Louis Kahn, monuments to sensation. Or: is the director … ? pt. 2a

With time, things lose their harshness and asperity. They are seen differently, and sometimes vanish from view. Time’s shrinking of the little that remains is to be fully accepted; one knows that time is limited, yet it is vast and infinite. This is the whole paradox of life. Perhaps the infinity that one glimpses more clearly is already a premonition of God’s infinity, another idea of time that is necessarily ushered in. … To paint means to approach. Close to a light. The light.

– Balthus, Vanished Splendours: A Memoir, op. cit., pp. 229-230

What interests me is the awakening of things and life, the birth of things. I’ve constantly worked to paint these childish secrets. That’s why I love Giacometti. He gave me the proportion of things, giving me the right tone, the one that conveys music, making faces and landscapes sing. That was my only quest, or task. This artisan’s labour is not particularly brilliant. It’s an obscure, slow and silent pathway. That’s why I abhor being called an artist. I’m like my beloved Captain Haddock who saw the word as an insult that made him curse all the more!

Nothing exists but these brushes, this easel and canvas. That’s what justified my whole life.

– Ibid., p. 235

Death is a tourist of the world.

– Dave Eggers, What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, Penguin, London, 2007, p. ?

No, no, my father said. He waved the back of his hand at the young man, but it seemed more theatrical than convincing.

– Ibid., p. 61

– Louis Kahn, 1901/2-1974

What was has been.
What is has been.
What will be has been.

– attributed to Louis Kahn in My Architect, dir. Nathaniel Kahn, 2003

essential time

– in ibid.

– Louis Kahn, National Assembly, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1962-1974

I find myself wanting to comment on Nathaniel Kahn’s film about his father, the architect, and very much his own architect, Louis Kahn, rather than continuing to speak directly of the place of the director – and the actor – in theatre in the here-and-now. I suspect there is a similarity in Dave Eggers’s relation to Achak, the ostensible narrator of What Is the What, a similarity in the relation between author and narrator there to that between Louis and Nathaniel Kahn here, in the film.

– Louis Kahn, National Assembly, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1962-1974

In so far as it is a documentary it documents the son making a film about his father. There are two films, one inside the other. We often see, particularly through the latter half of the film parenthesizing the documentary, Nathaniel and his camera, in front of the Wailing Wall, for instance, indiscreetly taking a bead on an Hasidic Jew praying and then having to pan away. But Nathaniel remains, for me at least, an unresolved presence and from the point of view of the relationship with the father, his architect, somewhat superfluous. Which makes all the stranger the impression the viewer gains of his ownership of the film, attested to in the film itself but to an exaggerated extent in a question and answer session that makes up the Extras on the DVD.

– Louis Kahn, National Assembly, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1962-1974

Here Nathaniel, with whom we’ve been on first name terms so far, becomes a director who makes films, not just this special one about his father, not just this labour of love. He seems to take on a new role, one of which we’ve been afforded in the body of the film only stolen glimpses, Nathaniel Kahn, his own man, Kahn the film-maker. Although there remains some doubt as to whether he is primarily a documentarian or cinematographer. From the perspective of the Extras, My Architect resembles the rite of passage, of Kahn the younger finding himself as a director, finding his own director, rather than finding Kahn the elder, his father, and his architect.

– Louis Kahn, National Assembly, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1962-1974

The tension between the two films, one, the film Nathaniel is making to claim the architect Louis Kahn as his, two, a biopic centred unreservedly on Louis Kahn’s irascible ineligibility for ownership by anyone but himself, himself including the buildings and the legacy as such, this tension might work to the detriment of the parenthetical documentary – Nathaniel’s neither Herzog, nor even Vincent Ward in Rain of Children – but gives the biopic a dimension not so much of mystery as of incompleteness. Simply, questions remain. If Louis Kahn found his true milieu at the advanced age of 50 as we are told, when did, does or will Nathaniel?

– Louis Kahn, Salk Institute, La Jolla, California, 1959–1965

The paradoxes, which although dual are not double, are firstly that Nathaniel seems in the end quite unconscious of what he is told to his face, that his father’s relationship with the whole of the Bangladeshi people was more important than his relationship with his son, and secondly that of Louis Kahn’s epiphanic realisation of the timeless nature of ancient architecture and of its vast, eloquent and impersonal silence. The latter connects, however, with the former: the son is in search of time lost – as the reels run out, as the waiting continues for a father who never comes; whereas the father was, is and will be in search of lost time: weight, timeless monumentality. Resistance to the depredations of time that the son feels, has felt, all too keenly.

Louis Kahn’s embrace of silent space, volumes and weight is not an evasion of time but a quotation of time, a repetition, such that time is exactly recalled, the time of a past that never was. It has been.

– Louis Kahn, National Assembly, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1962-1974

As a footnote to this short review, I can now see why the categorisation of the Hannah Playhouse in Courtney Place, Wellington, as ‘brutalist’ always struck me as being slightly wrong. (Regardless of the fact that it is where I would start the search for my director.) The Hannah, in the weight of its poured concrete superstructure, its gridlike characteristic and in its silhouette, owes more to Kahn than the Smithsons.

– Hannah Playhouse, 1972