One of my favorite films is My Architect, a documentary by a son of a famous architect, Louis Kahn, who attempts to find a connection in his father’s buildings that escaped father and son in their personal relationship. It’s a fascinating odyssey of a son’s yearning to connect with someone who had died decades ago, a yearning to connect with someone who seemed to find personal connections difficult and distracting to what he felt was his true purpose, to create buildings. Kahn was an architect of unparalleled talent, in this documentary to hear from the true greats of architecture, all of whom sing Kahn’s praises as a genius.
But like most geniuses Kahn struggled in large parts of his life; he was always broke, he lived on with two families (an even greater oddity in that time and place), he had difficulty landing large contracts that would have brought him more consequential work, and he seems always restless and grasping for something more. The son reminds us that these geniuses and their flaws carry with them the relationships that suffer in such circumstance. Imagine a son who reads his famous father’s obituary and wonders why he is not included. By far the most difficult parts of this film to watch are the ones that include the son and “other” family members. I found myself looking at the floor, squirming in my seat, as these conversations took place.
And so the son goes to a place few of us would imagine, he decides that since these buildings were his father’s true love he would reach out to the workers who constructed the projects, the partners who helped Kahn design and secure these pieces of work, and most importantly, the people who use the space, even now, and how the space has effect on them, in ways Kahn himself intended and in other ways he did not imagine.
The highlight of the film for me is the son’s journey to the eastern part of the globe to explore a building designed to celebrate a people’s identity and governance, an open space filled with wonder and possibility. The son puts on roller blades and glides through the space absorbing his father’s presence, if not also his legacy. For a film criticized by some for his cerebral response to a most emotional challenge I found that moment very emotionally satisfying, which likely says more about me than the film maker.
I did not have such a complicated or difficult relationship with my parents. Mine was a relatively ordinary experience. Still my late-mother had her unique strengths and weaknesses like all of us. My daughter could tell you stories! But the essence of my mother could be found in her reaching out to others, particularly those no on everyone’s radar screen. One of the great ironies of my mother’s life is that while she preached "family first” her own actions of reaching out to others created the very seeds that would lead to tension in the family later on (“why spend so much time and energy with others at the expense of your own family?). As my daughter says to me every time I lament her giving away items that family members gave her when she was a child, “Dad, you created this monster.” Guilty as charged!
And so like this film maker I find myself exploring and searching for these eternal connections with my mom by retracing footsteps into her extensive efforts to reach out to others and help them to feel how special they are. When I do likewise I feel the same spirit this filmmaker did on those rollerblades.