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'My Architect'
Last uploaded : Monday 16th Aug 2004 at 01:06
Contributed by : Carol Gould


News The acclaimed feature documentary ?My Architect? about the legendary American architect Louis Khan was directed and written by his son Nathaniel, who was born out of wedlock and who has only just begun to explore the depth of his late father?s work some thirty years after his death . Louis Khan was found dead in New York?s Penn Station in 1974 of an apparent heart attack after returning from a trip to India. He remained in a morgue for three days, his address having been scratched out of his Passport. The circumstances of his death remain somewhat illusory in the film, but the absence of an address is interpreted by Nathaniel as a desire by his late father to leave his wife and live with Nathaniel?s mother.

Khan, a short and physically unremarkable man was, according to Philadelphia taxi drivers interviewed in the film, forever charmed by the female sex. Khan managed to sustain a long marriage but had two mistresses and three children from the three women he loved. None of these revelations diminish his stature as a great genius of his chosen field. (Inasmuch as I was one of those who could not have cared less about President Clinton?s sex life as long as he kept the American economy in the black, it follows that Louis Khan?s bizarre private life does not diminish him as a man in my eyes.)

As a native Philadelphian the film had a special resonance for me. I had no idea that the whole ?look? of the Quaker City was the casualty of anti-Semitism. In the 1960s town planners wanted to transform centre city and Khan came up with revolutionary ideas. An irate planner is interviewed by Nathaniel still railing about Khan?s unacceptable concepts. Khan was pushed aside, according to a now-aging student, because he ?wore the yellow star.? It is a sad commentary on American life in the city of the Founding Fathers that this visionary was thwarted because he was not a Buell, Biddle, Bacon or Longstreth.

One cannot help but imagine Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Louis Khan excitedly trading ideas when the film visits the astounding Khan creation at sea: a ship that opens up into an open-air concert hall shaped like Philadelphia?s Robin Hood Dell. The ship travels the world year round and gives portside concerts when the side of the structure is opened up to reveal the symphony hall. The owner of the ship, obviously deeply affected by the experience of working with Kahn on the floating dell concept, is reduced to tears when Nathaniel reveals he is the illegitimate son of the architect.

Aside from the fact that the film is a revelation in its very simplicity and occasional amateurishness, it brings to light the little-known fact that some of Khan?s most distinguished architectural achievements exist in locations one usually thinks of as off limits to Americans. The most eminent of these achievements is his capital building in Dhaka, Bangla Desh. A structure that literally rises from the water, it has a spirituality that seems to jump from every inch of its hand-crafted walls. Indeed, we hear the astonishing story that the project took twenty-three years to complete -- as long as the Taj Mahal -- with local labour building bamboo scaffolding and laboriously hauling bits of masonry and other building components by hand. As Nathaniel examined his father?s final achievement, young Bangla locals gather around him. The older men revere his father, and an eminent local architect is moved to tears that the young Khan has only ten minutes of footage to spare to explore the building.

What an irony that this building, in one section of which groups of men were filmed gathering for the daily call to prayer to Allah by the capital building?s in-house mullah, was designed by a non-Muslim. It is even more poignant that Khan never had an opportunity to realise the dream of designing a synagogue. Khan died bankrupt, so one cannot say he would have taken a buck from a Muslim country simply to enrich his bank account. He was greatly loved in India and Bangla Desh by those interviewed in the film, and one could see from this remarkable documentary that he had not one political bone in his body.

In the documentary we hear the age-old story of the brutally persecuted world of penniless Jews of Eastern Europe from whence he sprang, and of his rapid progress into the world of the arts and creativity. Despite hardship and a childhood accident that left him disfigured, he became an accomplished pianist and sketch artist. (Why is it that young, impoverished and often hungry Jews have always ?become? something rather than going out and blowing people up on buses? When I asked this question at a London dinner party I was accused of being a racist by the Guardian-reading hostess.)

Louis Khan wanted the Islamic nation of Bangla Desh to have a magnificent capital building and worked tirelessly to make it a reality, garnering praise and love from countless Bangla Deshis to this day. He had no ?side? and wanted only the best to come from his vision, be it the Salk Institute or a student residence in Philadelphia. He suffered career setbacks because of his background but persevered in his artistic quest that resulted in some of the world?s most memorable structures. What an irony, too, that Bangla Desh's most talked-about building was created as a labour of love by a non-Muslim.

In Israel, Nathaniel meets Teddy Kollek, the Mayor of Jerusalem who became a worldwide household name during the Six Day War of 1967. Kollek and a colleague explain to Nathaniel that his father?s dream of a new synagogue on the ruins of the one destroyed in the 1948 War of Independence, would offend the Muslim authorities in the Holy City. The film shows Khan?s plans for numerous projects around the world that never came to fruition upon his untimely death. One of these was a new Mikveh Israel synagogue for Philadelphia. The film leaves one hoping some of these projects will one day posthumously see the light of day.

Near the end of the film Nathaniel gathers his two half-sisters together and they discuss their father?s funeral and the bitterness it engendered. This is a part of the film that is painful and almost grotesquely intrusive. Moving in many parts, the score by Joseph Vitarelli is an asset to this documentary.

Nathaniel was nearly aborted because his well-bred mother was urged by her highly-placed socialite family to end the pregnancy. One gets the impression the horror over the pregnancy emanated more from the concept of a Jewish baby than from the illegitimacy. A couple who took Nathaniel?s mother Harriet in during her confinement, and to whom he owes his survival, make a touching observation: Harriet loved Louis Khan deeply and ? that kind of love is on the side of life and that is a good thing.?

Louis Khan represented everything that is noble about the pursuit of personal achievement and grace, and he also embodied Jewish altruism. Like ORT, the Jewish charity that aids Third World nations, Khan wanted to bring his vision to the whole world, be it a Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Jewish subject and his generosity of spirit should serve as an example to young people worldwide. What a pity this film will not be seen in Muslim countries, where its message -- that of creative vision, personal accomplishment and compassion overcoming conflict -- is needed most.
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