What is art and how do we create it? This was the question in my mind when I watched My Architect (Kahn, 2003), Nathaniel Kahn’s film about his father, celebrated architect Louis Kahn. At one point we hear Louis speaking in voiceover, saying that a work of art is something that nature can’t tell us. Yet throughout the film, we’re repeatedly told how he always wanted to honour the nature of the materials that he worked with, revealing and revelling in their imperfections. Is this contradictory or not? I suppose it depends on how you define nature.
The film does infer a sense of the importance of context in art. It first appears when Nathaniel visits the Richards Medical Research Building, which seems to look much better in the archive black and white footage than it does in the modern day; the context of time seems to matter. As does the context of use; the modern inhabitants of the building don’t care about its artistic credentials, only how difficult it is to work in.
Perhaps architecture suffers under context more than other forms of art, because of how it’s consumed? In his essay The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction Walter Benjamin writes:
Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction. The laws of its reception are most instructive. (Benjamin, 1936)
Does this state of distraction make the context more important? An audience which is less focused requires more information to generate the same investment? Benjamin also writes that:
Architecture has never been idle. Its history is more ancient than that of any other art, and its claim to being a living force has significance in every attempt to comprehend the relationship of the masses to art. Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception – or rather, by touch and sight. Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building. On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side. Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit. As regards architecture, habit determines to a large extent even optical reception. The latter, too, occurs much less through rapt attention than by noticing the object in incidental fashion. (Benjamin, 1936)
Does the power of habit over optical reception explain the apathy of the inhabitants of the Richards Medical Research Building to the space that they work in?
Aside from these questions about the nature of art, the fundamental theme of the film seems related to something that I’ve written about before, mythology and memory. The whole concept of the film forces questions about our own search for meaning and a feeling of special-ness. Why do we care about our ancestors? Why does it matter? Is it because it makes us feel special? If we care about them, if they matter to us, then maybe we’ll matter to future generations?
It’s striking how quickly the character of Louis Kahn was mythologized after his death. The first indication of this came early in the film when Nathaniel remembers one of his lecturers speaking about Louis, describing him as casting a long shadow. Nathaniel notes that his lecturer described his father in a way that made him sound long dead. This concept of remote greatness links to Louis’ ideas about his own work, his desire to create buildings with a sense of timelessness and monumentality.
In many ways Louis and his work are an allegory for analogue film. Louis clearly inspired incredibly intense feelings (both good and bad) in everyone he came into contact with; so strong in fact that these feelings are still as raw as they were 30 years before. And I think a large part of Louis’ ability to inspire these powerful emotions comes from his remoteness. It’s clear from the film that he never really cared about connecting with people, about giving anything of himself to his family, friends, lovers and colleagues. This emotional distance enabled him to be many things to many people, those he came into contact with made their own interpretation of him based on their own sensibilities, they saw him as they wanted him to be. This seems to explain how he was loved by three women, despite his despicable treatment of them, and revered by colleagues who he worked into the ground. This remoteness links back to the theory that part of celluloid’s appeal is the way in which it forces an audience to fill in the gaps and create their own personal interpretation of what they are seeing; a paradox in which people feel more closely connected to something, because of its refusal to connect with them.
Towards the end of the film when Nathaniel makes his way to India and Bangladesh, one of the officials he meets says that nothingness, silence and light mattered to Louis. This seems to be another reference to the idea that the gaps and voids are what matter, the spaces where an audience can create a their own interpretation and a personal connection.
The frailty of memory and the imperfections in our recall were also apparent in Nathaniel’s interview with the Richard Katz, who found his dying father in the station bathroom. Richard struggles to remember what happened and, despite Nathaniel’s desperate desire to know the details, Richard can give him very little new information on the events of that day.
The emphasis on religion and spirituality in the last third of the film is equally fascinating, highlighting how powerfully Louis was mythologised and idolised. The way that people felt about him (both in life and death) is almost godly; Louis was a remote, often hard man and yet he inspired great faith, reverence and feeling. This parallel is drawn clearly when one interviewee talks about how, in Judaism, any work of a Jewish artist could be considered the work of God. The same comparison appears later in the film when the Bangladeshi official says of Louis that he would be Moses, paying for the building with his life.
Another link to the analogue / digital question is made when fellow architect I. M. Pei talks about three or four masterpieces being worth more than fifty or sixty buildings. It’s quality not quantity that matters; a clear parallel to the forced restrictions of analogue and the proliferation of digital.
But, despite the parallels to analogue film, there are also links to the rise of digital film in Louis and his work. When talking about Louis, Pei also muses on how buildings are judged as architecture and as art. He believes that it can’t be an immediate process, it needs time, at least fifty years, before a building can truly be judged to be good or bad, art or mere construction. It’s reminiscent of the development of film as a relatively novel art form and in particular digital film; we can’t yet judge it because we haven’t given it enough time to become what it truly is. Instead digital is still trying to imitate analogue technology, in a similar way to Louis’ desire to build modern buildings that had the feel of ancient monuments.
There are also clear links to the parent/child relationship of analogue and digital in the relationship between Louis and Nathaniel (even after Louis’ death). The film’s title seems to be a statement from Nathaniel on his quest to find a personal relationship with his father, beyond the anecdotes and journal articles. But it also seems to reference how Louis’ spectre has had a formative effect on Nathaniel and his life. Nathaniel is, in many ways, travelling the same path as his father; searching for, but struggling to find himself. And this search for his father seems to emulate digital’s quest for celluloid’s style, its indefinable ‘something’.
Kahn, N. (2003) My Architect, Louis Kahn Project Inc.
Benjamin, W., (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, London: Penguin