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My Architect (documentary)

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There’s something a little too self-indulgent, maybe too personal, about “My Architect: A Son’s Journey.” It is partly a documentary about the architect Louis I. Kahn, who died in 1974, but it is mostly about his son Nathaniel’s attempts, 25 years later, to learn about the father he barely knew.

With both scenarios Nathaniel has a strong “So what?” factor to overcome. Kahn was a well-respected but relatively minor architect who didn’t get going until he was in his 50s and whose finished buildings are few. His son takes a camera around the world, literally, to interview people who knew him, and we get a sense of what a charming man he was — even a quarter-century after his death, people he wronged refuse to say anything negative about him — but it never feels like anything other than one specific man’s specific quest, as opposed to something with universal application.

Still, Louis Kahn seems to have been an interesting character. Despite bearing scars from a childhood accident and being a rather plain-looking fellow anyway, he managed to woo three women almost simultaneously. He and his wife Esther had a daughter, but he also produced a daughter with one Anne Tyng, and a son, Nathaniel, with Harriet Pattison. Neither of his lovers ever married anyone — an indication of the tremendous power, however unintentional, that he wielded over people. Anne didn’t know about Harriet, either, and Esther probably knew about neither of them.

Nathaniel saw his father occasionally his early childhood, but never truly knew the man. He is astonished to learn facts he’d never imagined from Louis’ associates, and he has an entertaining run-in with Dad’s old nemesis Ed Bacon, a Philadelphia city planner who kept Kahn from taking part in the redesign of that city’s downtown in the ’50s and ’60s. There is also a rather sweet reunion with the captain of a boat Kahn designed.

Devotees of 20th-century architecture may be interested to see interviews with I.M. Pei, Frank O. Gehry and Philip Johnson, among others, but the film’s narrow, personal focus prevents it from being something for all sons (or daughters) to appreciate. I suspect Nathaniel got a lot out of it, and good for him, but it did little for me.

C+ (1 hr., 56 min.; Not Rated, probably PG for some mild profanity, some war images.)