In Search of Louis Kahn
Besides visiting great Kahn buildings — The Kimbell Art Museum and the Salk Institute among others — he interviews many Lou Kahn contemporaries: I.M. Pei, Vincent Sculley, Robert A. Stern, and several former Kahn employees. These professionals paint a picture of a genius who was a workaholic and perfectionist. They speak briefly of what makes Kahn buildings great: the forms, the light, and his understanding of materials.
For a lay viewer, the film is a good introduction to Kahn's buildings. But the documentary is primarily personal. Kahn's unusual private life is more often the subject of the interviews than the work itself. For architects already familiar with Kahn's oeuvre, the film may add little insight.
The filmmaker repeatedly misses opportunities to showcase the buildings, focusing on interviewees instead of architecture. One frustrating moment comes near the end, when young Kahn speaks with Bangladeshi architect Shamsul Wares about the Capital Complex in Dhaka.
When told that the building's segment would represent only about ten minutes of the entire film, Wares exclaims, "You cannot treat this building like this! Do you think you can really capture the quality of this building in terms of space, light, volumes, and the layering of these spaces, the ambiguities?"
Even after that admonishment, too many more of the precious ten minutes are used up in head shots. Still, for the closing scene of the documentary, viewers are left with the passionate words of Wares: "From nothing, only paddy-fields, [Lou Kahn] gave us his greatest work. Here, in the poorest country in the world, he gave us an institution for democracy."
This is a poignant story of a search for an architect. But while unveiling the private man, it hardly does justice to the buildings that make him great.
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B.J. Novitski is managing editor of ArchitectureWeek and author of Rendering Real and Imagined Buildings.