Louis Kahn, one of the most celebrated architects of the 20th century, died of a heart attack, alone and without ID, in the men’s room at Penn Station in 1974 at the age of 73. Ever since then his son, Nathaniel, who was 11 at the time, has sought to better understand the highly talented and deeply complex man who hardly acknowledged his illegitimate offspring.
Of his father, Nathaniel Kahn knew the myth; he wanted to know the man. Five years ago he set out to make a documentary film about the work and life of Louis Kahn, and his quest has taken him down many paths. It has led him to professional fame and success with the critically acclaimed film “My Architect,” which opened here this week, and to a warm and close friendship with a Jewish communal executive who helped raise the funds to make the film possible.
The other day, Nathaniel, now 40, and Darrell Friedman, who recently retired as the top professional of the Associated Jewish Charities, the Baltimore federation, talked about their unlikely coming together — the Protestant-raised filmmaker and the Jewish professional — and how during the process of making the film Nathaniel has come to explore his Jewish roots more deeply.
“This was a very personal journey for me,” Nathaniel explained, “and to a large degree it was Jewish philanthropy that made this possible.” He credited Friedman with not only helping to raise much of the approximately $800,000 needed for the film — Friedman is listed as an executive producer — but with “helping to connect me to Jewish values, like the sense of giving back and leaving the world a better place.”
Friedman said he was taken by the young man’s intellect, charisma and biography from their first meeting four years ago, arranged by the friend of a friend of Friedman’s son. “I was totally captivated,” he said, “and I wanted to help.” It was his entree into the world of Jewish philanthropy that resulted in Nathaniel receiving significant funding from several Jewish family charities and a grant from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
The nearly two-hour film, subtitled “A Son’s Journey,” is a low key but powerful documentary that manages to weave together Nathaniel’s personal attempt to learn who his father was and an appreciation of Louis Kahn’s works. Those include the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., art centers at Yale and in Fort Worth, and his most ambitious and final project, the national capital buildings in Dacca, Bangladesh, whose presence takes on an almost spiritual quality of quiet strength.
The film begins with Nathaniel recounting how he read in the newspaper of his father’s death and wondered why his name was not listed as a surviving child. He came with his mother to the funeral, though they were not invited, and learned that Louis Kahn led more than one secret life. He was married and had a daughter. But he had long-term relationships with two other women, each of whom had a child by him. The three “families” lived within a few miles of each other in Philadelphia, but did not cross paths until Kahn’s funeral.
Nathaniel recalls that though he only saw his father about once a week, their visits together were memorable. In making the film, he sought to fill in some of the major gaps in his father’s life, but much remains a mystery. One senses that the son came to know the father through the buildings he created as much as through the colleagues with whom Nathaniel spoke.
Standing at the Salk Institute, overlooking the Pacific and feeling the majesty of the space, Nathaniel observed that “for the first time, I felt I was getting closer to my father.”
“Lou always said work was the most important thing, not relationships,” one associate recalled. “God is in the work, so it has to be perfect,” said another, quoting Kahn.
The Kahns’ Jewish heritage — father and son — is a recurring theme in the film. Nathaniel visited Israel, where his father had hoped to restore the historic Hurvah Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. Teddy Kollek, the former mayor of Jerusalem, notes that Kahn spent seven years on the project to rebuild the synagogue that was largely destroyed during the 1948 war. Intra-Jewish politics was a major reason why the task was never completed.
One haunting image is of Nathaniel standing in front of the Western Wall, running after the paper kipa that keeps blowing off his head. “Yes, I guess I was not only chasing after my father’s path but my own Jewish identity,” Nathaniel told me.
The most spiritual and powerful part of the film is the last section, in Bangladesh, where Nathaniel comes to see his father’s monumental masterpiece. Louis Kahn worked on the complex of parliament buildings for the last 12 years of his life and they were not completed until 1983, nine years after his death.
“It’s significant to point out that a Jewish architect built the capital of a Muslim country,” Nathaniel told me. He finds hope in that fact and takes pride in knowing that his father’s name is legendary in Bangladesh, where he is looked upon as a kind of Moses in lending his talent to one of the world’s poorest countries.
It was there, at the end of the journey, that the father became real to the son. “Now that I know him a bit better,” Nathaniel says at the close of the film, “I really miss him. I wish things had been different. But he chose it.”
Nathaniel has come to feel that while his father was not religiously observant, “he felt his profession had a mystical power, and I am fascinated by that.” Now working on another film and much in demand since the release of “My Architect,” Nathaniel said he needs more time to think about the Jewish piece of his identity.
“Half of me was missing before this film, and I want to explore it. I feel like I’m coming home,” he said, citing his friendship with Friedman as one of the greatest benefits of making the movie.
“You search for your father in one way and find many things along the way,” he mused, “like a Jewish identity, and Darrell. I feel like my father is giving me these things now, though he wasn’t there for me in one way.”
Friedman calls his association with Nathaniel “very special,” a highlight of his three-decade career in Jewish communal service. (He is now a senior consultant in New York to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.) The film, he noted, will allow a wide audience to see the accomplishments of a Jew whose genius helped break the religious barrier in American architecture, a field now dominated by Jewish talent.
Much of the appeal of “My Architect” is in the unique story of Louis Kahn, a solitary and deeply private nomad who expressed himself best in the work he left behind. But part of the pull is in the universal search for where we came from and understanding who we are, in the fascination children have with their parents’ lives, and beyond.
Nathaniel Kahn has tapped into that exploration and takes us on a journey that makes us think not only about his parents and their truths, motivations and secrets, but our own.