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My Architect

writer and director: Nathaniel Kahn

116 minutes (PG) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Michael Bunning
Nathaniel Kahn is the bastard son of Louis I. Kahn, a massively influential (yet surprisingly unproductive) architect who died in 1974 in Penn Station, New York. Nathaniel's mother was one of two mistresses Kahn had families with and yet never considered leaving his wife for.

Nathaniel spent little time with his father when he was growing up, and always believed his mother's claim that his father was returning to live with them on the night he died. Grown to adulthood, however, he began to question this belief and set out to try to learn more of his father's life and what kind of a man he was; the result of which is this documentary.

Kahn explores both his father's life and his works: he uses interviews with friends, colleagues and relatives in an attempt to understand the man; and discussions of some of his father's buildings by their residents and by other architects to understand the work. Ironically, what he discovers is that for a massively influential architect and (presumably) attractive and charismatic lover, his father was solitary, antisocial, withdrawn and secretive.

The film attempts to be both a biography of the architect and a personal journey for the son, and unfortunately falls slightly short on both counts. There's far too little architecture in the documentary, especially since we learn that whilst modernist architecture was becoming an all-conquering behemoth movement, Kahn was looking back to Greek and Roman architecture, and thinking about the spiritual aspects of his buildings. The few buildings featured in the documentary are dealt with swiftly and without depth, leaving any architecture enthusiasts wanting much, much more.

The personal aspect of the documentary contains so little of what Nathaniel thinks, or feels, or learns, that the viewer almost feels Nathaniel is merely a narrator, not a participant. This is unfortunate, since all the other interviewees in the film give honest, emotional accounts of their time spent with Louis Kahn; yet for a film entitled My Architect (suggesting not only 'my father the architect', but also 'the man who built me') there is only one instance when Nathaniel attempts to voice his own feelings about his father, and even then his tone is curiously unemotional.

These criticisms, though, don't take away all the enjoyment of the film. It serves very well as an introduction to an enigmatic yet engaging architect and certainly encourages (through the fleeting glimpses of the buildings) its audience to learn more. It's also a serviceable biography of the man, but might perhaps have worked better with a narrator who wasn't a relative.

The technical quality is outstanding without being flashy: the print is clean and crisp, and the sound is crystal clear. There's no denying the quality of the package Tartan have put together, either. There are several special features on offer: director Q&A; deleted scenes; director interview; gallery and film notes, and a whole range of sound options: Dolby 2.0 and 5.1 digital; and DTS 5.1 surround, all of which are welcome, but to my mind there's no need for surround sound in a documentary. Similarly, the deleted scenes are a little superfluous: unlike a feature, I'm not too interested in knowing why a particular scene was cut. I expect that documentary aficionados will be interested though, and for the rest of us, the Q&A and interview are welcome.
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