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With: Nathaniel Kahn, Louis I. Kahn, Philip Johnson, Vincent Scully, I. M. Pei, Anne Tyng, Edmund Bacon, Richard Saul Wurman, Frank Gehry, Robert Boudreau, Harriet Pattison, Susannah Jones, Charles Jones, Edwina Pattison Daniels, Robert A. M. Stern, Teddy Kollek, Moshe Safdie, Sue Ann Kahn, Alexandra Tyng, Duncan Buell, Shamsul Wares
Written by: Nathaniel Kahn
Directed by: Nathaniel Kahn
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 116
Date: 04/13/2003

My Architect (2003)

2 Stars (out of 4)

By Design

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When documentaries focus on a subject that's dead and gone, the filmmaker often must rely on secondary interviews and older footage. Using this format, it's easy to despair and see one's options as limited. One solution is for the filmmaker to insert him or herself into the story. Of course, that's trusting that the filmmaker has an interesting approach to the material, but also that he is at least as charismatic as the subject.

Nathaniel Kahn's Oscar-nominated My Architect -- which was made for cable TV and picked up by new Yorker Films for theatrical distribution -- not only repeats a now-familiar approach, but also does it in a rather transparent, uninspiring manner.

Taking a cue from Ross McElwee's groundbreaking Sherman's March (1984) -- and its many imitators up to and including Steve James' recent Stevie -- Kahn sets off to discover something about his father, the innovative architect Louis I. Kahn, who passed away in 1974.

Nathaniel is one of three children that the elder Kahn had out of wedlock with three different women. Louis spent the occasional weekend with Nathaniel, but never lived regularly with him and passed away when Nathaniel was eleven.

Nathaniel journeys around the world, looking at his father's buildings and interviewing the people he knew and worked with. The film does a remarkable job of teaching us exactly why Louis was so acclaimed and beloved in the architecture community. It uses lovely photography to capture the buildings' strange beauty and their stunning use of air, light, brick and glass.

Some of Louis' colleagues breathlessly talk about him. Vincent Scully, for example, reasons that Louis' creations could be the work of God Himself.

But Nathaniel is not a particularly gifted interviewer, and the film doesn't teach us everything it could. In one scene, he visits another of his father's designs, a massive metal ship that turns into a stage. Nathaniel converses with the ship's captain, who knew Louis. For no particular reason, Nathaniel deliberately withholds the information that he's Louis' son. When he finally does break the news, the captain weeps unabashedly and the camera stays on him the whole time. It's an ages-old documentary ploy and a cheap, frustrating shot at sentiment.

With his lack of presence Nathaniel can't lure us into his world as easily as McElwee or -- heaven help us -- Michael Moore can. He frequently retreats back into his own wants and needs, exploring questions that he can't make us care about. In one sequence, he interviews his two half-sisters and asks them, "Are we a family?" They respond with, "What is a family?" He fails to follow up and we're left with nothing.

As the film comes to a close, Nathaniel's voiceover tries to make us believe that his search is over and that he feels closer to his father, which feels like a stretch. It's almost as if Nathaniel has built even more of a wall between his father and himself; the two parts of the film are hugely divergent. Louis comes across as a brilliant, obsessed workaholic while Nathaniel comes across as confused and directionless. No amount of closing narration can change that mood.

To put a point to it, without Nathaniel's famous father as its subject, the aimless My Architect would never have seen the light of day.

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