Earlier this week, Nathaniel Kahn sat down with Street to discuss his new movie, My Architect.
My Architect is an emotional and intelligent film dealing with Nathaniel Kahn's loss of his father, famed architect Louis Kahn, a Penn graduate and professor. It explores Nathaniel's earliest memories of his father and his desire to know more about why his father lived the way he did. How was Louis Kahn able to lead three different lives with three different women and keep it a secret? Among the famous architects interviewed in the movie are I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, Moshe Safdie, and Robert A.M. Stern. Beautiful shots of the buildings built by Kahn capture the timelessness and spirituality of his work.
The film's success lies in its ability to go back and forth between the personal issues of the filmmaker and how these tie in with the role that Kahn played in architecture.
Join Nathaniel Kahn for an emotional rollercoaster that will have you crying, laughing, and even rolling your eyes (especially when Louis Kahn's nemesis is interviewed). My Architect will leave you feeling frustrated that Louis Kahn was unable to build more buildings or influence the city planning of Philadelphia.
When did you first realize you wanted to make this film?
The film has taken about 5 years to make, but I realized probably about 8 years ago that I wanted to know who my father was, and because I was a film maker I wanted to figure it out by making a film.
Was the making of the film enjoyable or was it more frustrating?
No. Enjoyable isn't the first word that comes to mind, it was eliminating, fascinating, difficult, challenging, full of surprises, and as every good journey should be.
How did you decide your major in college and did you ever consider following in your father's footsteps?
My major in college was philosophy, one of which hasn't helped me career wise. Architecture- I love architecture, but I was always interested more in drama and films.
Was it difficult to get interviews with the celebrity architects for the movie?
No, I mean, one of the most surprising aspects of the making the film was how open the great architects were to talking with me, I remember specifically when I was trying to get in touch with Phillip Johnson. I called him; I tried to get in touch with him through his office, and wasn't getting anywhere and finally just called him up at home, and he said, "Oh, why didn't you call me in the first place? Come over tomorrow." That is just one example of the openness I found with the architects.
Is there anything that you had to cut out of the film that you wish you could've included?
Oh yeah. There were lots of things I wanted to include, but couldn't. Not because they weren't great but simply because I wasn't able to put everything in within the structure which I created ...
Was it difficult to decide on the structure?
Structure and narration were the hardest things to decide on. I had enormous help from Savine Krembuhl, and from Susan Rose-Behr (the producer, also a Philadelphian). Both helped me enormously with issues on how to structure the film and tell my own story with the narration, it was very helpful to have two women because men in general tend to be less sentimental. "You gotta be tougher than that" they'd tell me. It was an enormously important part of the creative process.
Which one of your father's buildings is your favorite and why?
Filming my father's buildings really helped me to see them and all of their complexity and interest. Which one is my favorite shifts all the time. The interesting thing for me is when I see them in my head, I remember shooting so I think a lot about the long time favorite building at Dacca. Today it's the Trenton bath house, but tomorrow it might be something else. But I love them all. I also think the amazing thing about Lou's architecture is each building is very different from every other building. He really found such unique solutions for each commission. So when you hired Lou Kahn you didn't necessarily know what you were gonna get.
Which filmmakers would you consider to be your influences?
There are many. Once again, different times of your life different film makers. But, in terms of documentary film makers, I love the films of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray, but there are many other films that I love too.
If what your father sought was fame (as some of the people in the film suggested), do you feel you're helping him achieve it by making this film about it?
I would not- I don't think my father was expressly after fame. I think he was after making great lasting architecture, the by product of that was fame, but he was making great architecture.
I feel that his work is sort of not as widely known as it should be. He was a great American architect, a great world architect. His ideas strike me as being extremely relative today. His life strikes me as an extraordinarily fascinating, rich and constructive moving story. If the film helps the people to know about his work and know about his story in an emotional way, not academically, then I'm very happy about it. I hope the film helps him and his work to be better known. That was not my mission, but I hope it helps. My mission was to make a film that would make a really good story.
Did your father's take on relationships with women influence you in any way? I'm not really sure. I would avoid judging my father's relationships. They were complex but I think people should see the movie to get a good taste on that.
What more did you learn about your fathers life during the making? How did the process of researching your father's life affect you?
I think every kid wants to know about their parents. And especially when your parents die when you're young, he died when I was 11; you're left with this mystery. So making this film was unraveling a part of that mystery.
On the architectural level, I don't think I ever had a real grasp of how hard he struggled to make these buildings. He fought for them. He revised them; he struggled with people over them. He loved them. And I think that's what it takes to make anything really wroth doing.
What internal conflicts did you face as being the filmmaker vs. the son in making the movie?
What makes a lot of films interesting is a personal connection to the subject. So I very much wanted to make a personal film. And this film is very much a son's journey to getting to know his father. It's not an objective assessment of Louis Khan's life and career. Someone else can make that movie.
Since your father was a Penn grad and professor, what role did Penn take in the making of this movie?
One of my greatest memories is going to one of his classes at Penn and it was in the Furness building top floor studio. I remember that afternoon like it was yesterday. That was probably around 1972 or 1973, and one of the things that happened during the making of the film is that we found footage of my father teaching that master's class.
Teaching at Penn was an incredibly important part if his life. I'm really thrilled to have that part of his life to have been recorded so well and put it in the movie because it was so important. And, in fact, what he used to say was teaching was very much a part of his religion. He needed teaching. It helped him to figure out what he thought of something.
Then, for the making of the film I went a lot to the architectural archive at Penn and Julia Moore Converse, who is the head of it, and William Whittaker helped me out a lot. Julia and Bill have provided me with a tremendous amount of film and material that helped me bring my father to life for this film.
For people who haven't been to the archives, I'm sure the drawings, models, office correspondence, photographs from my father's career are there and they're beautifully displayed and catalogued. Penn should feel extremely proud to have such a world class archive right there on the campus.