DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of My Architect, Sketches of Frank Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright's Buildings and Legacy in Japan


Title:  My Architect

Release Date:  2003

Nationality and Language: English, USA

Running time: 116 Min

MPAA Rating:  PG-13 (not officially submitted)

Distributor and Production Company: New Yorker Films and HBO Documentary

Director; Writer: Nathaniel Kahn; original music by Joseph Vitarelli

Producer: Nathaniel Kahn


Technical: Mostly DV, 4:3

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When I was in college and graduate school, architecture was all the rage as a major, even given a Cold War political climate. Other students in the dorm would have balsa models of their projects. On of my friends went to Princeton which offered an elaborate 5 year MFA program. That was a point: architecture was art, and a collective expression of values. So Ayn Rand made her second largest novel, The Fountainhead, center around architecture, pitting Henry Reardon against Peter Keating, and this may have correlated to the career of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose home in Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh) I have visited.  (It did not make a good film.)


Nathaniel Kahn is the forty-year-old illegitimate son of Estonian-born architect Louis I. Kahn, born late in his father’s life by a second mistress. Off hand, this reminds me of the recent TheWB show One Tree Hill (the character Lucas Scott, competing with his “legitimate” half-brother named, ironically, Nathan). But what matter here to me is what the film says about “art and life.”


For Louis indeed had a double-edged career, designing buildings all over the world with his curve and block approach, yet died unidentified in Penn Station in New York in early 1974, broke, at a time when newspaper headlines talked about Arab oil embargos and Nixon’s odd-even and Sunday-closing gasoline rationing. His career had become publicly visible only in the early 1950s, when he was about 50 himself. Apparently many of his jobs lost money, and he did not have good “people skills” for many of his negotiations. His relationships with family were, to say the least, erratic. He “turned inside,” like many great artists.


The filmmaker’s view is indeed that an eccentric person missing many practical skills can still make great contributions that survive him. But then, how did Kahn attract the worldwide attention that he did without somehow authenticating himself with people? This seems like an inconsistency in the narrative.


As the film progresses, it shows us stunning on-location film of the Wailing Wall and other areas of Jerusalem (where a Kahn proposal failed), and finally in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where Kahn designed an enormous capitol on the water, finished after his death in 1983. The shots of the marsh area and poverty in Bangladesh are stunning. As often with independent film, the customer can see on-location shots of unusual areas that would be expensive or dangerous to visit in person. Here, I wish the film had been shot in at least the usual aspect ratio.


The most important legacy from Kahn may be the fact that the capitol building reinforced the commitment of Bangladesh, a Muslim nation with great poverty, to democracy, years before bringing democracy to the Muslim world would become a cornerstone of American foreign policy after the 2001 terror attacks.


Of course, Nathaniel establishes himself as an artist himself, a documentary filmmaker unveiling a mystery. Vitarelli’s somber orchestral music score is impressive, sounding like a mixture of Mahler and Samuel Barber.


This film was featured in early January 2004 at the opening of Landmark’s new E-street complex near Metro Center in Washington, D.C.


 Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005, Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Sydney Pollack, PG-13, 82 min, Germany) is a documentary of the work of California architect Frank Gehry, now in his 70s.  For much of the film, Sydney Pollack is conversing with him, and often shoots with his camcorder on camera! Gehry describes his philosophy of work in a low-key, off hand fashion with a tone that reminds one of Paul Rosenfels. He became known as a cubist that designed hypermodern buildings with curved metallic surfaces creating all kinds of complicated textures and inner spaces. One of his best known buildings is the Guggenheim museum completed in 1997 in Bilbao, Spain. (He designed a similar but smaller museum in New York City.) I visited Bilbao and the museum April 29-30, 2001. On the first floor there were a number of mazes (as "sculptures") that many visitors did not care for; on the third floor there was a fashion display with dolls. The film shows shots of the surrounding city along the Nervion River, with its odd practical mixture of brick and Spanish and Basque architecture that gives one the feeling, when being there, of being on another but similar planet, perhaps one of the other Dominions in Clive Barker's Imajica. (The opening scene of the 1999 James Bond film The World Is Not Enough starts at a Swiss bank in Bilbao, and it shows the Guggenheim museum clearly on location.) Gehry's career as a student got off to a rocky start, as he failed his first course in "perspective" and was told by a professor later to give it up. He would not learn to work with computers until very late (although the company Intergraph became very important to architects in the 1980s).  In his boyhood he had enjoyed making models of cities and buildings. I can recall doing that as a kid, building cities with blocks on the basement floor, and then in Ohio on a long narrow sidewalk that led back to the privy.  


Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright's Buildings and Legacy in Japan (2005, Facets, dir. Karen Severns and Kochi Mori, 126 min, G) is a documentary detailed architect Frank Lloyd Wright's work in Japan over many decades. One of his most important buildings was the Imperial Hotel which withstood earthquake and fire but would undergo the demolition ball after World War II, the demolition costing more than the construction. The changes wrought by WWII are covered. The title of the movie reminds me of an important Universal picture in 1954 about a medical dilemma, a film still not on DVD yet. 

Related reviews:  The Stone Reader     Frank Lloyd Wright (pbs)


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