Documentary Brings Memories to Life for Local Architect

By Steve Gilbert Sentinel Staff

It had been 14 years since Dan Scully of Keene saw the documentary “My Architect,” about a son’s contemplative quest for insight into the father he hardly knew.

The experience was just as powerful — and personal — when he saw the film again Sunday.

Released in 2003, the Academy Award-nominated film documents Nathaniel Kahn’s five-year odyssey to learn more about his father, the internationally acclaimed architect Louis Kahn. Nathaniel was only 11 years old when Louis Kahn died of a heart attack at age 73, in a bathroom at Penn Station in New York City, in 1974.

Poignantly, early in the two-hour film, Nathaniel narrates how his father — married to another woman — would visit him and his mother, Harriet, once a week. They would play on the lawn, his father would have a frozen martini or two, then Harriet would drive him down a darkened street, where he would vanish into the dark, back to his wife.

Scully first met Louis Kahn when he was 9.

Kahn was a friend of Scully’s father, Vincent Scully, an architectural historian and professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Scully went to work for Kahn as an office boy when he was a high school junior and remained under his tutelage while attending Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.

Scully today is a renowned architect, the winner of many design awards, including the prestigious Clinton Sheerr Award for Excellence in New Hampshire Architecture in 2009. He opened Daniel V. Scully Architects in Peterborough in 1983, and the firm moved to Keene in 1996. He’s still going strong, responding with an impish, “Why would I do that?” when asked if he has any plans to retire soon.

On Tuesday, “My Architect, a Son’s Journey” will be screened at the Peterborough Community Theatre, the kickoff of a film series sponsored by the Monadnock International Film Festival. “Not Yet Begun to Fight” will be next, scheduled to be shown Tuesday, Nov. 7, at the Peterborough theater.

Afterward, Scully will share his experiences of working with Kahn and take questions from the audience. He had seen the movie only once, when it was released, until Carol Nelson, owner of the Peterborough theater, invited him to watch it with her Sunday.

“It’s such a moving movie,” Scully said quietly over a cup of coffee in Keene Wednesday. “It felt so much like Lou. That movie was Lou. It took me way back. It was so much him.”

Scully marvels over Kahn’s obsession with perfection, noting it was a trademark of many architects who came of age during the Great Depression, never sure when the next job might come along.

Kahn hit his stride after he was 50, wowing critics with his modernist creations such as the City Tower Project in his home city of Philadelphia, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., the Philips Exeter Academy Library and government buildings in India and Bangladesh, to name a few.

Nathaniel visits many of them in the film, the cinematography exquisite. One sequence in which he roller-blades around the Salk Institute is almost existential. Nathaniel interviews fellow architects who knew his father along the way, most of whom Scully also knows. “I’d see the back of the person, and then they became real,” he said.

Scully himself gives tours of the Philips Exeter Library, and he’s effusive in his praise. “It’s such an extraordinary building, and it’s right here,” he said.

He talks admirably of how Kahn incorporated his studies of ancient ruins with materials indigenous to the regions where he built. He calls that integration poetic, a huge leap for architecture, describing Kahn as a modernist who brought some history with it.

Scully saw Kahn’s working process intimately, as an office boy and student. “I remember the intensity of him working,” Scully said. “Deadline after deadline, he was always there trying to meet his next deadline.”

When he was alone working with him at night, Scully would study Kahn intently. “He did like to explain what he was doing, probably thinking things through,” Scully said.

Though only 5-foot-6, his face scarred by burns suffered in a childhood accident, Kahn was a charmer, Scully says. He walked with a bounce in his step, like an athlete. Kahn, in fact, wrestled in school and liked to attend Philadelphia Phillies baseball games.

The film probes Kahn’s relationships, how he had three children with three different women. He and Esther, his wife, had a daughter, Sue Ann. Scully particularly remembers Anne Tyng, who had a daughter, Alexandra, with Kahn. They were working on the Yale art gallery project when Scully was there.

Kahn was 61 by the time he met Harriet, Nathaniel’s mother, and she was 32. Now 89, Harriet is coming from Maine next week to watch the screening in Peterborough. Nathaniel lives in Los Angeles and is wrapping up production on another film. He was unavailable for comment.

In a reflection of Kahn’s complex personal life, his obituary on the front page of the New York Times listed only one surviving child, Sue Ann. It does not mention Kahn’s two children out of wedlock. But the three siblings got together for the film, in one of its many stirring scenes.

“People always ask about the women,” Scully said. “I didn’t remember him that way, that driving conflict. To me, he was obsessed with his work.”

The documentary opens darkly with images of Kahn’s death in New York, how he was found in a Penn Station bathroom after returning from Bangladesh, the address on his passport scratched out for unknown reasons, the camera zooming in his obituary in the Times.

And then it widens into his extraordinary life.

“My Architect” will be shown Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Peterborough Community Theatre on 6 School St. Architect Dan Scully will speak afterward, and take questions from the audience.

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