Monday, May 02, 2005

Louis Kahn, Architecture, and the Search for the Soul

To mark the end of Passover, my kallah and I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, munched on chocolate chocolate cookies, and watched the documentary "My Architect." The film is by Nathaniel Kahn, and is about his father, Louis I. Kahn. Louis suffered what proved to be a fatal heart attack in 1974, in the men's bathroom at Penn Station, Manhattan. His body went unidentified for a few days before the NYPD discovered who he had been: one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, the most mystical of architects since the creators of the great French Gothic cathedrals.

The difficulty in identifying Kahn was Kahn's fault: he had crossed out his home address on his passport, his only form of ID. Why he crossed the address out is a very important issue in the documentary. Nathaniel was, in his words, a bastard: his father had three children by three women, one of whom he remained married to for over 30 years, and that wasn't Nathaniel's mother. Louis's treatment of women and his families was remarkable for its serial thoughtlessness; many would consider it cruel.

Nathaniel, through the vehicle of the documentary, sets out to discover why his father acted the way he did, and what his family plans were when he died, face up, deeply in debt, in a loo. (His mother thought Louis was going to leave his wife and move in with them, hence the crossed out address. Nathaniel was 11 at the time. Nathaniel seems deeply skeptical about this, and the evidence piles up on his side.)

Nathaniel interviews everyone and anyone who knew his father: relatives, cab drivers in Philadelphia where Louis (and his brood) lived, as well as famous architects. (An interview with Philip Johnson in his New Canaan Glass House is a scream). The denouement of the film takes place in India and Bangladesh. Few of Kahn's buildings were constructed. In this country, the Salk Institute (La Jolla, Calif.) and the Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth, Tex.) are magical works, given lavish visual treatment in the documentary.

But it is with Kahn's last two works, the India Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, and the Capital Complex in Dhaka (the capital of Bangladesh) that Nathaniel and the audience at last come face-to-face with Louis' genius and the good in him. In the encounters with these buildings, we also confront a larger enigma than Louis: how humanity can be capable of creating the most sublime, transcendent works, be capable of the most extraordinary generosity and sacrifice, yet also be capable of great callousness and cruelty. These contradictions are not as difficult when there is more than one person involved and each person may be pigeon-holed by wearing a black or a white hat. It is quite another thing when we are talking about a single person, and in Nathaniel's case, his own father.

In these final works of Louis, built on a continent far away, Nathaniel finally encounters his father's soul, an encounter he had longed for his whole life, but had never experienced due to Louis' deliberate distance, physically and emotionally, from him. Fittingly, Nathaniel has his epiphany (Louis was Jewish, but Nathaniel's mother was not) through friends of Louis, two individuals closely involved in the Indian and Bangladesh projects.

The first person is B.V. Dosi, the Indian architect with whom Louis had dined the night before he died. Dosi tells Nathaniel about the many intense philosophical discussions he had with Louis about Louis' use of light and matter, and tells Nathaniel that in India, Louis is regarded as not just a great architect but also as a spiritual guru. This was not an uncommon description: Vincent Scully, as Eastern and Waspy an establishment figure as there is in architecture, makes a very similar point earlier in the film, talking about Kahn's use of light and form in terms of religious longing.

Dosi then tells Nathaniel that Nathaniel's deep longing for the father he never really knew (Louis at most visited him once a week for a few hours) can be assuaged if he would just listen to the silences that both Louis' buildings and Nathaniel himself contain. He tells Nathaniel that Louis is still present in those silences, if Nathaniel will just pay attention. I would like to believe him. My mother died 23 years ago, quite young, after a terrible illness, and leaving a terrible void. Those few times I have tried to come to grips with that loss, I have done so by trying to listen to those same type of silences. Whether Nathaniel succeeds, we want him to, and to be able to do so through his father's art would be quite special.

In Dhaka, we meet Shamsul Wares, a Bangladesh legislator. Nathaniel makes the incredible blunder of telling Wares that so far he has only 10 minutes in the film about the Capital Complex. Wares' eyes well up in tears as he rebukes Nathaniel, "Don't tell me that." He then goes on to explain to the hapless Nathaniel, in moving, deeply felt-language, what the complex means to Bangladesh, how Louis took the poorest country in the world and made it the proudest at tremendous personal sacrifice, how the buildings' immense spirituality (lovingly photographed in those measly 10 minutes) inspired the entire nation as well as fostering democracy. There is not alot of art about which that be said.

Wares then addresses the central dilemma in the film: he acknowledges to Nathaniel that Louis was, to his families, insensitive; even more, a failure. But he asks Nathaniel to forgive Louis for the beauty he has brought Bangladesh, and asks Nathaniel to see in that beauty the beauty in Louis' soul, and not just as Nathaniel has previously, the considerable pain Louis caused. One is left with the impression that Nathaniel, through Wares and the buildings, finally has.

In 1990, I was privileged, as a Policy Planning Advisor to the Register of Copyrights, to be the principal drafter of the 1990 amendments to the Copyright Act extending protection, expressly, to works of architecture; that is, the built design, designs like Louis Kahn's. Protection had existed for the plans, but that protection did not permit one to stop the unauthorized construction of a building based on those plans, nor to receive damages for that construction. In drafting the definition of "architectural work" (the protected subject matter), I attempted to capture the creative process used by architects, at least of Kahn's stature: an architectural work is defined as including "the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements ... ." 17 US.C. 101.

There are a number of pitfalls involved in the area. One is keeping in mind the separate protection for the plans and protection for the architectural work. Separate applications (Form VA) are required, and the deposit requirements are different. Damages are different too: since the 1990 Act did not change the law for plans, one cannot get under copyright in architectural plans, damages flowing from authorized sale of buildings which bear substantial similarity to the plans: one gets such damages only through copyright in the architectural work. Damages for infringing plans is limited to things like lost licensing or use fees. The Copyright Office has a good circular on registration issues (Circular 41).

Another pitfall, illustrated in T-Peg, Inc. v. Isbitki, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5897 (D.N.H. April 6, 2005), is understanding that while there is separate protection for plans and for the built design, the fixation requirement for architectural works may be satisfied by fixation in plans, as well as in the actual constructed building. In the language of the Copyright Act, both the plans and the built stricture may be a "copy" of an architectural work.

The plans are also their own intangible work of authorship, protected under Section 102(a)(5) - architectural works are protected in 102(a)(8). This lamentable confusion was caused by the unfounded worries of one academic that the copyright owner of an architectural work might get beat to the punch by someone else building first. While the Register of Copyrights and I disagreed, it was easier to make the problem go away than fight it, but the cost of the path of least resistance was confusion, as witnessed the extended discussion in T-Peg.


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