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March 05, 2004 - Image 48

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-03-05

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MONUMENT from page 45

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
kipah that keeps blowing off his head. "Yes, I guess I

The Louis Kahn-designed capital complex in Dhaka,
Bangladesh: A Jewish architect built the capital of a
Muslim country.

was not only chasing after my father's path but my
own Jewish identity," Nathaniel said.
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 said.
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 dif-
ferent. 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 befor 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 accomplish-
ments of a Jew
whose genius
Filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn
helped break
the religious
barrier in American architecture, a field now domi-
nated 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 under-
standing 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. ❑

marvelous balance, although he does
veer into self-indulgence on occasion.
But he can be forgiven for that, and for
his film's excessive two-hour length, in
light of the ineffably touching
sequences he achieves.
My Architect, which was one of this year's Oscar
nominees for Best Documentary, works like a
detective story at times, as Nathaniel uncovers the
formative episodes in his father's life. Kahn was
born Louis Schmalowsky in Estonia in
1901 or '02, and he had a rough child-
hood.
He came to this country in 1906, set-
tling with his family in Philadelphia.
The portrait that emerges is of a man who was
scarred and looked down on as a child, and who
learned to be self-reliant and tough. But if Louis
Kahn was the quintessential assimilated American
and self-made man, he was hardly an instant success.
He was in his 40s before he achieved any recognition
as an architect, and throughout his career he was
more of an artist than a businessman.
He could be charming, charismatic and endearing,
but he was also unable to compromise. Many of his
commissions•ended in acrimony as a result, with his
designs unrealized.

In one of the documentary's more fascinating seg-
ments, Nathaniel visits Jerusalem to get the lowdown
on his father's thwarted involvement in the Hurva
Synagogue project more than three decades ago.
"Lou was a very spiritual person, but I don't think it
was necessarily rooted in Judaism," muses Israeli archi-
tect Moshe Safdie. "He must have been aware, as a
Jewish architect, he'd done no great Jewish buildings."
Kahn's idea was to incorporate and preserve the
ruins of the old synagogue, damaged by the
Jordanians in the War of Independence. His love-
ly design would have overlooked both the
Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.
But former mayor Teddy Kollek, interviewed on
camera, recalls that he decreed the new shul couldn't be
higher than the mosque. Kollek's decision made sense
from a diplomatic standpoint, but one can't look at
Kahn's stunning plans without feeling disappointment.
Ultimately, Louis Kahn emerges as a loving father
but a lousy husband. In that regard, My Architect
shares some common ground with Capturing the
Friedmans, last year's documentary cause celebre
about another Jewish family with issues.
Jewish women should be savoring a laugh, cour-
tesy of the movie gods. After years of enduring the
stereotype of the shrill Jewish mama and the belea-
guered Jewish papa, the tables have finally turned. ❑

'My Architect'

r

MICHAEL FOX

Special to the Jewish News

rustration and failure are really the things
that make you," declares an acquaintance
of the late architect Louis I. Kahn in
the exceptional documentary My
Architect. "Maybe he was made by being short
and ugly and Jewish and having a bad voice."
Kahn's messy, iconoclastic life ended in 1974 in a
restroom in New York's Penn Station. Brilliant and
influential but not especially prolific, his legacy
includes stunning buildings in California, Texas and
Bangladesh.
He also left behind children by three different
women.
His only son, Nathaniel Kahn, has fashioned My
Architect as a deeply personal search for the father he
barely knew while making the case for Louis' place in
the architectural firmament through interviews with
the likes of Frank Gehry and Philip Johnson.
Nathaniel Kahn navigates this tightrope with

3/ 5

2004

48

,

My Architect screens 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and
Saturday and 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday, March 5-7,
at the Detroit Film Theatre at the DIA. $5.50-
$6.50. (313) 833-3237. It is scheduled to open
Friday, March 12, at the Maple Art Theatre in
Bloomfield Township; (248) 542-0180.

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