Architect Louis Kahn designed some of the most enduring monuments of the 20th century -- hauntingly beautiful laboratories, light-filled museums, the precisely ordered Parliament building for Bangladesh.
His private life, however, was just the opposite -- unstable, secretive, chaotic, in many ways unknowable even to those closest to him.
When the architect died in 1974 of a heart attack, alone and destitute in the men's room at New York's Pennsylvania Station, he left behind three separate families who lived within miles of each other but never crossed paths until his funeral.
His only son, Nathaniel, one of two children born out of wedlock, has attempted to unravel the mystery of Louis Kahn in a film. Called My Architect, the intensely personal and poignant tale will have its Baltimore premiere tonight at the Walters Art Museum. (It opens Friday at the Charles Theatre as part of a national "rollout" that will bring it to nearly 50 cities by midyear.)
Kahn was considered one of the greatest architects of the century, a deity for generations of students, and his geometric compositions of brick, concrete and light helped change the course of architecture.
But to Nathaniel, Kahn seemed as elusive as a ghost, dropping in unexpectedly for meals at the home outside Philadelphia where Nathaniel was raised by his single mother, landscape architect Harriet Pattison.
As he grew older, Nathaniel wanted to learn more about his famous father and the lives he led. In 1997, he set out to retrace Louis Kahn's steps -- as an architect and as a man.
"You get to a certain point in your life, if a parent is a mystery, whether alive or dead, that you can't go on without knowing some of these answers," he said. "I reached that point. I had never met many of my relatives, and they weren't getting any younger.
A filmmaker living in Philadelphia and New York, Nathaniel recorded every step of his journey, in effect letting viewers learn what he did, when he did. The odyssey took five years and led him from the East Coast to California, Texas, India and Jerusalem.
The resulting film is as complex as its subject. It's a visual feast of extraordinary architecture. It's a detective story filled with clues about the mysterious leading character. It's oral history, social science, an unvarnished look at the workings of an unusual American family.
Most of all, it's a love story about a father and son, and the child's yearning to find out more about the parent he never really knew.
"I set out to make a father-son story -- a story about a son looking for his father," Nathaniel, 41, said in a recent phone interview. "That is the thing we kept coming back to. That's the thread we wanted."
The film is titled My Architect because Kahn was an architect of both buildings and people. "I wanted to imply ambiguity," Nathaniel said. "He's an architect, but he's also the architect of me. He designed me, on some level."
Many people search for their roots; few make successful films about it. Since opening last fall in New York and Philadelphia, My Architect has received praise from critics and audiences alike. It's one of 12 finalists for an Academy Award in the Best Feature Documentary category.
With its distinctly "son's-eye view," My Architect raises questions about the nature of families, love, fidelity, parenthood, religious faith, art, identity. It also underscores the irony of a man who created monumental works of public architecture but whose personal life was an enigma. At the same time, the film demonstrates, as Louis Kahn puts it in the film, "how accidental our lives are really, and how filled with influence by circumstance."
What makes the story so compelling is its clash of elements -- the contradictory and puzzling central figure, the powerful buildings he created, the nagging questions about his parallel lives.
Had Nathaniel set out to make a scholarly film about his father's struggles and achievements as an architect, judging by the footage he obtained, he would have had arresting material. But by drawing on his family ties and secrets, he added a human dimension that is likely to intrigue even those with little interest in architecture.
"I always knew that this story, because of the power of Lou's buildings, would have great impact on the big screen," the filmmaker said.
"I wanted to make a film that gets people thinking about architecture on a lot of levels -- the nature of things that are designed," he continued. In one sense, "this is about the architecture of an American family. It's a complicated one and not a very conventional one. But there is an architecture there."
Wandered the world
Born in 1901 on the Estonian island of Osel, Louis Kahn immigrated with his family to Philadelphia at the age of 4. Poor but talented in art and music, he made money teaching drawing and playing piano for silent movie houses. He later won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied architecture under Paul Cret.