With San Diego's breathtaking Salk Institute, Fort Worth, Texas' Kimbell Art Museum and the capital building in Bangladesh among his distinguished credits, Louis Kahn is easily among the foremost American architects of the 20th century. You don't have to be a scholar or critic to find his work breathtaking. But Kahn was certainly no saint. And to his son Nathaniel, he was always an elusive figure. The elder Kahn fathered Nathaniel with a mistress, and his visits were sporadic. Then the architect died--on the floor of the Penn Station men's room, no less, his body unidentified for days--when his son was 11.

Thirty years later, playwright and short-filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn has made a feature, My Architect: A Son's Journey, that thoughtfully considers his father's public and private lives, bringing an icon down to earth as a great artist predicated on personal imperfection. "It's the story of a son's search to know his father," the filmmaker told WW in a recent phone interview. Indeed, even someone utterly apathetic to the art of brick and mortar will be compelled by Nathaniel Kahn's journey.

As both director and quasi-emcee, the younger Kahn manages to scrutinize his father's compromised personal life--he fathered children with three different women--while never exploiting Louis Kahn's dirty laundry. We meet the cab drivers who shuttled the architect from home to office to affair, as well as the women and children who made up his different families, contrasting with the reverence his architecture inspires. "The human imperfections are part of what makes him a man to me," Kahn says. "They're what make him someone I'd want to know."

More than five years in the making, My Architect also includes interviews with architects and critics, such as Frank Gehry and Phillip Johnson, who elucidate the architectural significance of Louis Kahn's buildings. Kahn was part of a generation that made Modernism the signature form of world design, stripping buildings of unnecessary adornments to make them sleeker and more pristine. (Of note to Portlanders, he also envisioned cities without the automobile a half-century before it was fashionable.) But unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier or Alvar Aalto, Kahn eschewed futuristic metal and glass edifices in favor of more spiritual, enduring forms and materials. The pyramids of Egypt were his inspiration, not Tomorrowland.

As his son notes, the Salk Institute, for example, looks like it could be 10 years old or 10,000. "He asked, 'How do I make a modern building that has all of the majesty and solidity and mystery of an ancient building or ruin?'" the director explains. "He wanted to return some of the magic and presence that you find in ancient buildings."

Ultimately, though, My Architect is no academic dissertation. The younger Kahn says that in making the film, "My primary concern was to capture what was living about the buildings, not what was formally interesting. I want to make a film about an artist, because artists can create things which live in a more perfect world than they themselves were able to live. I think Lou did so much to embody that very struggle. That's part of the heartbreak. He wanted to be more than he was. And in my mind, that's the story I've turned over in my head for many years. Those are the kinds of characters that I want to make movies about."

My Architect: A Son's Journey

Not RatedCinema 21,616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515.7 and 9 pm Friday-Thursday, March 5-11. Also 1:30 and 4 pm Saturday-Sunday. $4-$7.