Our Man On "My Architect"

04.12.2004 | Jonathan Leaf | Film
Even by the standards of artistic professions, architecture is a field in which talent plays only a small role in success. Being able to design a beautiful building and getting the chance to build it and receive credit for the design have little to do with one another.

It isn’t so simple a matter as writing a fine novel and then having the luck, drive and persistence to find an agent and then a publisher willing to shell out $30,000 or $40,000 in costs (including the advance) to print and market it. Since a building of any meaningful size requires many millions of dollars, the ability to market oneself to important clients is far more essential to success than proficiency at draftsmanship.

Social skills —- in cultivating customers, working with them, getting press and knowing how to claim credit for one’s own work (and that of others) —- play a vastly larger role in “making it” than artistic talent.

Worse yet, few arts are so dominated by fashion as is architecture. When modernism came in, novelists, poets and painters with traditional approaches (e.g. Waugh, Frost and Wyeth) didn’t lose their audiences. But a beaux-arts architect with the skill of Stanford White was out of a job by 1950.

So, let’s add another caveat for those thinking about taking a lowly and low-paid associate’s job at a big-city architecture firm: Being novel and timely doesn’t hurt either.

The documentary “My Architect”, currently playing in a number of major cities, is about two people: the great American architect Louis Kahn and his illegitimate son, Nathaniel, the film’s narrator.

Nathaniel Kahn did not know his father particularly well. This is both because his father didn’t live with his mother and because he died while Nathaniel was still young. Consequently, the movie is partly an investigation into the question of who his father was. This adds a good deal of interest and drama to the film.

The movie, however, would have a compelling and beautiful subject independent of the father-son relationship. For the film shows the more than transitory grace of Kahn’s work. Unlike the work of writers — so often the subject of films — this is visual, ideal for the medium. What may have existed first within the mind of Kahn and his associates, now exists without. And greatly aided by the seemingly inherited excellence of the younger Kahn’s eye with the camera, we, as an audience, are taken to gorgeously lit buildings stretching from New Hampshire and California to India and Bangladesh.

At the same time the film reveals something of the business of architecture. As we learn about Kahn’s flamboyant but prickly personality, we begin to see why he was slow in gaining acknowledgement and unable to run his firm profitably —- and also how his instincts for publicity and the singularity of his work generated his fame.

This selfishness that brought Louis Kahn fame, of course, brought others heartache.

If you haven’t already seen “My Architect”, go. It’s not only one of the best documentaries of recent years, but one of the best films of any kind.

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