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My Architect (February 18/04)

It's interesting the way My Architect wins the audience over as it progresses, taking a potentially dull subject (a son tries to learn more about his father) and turning it into something that's occasionally fascinating. The movie could've played like home movies at director Nathaniel Kahn's house, but never does primarily because of the universality with which Kahn imbues the film; his quest turns into something we can all relate to, mixed with some admittedly stunning images of buildings.

Kahn's father, Louis, died in 1974 under some pretty unusual circumstances - he was found dead in the bathroom of a New York train station - and though that's the starting point for the movie, it's not something that's dwelled on. Kahn's primary focus is, initially, to learn about his father through his work - the man was evidently quite a prominent architect, having designed many well-known buildings over the years. Along the way, the filmmaker interviews fellow architects (including folks like I.M Pei and Frank Gehry) while also catching up with various family members.

While it can't be denied that Louis Kahn was brilliant at what he did, the questionable way in which he conducted himself in his personal life seems like it would be enough to turn his son away (Louis was married when he had Nathaniel with another woman, who he never committed to). But he was apparently an incredibly charming man, as none of the women in his life seem to harbor a grudge against him. As Kahn begins talking to the people that knew his father, a picture of a hard-working but compassionate man begins to surface (though the latter wasn't always true for his subordinates, who were often forced to work impossibly long hours).

The film contains a number of authentically touching moments, most having to do with Kahn learning something new about his father. One of the more memorable sequences features the revelation that Louis spent Christmas with a colleague one year, even though he never stayed with Kahn for the holiday (the look of surprise on the filmmaker's face seems genuine). Likewise, a trip to a bathhouse that Kahn's mother helped co-design is just as moving, as the woman reflects on her time with Louis.

My Architect is often quite funny, too, as in the encounter with the cantankerous Philadelphia planner Edmund Bacon. Bacon had hired Louis to design a new city center, but was shocked when the architect came back with a proposal removing cars from the downtown core. Bacon was thought of as Louis' nemesis, and the man's opinion of the titular subject clearly hasn't changed. His animated responses are very enjoyable, and prove to be a welcome respite from the almost non-stop introspection.

Interspersed with the interviews are shots of the many buildings Louis designed, accompanied by various pieces of classic music. Kahn does a wonderful job of making this portion of the film as interesting as the rest, and there's no denying that Louis' creations are stunning on a visceral level. The only area in which Kahn fails is in pacing, as the film feels overlong by around 20 minutes. But considering the man worked on the movie for five years, that's the sort of thing that's easy enough to forgive.

My Architect is a perfect documentary for people who generally don't like documentaries. And even if you're not exactly enthralled by architecture, the film's focus on parent and child relations is something we can all identify with.

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