Magazine article Artforum International

Kahn Man: Rhonda Lieberman on Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect

Magazine article Artforum International

Kahn Man: Rhonda Lieberman on Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect

Article excerpt

We do not "own" the facts of our lives at all. This ownership passes out of our hands at birth, at the moment we are first observed.

--Janet Malcolm

LOUIS I. KAHN'S NOT-HUGE OEUVRE includes a disproportionate number of masterpieces: the Salk Institute, Yale's Center for British Art, the Kimbell Art Museum, the Phillips Exeter Academy library, Bangladesh's capitol. Modern buildings with the presence of ancient monuments, they exude the timeless, sacred quality that invites you to transcend--not to historicize.

When Kahn died suddenly in Penn Station in 1974, with illegible ID, the police were unable to identify the body for days. It turned out that this short, Jewish architectural titan had had three separate families simultaneously--all living within miles of each other in Philadelphia--that he'd been secretively visiting for years. He had a child with each "wife"--two daughters and a son, Nathaniel, whose documentary film My Architect: A Son's Journey opens nationally this month. A workaholic who lived at his Walnut Street office (napping on a little carpet when he got too tired), Kahn had his secretary field calls from the three women looking for him--when he wasn't schlepping across the world overseeing his far-flung, influential buildings, or across Philly from "family" to "family." An architectural nomad and a mystic ("unintegrated," my therapist would call him).

Eleven years old when his father died, Nathaniel Kahn first appears in his film reflected in the microfiche of his dad's obituary, which mentions the "real" wife, Esther, and "legitimate" daughter, Sue Ann, but not him. "The whole film is a parenthetical phrase to that obituary," said the fortyish, Yale educated filmmaker when we spoke on the phone. "This is the part they didn't say." Undertaken with the reverence of a son seeking to know his elusive progenitor, his journey is also, perhaps inadvertently, a stunningly literal "return of the repressed"--rewriting the Great Man's story from the point of view of someone close who had been edited out. In nearly every segment of My Architect, the filmmaker "outs" his dead dad's secrets to colleagues, clients, anyone who knew him, as he inserts himself into the "official story" that excluded him.

If Kahn's oeuvre embodies timeless Beauty disconnected from messy life, his son's film seeks Truth by attempting to reconnect what his father compartmentalized. Like an analysand working over the family in absentia, the son envelops his father's Myth in history: "Film created the opportunity to have a dialogue with him, even though he's been dead for thirty years" is how he puts it.

Nathaniel combs the world for traces of his father, seeking out anyone (even Philly cabbies) who might have observed him. With a fetish for artifacts rivaling any art historian's, he tracks down Kahn's buildings, colleagues, clients, lovers, and stuff. As true to materials as his dad, no form of contact is too literal: He rollerblades on pater's plaza at the Salk Institute in La Jolla (to the sappy strains of "Long May You Run"), even palpates his neckties, as if to channel the dead. His personal journey faces all the quagmires of art history as he attempts to connect the Stuff with the Life. Not surprisingly, he's left with a deeper sense of mystery than ever. Since Kahn "left no physical evidence" in the house, he's a challenge for both curators and mourners. Nathaniel had long felt his dad "hadn't really died [and] was out there somewhere, living a parallel life."

Nathaniel returns to Yale--bastion of Old Boys, High Culture, and two Kahn art museums--to consult Professor Vincent Scully. Kindly disposed to the son's odyssey, Scully mythologizes Kahn into the Great Men/Great Works narrative of architecture (for which Scully is famous). With sweeping gestures, as if triggered by the plush British Art Center engulfing them, the urbane pedagogue customizes his hero discourse for Kahn, the (nonobservant) Jew: "In Jewish mysticism, G-d can only be known through his works; [so] the works of any Jewish architect might be the works of G-d. …

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