In an emerging subgenre of architectural documentary, Nathaniel Kahn, Tomas Koolhaas, and Eric Saarinen take a personal look at their mythologized fathers.
There’s a moment five minutes into Charlie Rose’s 2003 interview with Louis Kahn’s son in which he’s asked to define his father’s “greatness.” Nathaniel Kahn seems uncomfortable with the question, responding with the caveat, “I’m not an architectural historian.” This would not seem odd but for the fact that Kahn had just directed, written, and produced an Oscar-nominated documentary about his father. Surely, he is a historian of some kind.
In the past 15 years, a subgenre of architectural documentary has emerged, made by the children of star architects. In My Architect (2003), by Nathaniel Kahn, the parent-child relationship plays a leading role. This is also true of two films released last year, *Peter Rosen's Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future, in which Eric Saarinen serves as subject and cinematographer, and REM, directed by Tomas Koolhaas. As Kahn’s answer to Charlie Rose indicates, these documentaries are more personal narratives than academic or theoretical ones. While this may impose limitations on the scholarly reach of the work, these films offer a valuable perspective to the public.
Alice Friedman is the author of American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture and a professor of art history at Wellesley College. She recently showed a portion of Saarinen’s film to her introductory architecture class and asked them whether it was helpful to the viewer’s understanding of Eero Saarinen’s projects. All of her students thought that it was. One student called the insight about Saarinen’s personal relationships “backstory,” which—rather than distracting from his finished works—serves as a good entry point to the subject matter for students like themselves.
Of course, academia hasn’t always been welcoming of “backstory” when it is used to add social context on behalf of populations left out of the first draft of cultural memory. But Friedman’s work with gender, domesticity, and modern architecture embraces it. “The influence of feminism on architectural studies is to validate these contexts. Not to the exclusion of the building in favor of this story, but to put the building at the center of the story,” says Friedman. Whether that be the relationship of female patrons to their architects, or male architects to their children and wives.
In fact, Eric Saarinen used the opportunity of the documentary to show his mother Lilian Swann Saarinen’s impact on his father—which has not received as much attention as the architect’s second marriage to architecture critic Aline Saarinen. “Charles Eames called [my mother] one of the top naturalist, organic artists in the world,” the filmmaker tells CityLab. Careful viewers of The Architect Who Saw the Future will note the similarities between Lilian Swann Saarinen’s sculpture of a weasel, his head and tail protruding, and Eero Saarinen’s later design for the Ingalls Rink at Yale—cantilevered on both ends. “I wanted that to be in there. I wanted my mother to be in there,” says Saarinen. Aline Saarinen’s impact on his father’s career is also in the film, which Eric Saarinen says helped reconcile him to their love affair, which began while his parents were still married.
Saarinen says that his aim was not to be objective, which would be impossible. Rather, he wanted to be truthful. Tomas Koolhaas echoes this attitude in an interview with Dezeen about REM: “I never thought of my subjective perspective as an issue, I embraced it and tried to use it to show people something that no one else could see.” The style of Koolhaas’s film reveals something else about the parent-child relationship. “I was a lot of the time running behind him, filming him from behind. That wasn't intentional but when I look back at the footage I thought this is an incredible angle because you're seeing what he's seeing,” Koolhaas told Dezeen. The reward for having a father you have to hustle to catch up with is the ability to see things through his eyes.
Although Nathaniel Kahn may have initially stumbled over Charlie Rose’s question, he went on to say, “[My father] restored a kind of spirituality to architecture.” This is the monumentalism of Louis Kahn’s work, the aspect that stands apart from social relationships and even time itself. Eric Saarinen says of the Gateway Arch, “[My father] made it to last for 1,000 years, and I hope it does.” Friedman calls the personal narrative of an architect’s work and the monumentalism, “two rooms in the same house.” She continues, “Ultimately, what we’re talking about is built buildings, and that’s separate from what my students call the backstory. The judgment and the history are two separate things.” As a historian, it is the history that most interests her, but every academic has a different lens.
When Sarah Williams Goldhagen author of Louis Kahn’s Situated Modernism was doing her doctoral dissertation on Kahn, she had the opportunity to read through much of his personal correspondence. Kahn had three children by three different women, all of whom were shortchanged by his obsessive work habits. “What kind of person he was ethically and what kind of father [he was] doesn’t tell you a lot about the architecture,” she says, “I decided to put blinders on.” For her scholarship, which focuses on the monumentalism of Kahn’s work, this was the right decision. “[I wanted to know] how he understood his project architecturally and artistically. Architecture is about emotions, but it’s not about personal life. It’s the antithesis of personal life because it’s lasting, monumental, inert.”
Which isn’t to say Goldhagen didn’t find My Architect deeply moving. It’s hard not to be struck in the gut by a film that begins, “I can still remember every detail of the few times [my father and I] spent a whole day together.” This subgenre of films by children of architects arose because it is difficult make a film purely about monumentalism. Permanence doesn’t offer a very dynamic narrative. “These films make sense because it’s hard to make a film about architecture,” says Goldhagen, “If you want to tell a good story, an architect’s personal life is as good as any.” Another layer of Eric Saarinen’s film is his own personal transformation. “Aline used to say working on a story requires the main character to change,” he narrates, “Working on this film changed me to the degree that I can forgive [my father].”
Forgiving Eero Saarinen for his “genius,” as the filmmaker says, requires scrutiny of the label, especially as it relates to Louis Kahn and Eero Saarinen’s flaws as family men. “Would this have been an equally interesting movie if it had nothing to do with a great man?” Charlie Rose asked Nathaniel Kahn. “On some level, probably. It’s definitely the story of a son looking for his father,” Kahn responded. But on some level, not. Especially if the figure at the center of the film was a “great” woman and flawed mother. Women like Nathaniel Kahn’s mother Harriet Pattison, a noted landscape architect, as well as Lillian and Aline Saarinen are still being written into the narrative, let alone absolved of their imperfections.
Goldhagen suggests that another function of these films could be to draw attention to the unforgiving professional demands of the architecture industry and the sacrifices it necessitates. The results of the 2016 “Women in Architecture Survey” revealed that 75 percent of women in architecture are childless, while 83 percent say having children is a disadvantage for female architects, according to The Architectural Review. The late Zaha Hadid, one of the only female architects to achieve the same starchitect status as Kahn, Saarinen, or Koolhaas, never married or had children.
Whether a film deals in the social or monumental legacy of an architect, the idea of the genius—which has been so unevenly applied—should come under scrutiny. As the children of architects have conferred through these films, nobody can be all things to all people. “I think this is something we do so often to artists. We turn them into myths, we forget who they are,” said Nathaniel Kahn. Eric Saarinen is currently seeking donors to create a documentary about his grandfather Eliel, which will look at Eero’s father as a philosopher of form as well as the strong patriarch of his immigrant family. It’s another opportunity to depict the nuance of genius—a label we erect, only to deconstruct.
*Correction: This article has been updated to accurately credit Eric Saarinen and Peter Rosen in The Architect Who Saw the Future.