypt. He drew and painted ancient buildings and came to know that what he wanted to create were modern buildings that had the spirituality and monumentality of ancient buildings.

The first building where he found himself was a bath-house in Trenton, New Jersey. He designed it together with his first mistress, Ann. Nathaniel interviewed her, now 80, and they together visited the bath-house, now in a sorry state. Ann talked about what a joy it was to work with Kahn, and slowly we began to realise that work was everything to Kahn.

Ann had got pregnant in 1945 and had gone to Rome to have the child, Alexandra. How she explained away the child was unclear, perhaps she simply wanted to hide that Kahn was the father. Kahn had left her soon afterwards for Harriet. Nathaniel asked her if she still loved Kahn, and—50 years after their parting—her eyes filled with tears. She was a tough woman, but she, like Harriet, had never married.

Kahn’s first success was a medical research building in Philadelphia. It was described as the greatest building since the war, but the current inhabitants didn’t like it—and nor did Nathaniel. Khan’s first true success was the Salk Institute in La Jolla. It does have a monumental spiritual feel, not least in its positioning beside the Pacific. The labs are large, and every scientist has a room with a view of the ocean. The rooms reminded me of monks’ cells.


Kahn never built many buildings, partly, the architect I M Pei suggested, because he did what he wanted to do rather than what the client wanted. Pei has built many more buildings but said he was behind Kahn because it was quality not quantity that mattered. Frank Gehry, perhaps now the world’s leading architect, said how Kahn was his inspiration. Kahn gave modern architecture the soul it had lost.

The film explored buildings he had designed, although there were more that weren’t built than were—including hugely ambitious designs for central Philadelphia and a synagogue in Jerusalem that would stand beside the Temple on the Rock. Many of the buildings weren’t built because Kahn seemed to be a hopeless businessman. He lost money on every building except one, and when he died he was half a million dollars in debt. The chaos of his business was mirrored in the chaos of his life, but he left three women who loved him deeply and some exquisite buildings.

Another building we saw was the Kimbell Art Museum in Dallas. From outside it looked like a cattle barn, but the inside was beautiful, very functional. Lin contrasted it with the new part Tate Modern, which she found dysfunctional, hopeless as a place to exhibit and view art. (I ought to add that Deyan, our friend who is director of the Design Museum, thinks it a great success).

One of the most poignant moments in the film came when Nathaniel met his two half-sisters for the first time—in the Fisher House, a beautiful house that their father had designed. They had actually been together once before, at Kahn’s funeral. Alexandra described how her mother had been rung by Esther’s friends and told not to go, but she and her daughter went anyway. Sue Ann said she had tried to reach out to Nathaniel, who was 11 at the time, but been cut dead by Harriet. Nathaniel remembered Esther looking right through him. (If film of the funeral had been available this would have been the perfect start to the film.)

Are we a family, asked Nathaniel, clearly wanting them to be. If we want to be we will be, answered Sue Ann. (We don’t know whether they are, but we doubt it.)

Nathaniel showed pictures from a book called Crazy Boats that his father had drawn for him. What he didn’t know until he made the film was that his father had built a crazy boat, a boat that transports an orchestra and opens up to be a concert hall. The conductor, a close friend of Kahn’s who was one of the few who knew that he had a son, was also the captain, and the boat sails the world giving concerts.

The film culminated with Nathaniel visiting India and Bangladesh, where Kahn built two of his most famous buildings—the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabab and Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, the home of the Bangladesh parliament in Dhaka. The architect who worked with Kahn in India told Nathaniel that Kahn would be reincarnated and that if Nathaniel was silent he would hear the voice of Kahn.

I felt rather guilty that in all my visits to Dhaka I have never visited Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, which some Bangladeshis who had never heard of Kahn described as “the most beautiful place in Bangladesh.” It is striking, spiritual, and monumental, looing so much like an ancient building that the Pakistanis avoided bombing it during the War of Liberation, thinking that it was an ancient building.

It took as long to build as the Taj Mahal and was built by hand with the workmen using bamboo scaffolding. It wasn’t finished until 1983, almost a decade after Kahn’s death. The Bangladeshi architect who worked with Kahn said that the building was a gift of love and democracy from Kahn to the poorest country on earth.

It was this architect who brushed aside the pain that Kahn had created by fathering three children by three women. Great men do these things, he said, and Kahn loved everybody.

Nathaniel ended the film here, saying he had found his father. I wasn’t convinced of that, and Lin was wholly unconvinced by great men being excused the pain they caused.



2 thoughts on “In search of an architect and a father

  1. “Kahn never built many buildings, partly, the architect I M Pei suggested, because he did what he wanted to do rather than what the client wanted.”

    One of my favourite books is How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand (founder of the Well). In it he asks architects like Frank Lloyd Wright why architects never go back and visit the buildings they designed. “It’s too depressing” i.e. they have changed their shape and use so many times – “!quite different to how I DESIGNED it to be used…” or words to that effect.


  2. Pingback: The Bangladesh Parliament: the world’s most impressive modern building? | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s