June 1, 2003
My Architect, Myself: Web Exclusive
A web exclusive continuation of the interview with Nathaniel Kahn on his father, Louis Kahn.
My Architect: A Son’s Journey is Nathaniel Kahn’s first feature-length film. The writer/director has completed other documentaries including My Father’s Garden, which was featured at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as short narratives and an off-Broadway play. My Architect will open nationally in the fall.
How long was My Architect in the making?
It’s been five years. But it’s not as if I was obsessed with it for five years. Making a film like this is difficult. It’s hard to raise the money, hard to get up every day with the courage to keep asking these questions. You go through periods where you feel that you just can’t face it.
They say the average documentary takes five years. There are reasons for that. Some of them have to do with funding of course, but a good film gives you the feeling that in two hours you’ve lived a lifetime. Or lived a day. Or lived through an entire war. Somehow it messes with your sense of time. One of the surest ways to achieve that is to actually produce something that takes place over a period of time. I change within the film and that’s part of the reason it takes a while to get going. You have to stick with it. It’s a narrative that slowly builds. We structured it that way.
A lot of the film is about untangling the mystery of your father. Now that you’ve made the film, is he less of a mystery to you?
I think so. He’s more of a flesh and blood person. Though still enigmatic and mysterious, he’s no longer a semi-mythological character. I see that he was a man who had a beginning, a middle, and an end. To some degree the film asks the question: can you get to know someone after they’re dead? The answer, I think, is yes.
How often did see your father as a child?
You couldn’t set your watch by Lou. It wasn’t: “It’s Saturday, the day that Lou comes to dinner.” He was very much in my life for the last few years of his life, and very much in my mother’s life for many years because they worked together.
One of the things that we couldn’t get into the film too much was the ways in which she helped him on some of his projects. But I did spend a fair amount of time in his office. His office was kind of like his house. He had this carpet that he rolled out on the floor to sleep on. There was an aspect of him that was very nomadic. In many ways he was as at-home in India and in Bangladesh as he was in Philadelphia.
What did learn about your father that you needed learn?
Richard Saul Wurman said something interesting that I wasn’t able to use in the film. “Lou was really here,” he said. “You can’t say that about everybody.” I think the big lesson Ricky got from Lou was: use what you’ve got, don’t give up, and don’t look too much at what the guy next door is doing because it’s a one way trip. That’s a big deal. It’s what every son needs to hear, because doing stuff of any value is incredibly hard.
How did your mom respond when you told her you were going to make this film?
Oh, you’d have to ask her [laughs]. I have great admiration for her. She allowed me to ask tough questions and was very courageous in encouraging me to go my own way, find my own truths and my own answers, which don’t necessarily agree with hers.
There’s one point in the film when she gets visibly angry at your questions.
Yes. She says, “Oh, come on!” I think she articulates what a lot of the people might be thinking, but would never say. Which is, “Come on, Nathaniel, get over it! He’s been dead a long time. Move on.”
Have your half-sisters seen the film?
Yes. They liked it. But different people see different things in it. That was the enigmatic part of Lou. Each person who knew him knew a slightly different person. Maybe that’s true for all of us to some degree.
But it was heightened to an incredible degree with your father.
Yes, but also heightened by his personality. If he was talking to you, you were the only person on the planet. He had the remarkable ability to focus on something. I remember that even as a little boy. If he was talking you, it wasn’t as if he was looking around the room wondering who else was walking in the restaurant. He was talking to you.
What do a great architect’s buildings reveal about the man?
In college people were always saying, “You just need the text. You don’t need to know about the writer’s life.” That was the big movement in the ’80s. To my mind that’s a load of crap.
I think it helps tremendously to know about the person. Critics might want you to think it doesn’t matter, because their job is to impose on the work what they see and have that be the truth. But knowing something about where the architect comes from, what they struggled with, helps immensely. I think you can feel something different from a place when you know more about the person who created it. It might not help you understand the building architecturally, but it certainly helps you feel it.
Let’s talk more about the capital in Bangladesh [National Assembly in Dhaka]. What makes that building special?
Until you’ve see that place, it’s very hard to imagine how astonishing it is. When I finally saw it I understood why it was a building that he just had to build. Imagine being asked to build the capital of a country. What a thrilling thing!
When I was there I realized how intoxicating it must have been. But I.M. Pei asked me an interesting question about it. “I think the building is amazing,” he said, “but I’d like to see how people use it.”
I realized that when people have photographed it they’ve always shown it as if it were on the moon, never with the life that goes on around it. So it was important for us to show how people used it, because they do use and love it. So I’m looking forward to answering Mr. Pei’s question.
Seeing that building for the first time was like realizing that you’d made a pilgrimage and it wasn’t a disappointment. It’s a building that makes you say “Wow!” And then when you know the story of what it took to build-the 23 years, the stoppage in the middle, the changing of the country during construction. It’s a wonderful story: a Jewish architect is brought to a Muslim country, totally immerses himself in their culture and realizes right away that the mosque is very important to them. It’s got to be part of the building.
Lou was originally told that they wanted to have a 2,000-square-foot mosque, so the people in the building could come and pray. He fell out of bed the next morning and said, “No, the mosque has to be 20,000 feet and it has to be on equal footing with the building.” The name “Dhaka” means “city of mosques”.
The love that developed between the Muslims and this Jewish architect was truly palpable. Somehow there is a give and take that provides a marvelous lesson. Lou really felt that he could make a difference in this new country. His dream was to build cities. He tried in Philadelphia, but failed. It happened in Dhaka.
Speaking of Philadelphia, there’s an amazing scene in the film with the famous planner, Edmund Bacon.
It’s a great interview, a great moment. And I love Mr. Bacon for it, because he was truthful about how he felt. He made his points forcefully, intelligently, and it gave me a vision about my father that I don’t think I had before—which was how difficult he could be. And I don’t think either one of them was wrong. It wasn’t about right or wrong. I was interested in why those two people had an antagonistic relationship.
After the interview with Bacon you cut away to Kahn’s plans for Philadelphia. Where did you get those?
Those also came from Museum of Modern Art. What’s wonderful about architects is they leave a lot of things behind. So there were artifacts to find and use in the film. The archive at the University of Pennsylvania has thousands of drawings, beautifully cataloged. There are all kinds of things there, like these wonderful plans for Philadelphia.
Was that one of those instances where you knew you had these plans, so you arranged an interview with Bacon?
No, it was Bacon first. Because I knew that Lou loved the city, knew that this relationship between Bacon and Kahn was important, knew there was a story attached to it.
A story about his inability to enter the power structure of his home city?
That’s one way to see it. I don’t make a judgment on that. I think that story is there, but maybe it was also Lou’s inability to pick his spots. There are places to be a dreamer and places not to be. For whatever reasons, he wasn’t able to be a dreamer in Philly. He was in Dhaka.
You’ve made a deeply emotional film and yet you don’t at any point become visibly moved. Why?
It’s always bad when a character cries, especially the narrator. I cut some of those moments out. When you’re the character in your own story, there’s always the danger of becoming operatic. That’s why finding the voice for the narration was hard. And why it’s important to remember that filmmaking-and architecture-is collaborative.
There’s an incredible producer behind this film, a gifted editor and a talented cameraman whose blood and sweat are all over this film. This is also something I learned from Lou. There were people close to him who not only helped him, but helped the buildings to be what they are. Lou carried the flag and stood out front. But there were a lot of people who went into making those details work. I think we tend to forget that and subscribe to this genius theory of making things.
Or to the myth of architectural authorship. When we say it’s a “Gehry building” we really mean that there’s several dozen people in the Gehry office who helped make it.
Absolutely. But I also don’t have any illusions about the fact that Gehry is the guy carrying the flag. That’s another lesson learned from Lou. He wasn’t afraid to carry the damn flag.
So it takes courage, but it also takes having the right people around you. Lou was blessed that way. He created a structure, where he would teach at school and find the young people willing to work all night. Another thing I discovered was he was slow. That’s been comforting. To learn that it’s okay to take a long time to finish something, if you stick with it. It was heartening for me to see how the designs changed up to the last minute, how he was never satisfied.
They say a work is never really finished, it’s abandoned. It was true for Lou. He was constantly drawing, being convinced of it, and the next day realizing he could do it a better way. It drove people nuts. They’d think: “Let’s just build the damn thing already!” but he wasn’t ready.
How was the narration conceived? Would you sit at a microphone with headphones on in a screening room?
Yes. It was very experimental. We’d throw the narration up against the picture and Susan Behr, my producer, or Sabine Krayenbuhl, the editor, would say: “Ah, that’s horrible! You can’t say that. You’re saying too much!” Or: “You’re saying too little.” “What do you feel about this?” “Are you angry about this?” “You’re not telling us anything!” That was where I-the director-needed a helluva’ lot of directing. You need a wall to bounce against. The narration was extraordinarily difficult. There are still pieces of it that bother me.
I loved the interview in Maine with your two aunts. You could see their emotional shift all in the context of your conversation. It was almost like a feature film.
That was one scene. When you get a little experience making these things you start to realize what works. Sometimes it can come down to sitting people at the right place at a table. The big choice here was: do I put myself in the middle-between my two aunts-or on the side? I sat off to the side and the difference was wonderful, because they’re both talking through the camera at me. If I’d been in the middle, I would’ve been in every shot. In the end, those questions are, oddly, architectural ones. As Billy Wilder always said, “What matters is where you put the camera.”