But Louis Kahn the man was an enigma even to his closest friends, many of whom did not know that Kahn was not only married but maintaining three separate families within a few miles of each other. The Estonian-born Kahn, who came to the United States at age four in 1905, married his wife, Esther, in 1930; they had a daughter, Sue Ann, a decade later. In 1954, he had a second daughter, Alexandra, with designer Anne Tyng. Eight years later arrived a son, Nathaniel, whose mother is landscape designer Harriet Pattison. These families sort of knew about one another but never interacted. Kahn saw Alexandra and her mother when he could, Harriet and her son when time allowed -- which didn't stop anyone from loving the man.
Nathaniel, now in his early forties, has made a documentary, My Architect: A Son's Journey, that attempts to decipher his old man's life -- and his death in a Penn Station bathroom in 1974, where he suffered a heart attack while carrying only a passport with the address crossed out. (Kahn turned out to be penniless, as much overspender as overachiever.) My Architect, which earned a nod for a documentary Academy Award earlier this year, is the sentimental counterpart to fellow nominee Capturing the Friedmans, which chronicled the dissolution of a family. Nathaniel wants to put his back together again, in a way. He keeps himself in the center of this story, describing every emotion elicited by his discoveries. In a narrative film, the scene in which Nathaniel straps on a pair of Rollerblades and, to the sound of Neil Young's "Long May You Run," glides across a smooth, concrete pavilion designed by his father, would have been unbearably saccharine. It works here because skating on the grounds of the Salk Institute is as close as Nathaniel will come to psychically connecting with his father's achievements.
But Nathaniel sometimes goes too far. He waits until the end of a lengthy interview with one of his father's former collaborators and friends to identify himself as Louis' son. He does it solely to capture the man's reaction on film -- the shock and sobs that follow as this man recalls seeing Nathaniel last when he was a little boy at Louis' wake. What's meant to seem poignant feels like an ambush.
Nathaniel will talk to anyone who he believes knew his father: his half-sisters, Anne Tyng, his own mother, colleagues and collaborators (among them I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry) and former students. Desperate for information, he believes everything everyone says to him, though it's obvious many of the anecdotes are half-remembered at best.
Still, Nathaniel, unlike most sons of absentee fathers, has a detailed road map to follow: the books devoted entirely to Louis (including a collection of letters he wrote to Tyng in 1953 and 1954) and the buildings that stretch from Connecticut to Bangladesh. There's also footage from an old documentary about Louis that allows us to hear and see the man for ourselves. In the end, perhaps Nathaniel sees his father's buildings as living relics, and maybe he comes to know his father a little better than most sons who grew up with a dad always around the house. It doesn't make up for his absence, though. Then or now.