Vol. 4 Num 181 Mon. November 24, 2003  

Finding Dhaka in New York
Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect

It was one of those rare instances that I would call an unadulterated moment of reflective patriotism. The psychology of the expatriate revolves a great deal around the nostalgic expectations of good stuff happening to the country of origin, now so far away. So I was giddy with excitement when one clear winter morning in November my wife and I drove 250 miles to New York from Washington, DC, to see My Architect, a poignant feature-length documentary on the architect of our National Assembly complex: Louis Kahn. The documentary culminates in an emotional, teary-eyed homage to Kahn's masterpiece that sits majestically at the heart of the urban jungle called Dhaka.

But My Architect is not one of those typical architectural documentaries that grace most libraries. Conceived as a philosophical journey -- albeit through architectural means -- in search of a father long gone, it is the brainchild of Nathaniel Kahn, Louis Kahn's son, born out of wedlock. Through a probing study of his celebrated father's buildings, Nathaniel seeks to understand the complex father he rarely saw and barely knew. The result is a personal reflection on the mysterious intersection of private life and public identity.

Nathaniel Kahn was 11 years old when his father died of a heart attack in 1974 in the men's room of New York's Pennsylvania Station after a 24-hour-long flight from India. Kahn was 73 years old and deemed by many to be the greatest living American architect. Yet, with a tragic twist of fate, his body lay in the city morgue unidentified for three days because he crossed off his home address in his passport for reasons no one knows. Was he trying to hide his identity? Or was this a self-conscious nomadic statement, characteristic of a modern-day hero who, as the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lucács puts it, purposefully remains homeless? This question mark becomes the starting point for Nathaniel's saga of filial discovery. A son, never acknowledged publicly by his luminous father, now mature and ready to ask forbidden questions about his dubious origin, embarks on a five-year odyssey across continents to look for his father in the walls, shadows, forms, and, most of all, in the silence of the buildings he designed.

Along the way Nathaniel interviews celebrated architects and planners who were influenced or repelled by his father, the various people who came in contact with him, and, most of all, the two colleagues who bore Kahn's two children, including Nathaniel himself. The archeology of personal secrets interwoven with an epic narrative of architecture, built or unbuilt, spread out in America, Jerusalem, Iran, India, and Bangladesh, unleash a philosophical energy that forces the audience of My Architect to ask myriad questions concerning human nature, creative production, and the enigma of their relationship.

Kahn never married Nathaniel's mother, Harriet Pattison, a landscape architect who collaborated with Kahn in the design of Kimbell Art Museum in Texas. When in the documentary she is asked by her son whether she still holds any grudge against her long-dead lover for not marrying her, a contemplative Pattison not only says no, but also, quite startlingly, she appears to be a woman still in love and capable of rising above petty bickering. Nathaniel himself starts off the documentary with the huge burden of his own troubled past, yet in his search he remains resolutely philosophical about the nature of conflicts between his father's private world and public persona.

But it is the film's emotional and dramatic finale, expressed through the exquisitely filmed Sangsad Bhaban of Dhaka, that resonates with a son's reflective delight in at last being able to reconcile with his dead father. Nathaniel comes to the Sangsad Bhaban premise at dawn when the winter fog shrouds the building with a surreal blanket. It is no surprise that he chooses to see it through the bedazzled eyes of a solitary, pre-pubescent Bengali boy, a subtle reference to his own age when his father died. Nathaniel, masquerading as the little boy, stares spellbound at the great building and its reflection in the water. This is the moment that eventually freezes into the film's official poster, now dotting various places in New York City.

It was impossible not to see Nathaniel's argument that his search had climaxed, if not ended all together, at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar. Both the Taj Mahal and Sangsad Bhaban, Nathaniel notes, were built in 23 years, a haunting coincidence that alerts us to the universal appeal of masterpieces across ages. As he meanders inside the Capitol building with his camera, he traces his father in the silence, shade, and light that together create a mesmerizing interior space.

There, all of a sudden, Nathaniel comes across Dhaka architect Shamsul Wares -- a beloved teacher of generations of local architects -- who delivers the film's penultimate messages that personal failings should not blind us to the genius of a great artist and that a son must seek his father not always in the father's fulfilling of familial duties, but sometimes in his philosophical contributions to humanity. The Sangsad Bhaban, Wares asserts, exemplifies nothing less than the nation's dream of democracy. Nathaniel's eyes, beaming with tears, attest to the poignancy of the statement. Both my wife's and my own father passed away in recent years. So it was futile for us to try to hide our tears, as we experienced a renewed sense of reconciliation with our fathers. Did My Architect become a collective father?

I looked around in the hall filled with New Yorkers, amazed by the architectural grandeur of the great Dhaka building. Complete silence befell the hall as the dramatic scenes of Sher-e-Bangla Nagar unfolded and the audience became meditative. Secretly I could not but feel gratified to see such a masterly piece of film culminating in my own backyard. As we left the crammed hall of the New York Film Forum, we saw a long line of people waiting for the next sold-out show. Rows of My Architect posters featuring our own Sangsad Bhaban created a backdrop for the line, snaking beyond the urban block on West Houston Street in downtown Manhattan.

A pity our government, entrusted with the responsibility of preserving the country's cultural heritage, does not realize the singular importance of this globally admired building. Not only has its aesthetic appeal not been capitalised on to attract international "archi-tourists," but our government has also chosen to gobble up open spaces within the Kahn master plan by constructing buildings in precarious proximity to this architectural marvel, impairing the visual environment of the complex. But just blaming the government does not exonerate civil society of its failure to meet the challenges of cultural preservation. This is the contention for another day. In the interim, I wait till Nathaniel returns with My Architect to Dhaka where his soulful odyssey ended.

Dr. Adnan Morshed is an architect and researcher at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC