Sunday, February 29, 2004

"My Architect" Goes for the Gold

In a couple hours I'll be one of over 25 million people glued to their television sets to see how many Oscars Lord of the Rings is going to win in the 76th Academy Awards. But I'll admit that the Best Picture contest doesn't hold my attention this year - though my vote would go to Lost In Translation if I were a member of the Academy, partly because it's an underdog film, but also because it's an independent film, which I guess is what makes it an underdog. Instead I'll be waiting patiently through the enormous amounts of filler that occupy the ceremony every year for the Best Documentary category.

And the nominees are:

Balseros, the story of seven Cuban refugees in 1994,
Capturing the Friedmans, following the Friedman family after the father and son are charged with child molestation,
The Fog of War, Errol Morris's portrayal of Robert McNamara re-examining his role in the Vietnam War,
The Weather Underground, about a radical group in the late 1960s called The Weathermen,
My Architect: A Son's Journey, Nathaniel Kahn's five-year voyage to discover his father Louis I. Kahn's legacy, the subject of this post.

On a recent trip to New York City I caught My Architect at the Film Forum. The sold-out crowd, like me, seemed to find the film amusing and touching, as Nathaniel Kahn traveled from one Kahn building to another, talking with people who worked with his father before his death in 1974. Instead of going into the well-known circumstances behind Louis I. Kahn's death (found in a Pennsylvania Station bathroom and unknown for three days) or his made-for-TV-like personal life (three children from three women), I just wanted to comment on the film's portrayal of Kahn's architecture and the implications of the film's success, although the personal life of the architect is an inseparable part of his architecture and vice-versa.

First, Kahn presents his father's buildings, from the Trenton Bath House to the National Assembly in Bangladesh with many in-between, in a way I can only describe as loving. His fondness for his father comes across in the photography and circumstances, especially as Nathaniel roller blades in the Salk Institute's plaza as he tries to find a way to get in touch with his father, even if he experiences the space in a manner potentially unsuitable from its intention. The only questionable presentation of one of his father's buildings is when the Kimbell Art Museum is unfortunately filmed with a fish-eye lens, betraying its classical symmetry, repetition and the contrast of the vertical lines with the barrel vaults.

Secondly, the popularity of the film among the general public may have repercussions in the public's taste in architecture. Kahn's dramatic buildings touch a nerve in people, particularly when they are surrounded by the blandness of much of the American built landscape. Aside from the obvious contrast between Kahn's architecture and the norm, his buildings stand in stark contrast to much quality contemporary architecture. Kahn's work has a weight that is missing today, as architects strive for lightness in their designs. If My Architect has any effect on current practice, it would be to change the tastes of clients. Not to say that no architect today values mass over transparency and lightness, but there is clearly a trend away from architecture poetically rooted in its place as strongly as Kahn's buildings do.

As I noted earlier I'll be rooting for My Architect, which I believe will win, not just because I'm biased as an architect, but because Kahn's film stands out among the other four. Three films deal politically with the 1960s and one deals with a subject (child molestation) that might turn off most Academy voters. What is left is the story of a man trying to discover his father by experiencing his life, his architecture.