Architects son films documentary to understand man he barely knew

“Frustration and failure are really the things that make you,” an acquaintance of the late architect Louis I. Kahn declares in the exceptional documentary “My Architect: A Son’s Journey.” “Maybe he was made by being short and ugly and Jewish and having a bad voice.”

Kahn’s messy, iconoclastic life ended in 1974 from a heart attack in a restroom in New York’s Penn Station. Brilliant and influential but not especially prolific, Kahn left a legacy that includes stunning buildings in California, Texas and Bangladesh.

He also left behind children by three different women, who didn’t meet until his funeral. His only son, Nathaniel Kahn, has fashioned “My Architect” as a deeply personal search for the father he barely knew. He also makes the case for his father’s place in the architectural firmament through interviews with the likes of Frank Gehry and Philip Johnson.

Nathaniel Kahn navigates this tightrope with 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.

The Oscar-nominated film, which opens Friday, Feb. 6, at Bay Area theaters, 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, and he had a rough childhood. He came to America in 1906, settling with his family in Philadelphia.

The portrait that emerges is of a man who was scarred and looked down on as a child, who learned to be self-reliant and tough. But if 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 segments, Nathaniel visits Jerusalem to hear of his father’s thwarted involvement in the Hurva Synagogue project some 30 years ago. “Lou was a very spiritual person, but I don’t think it was necessarily rooted in Judaism,” muses Israeli architect 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 lovely design would have overlooked both the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock.

But former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, interviewed on camera, recalls that he decreed the new synagogue couldn’t be higher than the mosque. Kollek’s decision made sense from a diplomatic standpoint — in those days, Israeli authorities were more sensitive about exacerbating tensions between Arabs and Jews — but one can’t look at Kahn’s stunning plans without feeling disappointment.

Looking at Kahn’s personal life, ultimately he 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 célèbre.

Jewish women should be savoring a laugh, courtesy of the movie gods. After years of enduring the stereotype of the shrill Jewish mama dominating the beleaguered Jewish papa, the tables have finally turned.

My Architect: A Son’s Journey” opens Friday, Feb., 6 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, (415) 621-6120; Act Cinema in Berkeley, (510) 843-3456; and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, (415) 454-1222.

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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.