That Kahn was a great architect is clear from the loving photography of his work by his son. His masterpiece, the capitol of Bangladesh in Dhaka, is a building that invites the spirit to soar. His other works included the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Yale Art Gallery, the Salk Institute in California, and, most surprising, a "music boat" he designed almost like a vessel from a cartoon. The boat sails into a harbor, folds up into a proscenium stage, and presents a concert for the listeners onshore.
Against these achievements the movie sets a lifetime of struggle, secrecy, stubbornness, deception and frequent failure. He was "short, scarred and ugly, and had a funny voice," a colleague states flatly. His face badly burned by a fire when he was an infant, Louis moved with his family from Estonia to Philadelphia when he was 6. Called "Scarface" in school, he buried himself in his studies, won a college scholarship, had grand ideas about architecture, but was supported for 20 years by his first wife and didn't open his own office until he was almost 50.
He would die at 73, and only in the last 10 years of his life did he achieve the stature for which he is remembered. But what a death. Returning from Bangladesh -- a hard journey for a man his age -- he collapsed and died in a restroom in Penn Station, and his body went unclaimed for two days because he had scratched out his address on his passport, and the police did not recognize his name. To this day, Nathaniel's mother remains convinced be blotted out the address because he planned to make good on a promise to come and live with them. Nathaniel is not so sure.
The movie begins as the story of a son searching for his father, and ends as the story of the father searching for himself. Kahn would visit Nathaniel and Harriett unexpectedly, always leaving before morning. He told the boy stories about his life, drew him a book of funny boats (at the time he was designing the Music Ship), but "left no physical evidence he had ever been in our home -- not even a bow tie hanging in the closet."