Monday, April 19, 2004

My Architect at Cinema Village

It has been out for some time, but I finally got a chance to see My Architect on one of my Sunday solo movie trips into Manhattan. The film is poignant on the relationship (or lack thereof) between visionary architect Louis Kahn and his son Nathaniel. It also beautifully captures the monumentality and spirituality of Kahn's later work. The architecture critic Vincent Scully contends that Kahn was channeling the divine spirit in creating his vast church-like buildings, such as the Salk Institute, the Philips-Exeter Library, the Indian Institute of Management, and, most grandly, the capital buildings in Dhaka. A Gujarati architect named Doshi who shared a last meal with Kahn, believes that Kahn was a mystic who understood the spiritual meaning of matter and nothingness.

A Bangladeshi architect named Waras brings this aspect of Kahn's work to a brilliant and extremely poignant summation at the end of the movie. As he is speaking to Nathaniel, Waras starts to cry in appreciation for Kahn's gift of the bricks and mortar foundations of democracy in Bangladesh. He says (paraphrased), "he loved us so much to give us this gift, and though he did not give you the kind of love you seeked, his love was for all people."

It was particularly ironic that Kahn was given the opportunity to build a mosque as part of the Dhaka capital complex, while being deprived of commissions for synagogues in Philadelphia and Jerusalem. In this time of fundamentalist polarization it was especially beautiful to hear the call and see Muslim men praying in Kahn's mosque.

I am generally suspicious of the personalization and anecdotalization of ideas and politics (even as I engage in a form of it here and in my work). However, it seems to me that Nathaniel Kahn has succeeded in illuminating the ideas in Kahn's work through his personalization of its discovery. It's a moving journey.

In addition, it seems clear that Kahn found in India and Bangladesh the kind of support and engagement with his ideas that he never found in his home city of Philadelphia. I think this is due partly to the remnants of internalized racial inferiority felt by subcontinentals and partly to the grand aspirations of these countries to remake themselves in the wake of indepedence, led by visionary statesmen such as Nehru. They seemed to understand and respect what Kahn was trying to do and helped the son understand it as well, twenty-six years after the death of the father.