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All kinds of feedback is welcome. CONTACT: augustkunnapu@gmail.com

Eestikeelsed artiklid



Björn Kowalski

Vilen of Viimsi

August Künnapu

Nathaniel Kahn

Harry Pye

Mehis Heinsaar

Lauri Sommer


Interview with Nathaniel Kahn

Hello, August! I like your name very much, especially because one of my favourite playwrights is August Strindberg.

I like Your name very much and I wonder where it comes from.
My mother gave me the name. She liked to have a biblical name. Maybe she knew she would only have one child so she wanted to get it right.

The current issue of “Epifanio” is a Human Being Special. What does it mean for You – a human being?
That’s a wonderful question. Let me talk about the film (Nathaniel Kahn’s film “My Architect” (2003) about getting to know his father - the architect Louis Kahn) where I discovered what a human being was in the sense of my father who definitely was a great human being. Human being is many things, It is like a collage made of different pieces that are mixed and held together for a short period of time that we call a lifetime. They are held together on this planet and then the whole thing disintegrates and goes to the universe and maybe comes back again – I don’t know.

Nathaniel Kahn on Panga cliff on Saaremaa. Photo: Vilen Künnapu


Alexandra Tyng. Louis Kahn in Dhaka. Oil on canvas, 2006.

Alexandra Tyng’s portrait of her father, arcitect Louis kahn is her gift to Kuressaare for marking his origin from Saaremaa and Kuressaare.


What surprises me about my father, and learning about him, is how much energy he put into being a human being. He felt that it was such a great gift to be alive at that time in this place that he wanted to make the most out of it. The energy he put into his life is a great inspiration for me because he fully realized what is possible in one life-time - it is magnificent.

Human being for me has two parts: the spiritual part that is eternal and the physical part that contains the spirit for a while and then just dissolves. It is always a difficult and uncomfortable union, because spirit is able to be in many places at the same time. I can imagine me being on this boat (Nathaniel was interviewed on the deck of a boat from Kuivastu to Virtsu on his way back to Tallinn from Louis Kahn Days in Saaremaa) and also being on that island (Saaremaa) walking towards the lighthouse. I can take the trip in my mind, but in my body I can be either here or there – I can’t be in both places. I can imagine I live million years in my spirit, but in my body, if I’m lucky, I am able to live as long as my father did – 73 years. These contradictions happening all the time can either be the sources of madness or great creativity. I think my father was a man who was able to tap into that great creativity.

One of the things we were not able to talk much about in that wonderful conference (Louis Kahn Days, October 6-7, 2006, Kuressaare) was Louis Kahn’s spiritual side. He felt that the mystical part of his family was strongly linked with Estonia and this wonderful island Saaremaa, which I unfortunately did not have time to experience myself. His mother was apparently a wise woman with supernatural abilities who people would go to with questions. He was very proud of that. He found a way to contact this spirituality through his architecture.

I hope next time we can explore his words and thinking not just about his architecture but about art, about life, about the meaning of creativity. Of course for him, creativity was often connected with architecture, but not only, he was also a painter, a musician, a thinker and a teacher. Lou’s particular way of teaching was to teach himself in front of other people.

I loved what your father said – Vilen has a special way of talking about his spiritual beliefs, which are different from my father’s, but I know my father would have liked to hear his talk, because it was something that touched upon the universality of ideas. Things are connected, and if you open your eyes you will see them. Lou felt that music was connected to art was connected to nature was connected to architecture, and the role of a creative person was to find ways to bridge those things. One point about Lou that I have come to respect in my own search is that he always wanted to ground these phenomena in something real – he wanted them to come out as a creation, as a piece of architecture, as a painting, as a piece of music.

August Komandant (Estonian engineer who worked closely with Lou Kahn for 18 years) said that architecture was like a religion to Lou Kahn. Is filmmaking Your religion?
I am not sure what my religion is. As close I have ever got to religious feelings is when spending time in nature. Being on this boat with water around me, I feel very much in touch with the earth, the universe and the energies that are around us. I spend a lot of time bird-watching. I love their habits, how the fly and find food and eat. Participating in nature and watching birds has always been somehow connected with my spiritual side and my own mortality.

You started as a theatre director but turned out to be a film director. Please compare these different forms of art.
Theatre is the beginning of everything, at least for me. Theatre is something that is alive. People sitting in a dark room seeing other people get up and tell a story. This is how the whole thing began – sitting around the fire and listening to a man like Homer playing his music and telling his incredible tale. People’s minds were opened to that story and they could see the images in their head.

Movies share a lot with theatre and music. Sometimes I think they even share more with music than with theatre. For me mastering moviemaking is going to be harder than doing theatre. It is enormously complex – how you use the cut, how you play with time. And the greatest movies – especially those by Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini – play with time. They make you feel in two hours you lived a life or a minute.

What do you think about the timelessness in Kim Ki-duk films?
His “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” is a beautiful movie, because it compresses time in a wonderful way. When you realize it’s the same person in different points, you have an epiphany about what life is – returning to the same point in reality or in your mind understanding how you’ve changed, how you’ve moved. Recognizing that in your own life there are seasons – a season for love, a season for loneliness, and “a time for every purpose under the heavens” (the Bible, the Euclesians).

I have seen Your documentary “My Architect” three times and it is getting only better. You had 200 hours of material and did the movie in 5 years – that is on the one hand a Stanley Kubrick like perfectionism. One the other hand, there is a total spontaneity and playfulness similar to Rainer Maria Fassbinder films, like in a conversation with the girl sitting at the Penn Station in New York where your father died, or the interview with the taxi-driver.
Your compliments are lovely, but I don’t think I deserve them. In “My Architect” I had a very clear intention to search for my father. Somehow this intention took the form of a documentary and allowed me to ask questions and go to places that I wouldn’t normally go to. A lot of things that happened were like a great gift. Now I want to go further and use some of the techniques to make a feature film with actors. So I try to put together these two things – a theatre with a play and a documentary, where you get spontaneous things happening in the world.

I had a wonderful meeting with Francis Ford Coppola, a director I admire tremendously. He said something that is so beautiful and really resonates with me – a great director is just a good host. You are the host of the party, you set the table the right way, invite the right people and then you see what happens. That was extremely helpful – it released me from my sense of having to have all the answers.
You also compared yourself, just like Your father, with an orchestra director.

I wish I could, but I don’t know much about music. Being an architect and being a film-maker have some features in common – both are highly collaborative arts. You have to have the ability to draw people together and to inspire them, but also to choose people who are better than you at any number of things. There are far better cameramen, set designers, actors and writers than I’ll ever be. You pull those people together and you certainly have a great party.

The same thing is true about architecture, which makes me think about Lou Kahn and August Komandant. It is interesting that they spoke Estonian because Lou’s first language was not Estonian. That relationship between them was very complicated, but it was one of substantial collaboration. They needed each other to push against. It is no good working with someone who says “yes” all the time. You want someone who says “no” so you can convince them, because in convincing you both become better.

You have mentioned before that You always prefer form to details and so did your father.
I think my father preferred both. He wanted to get the form right first. Later in life, his form and detail were so intertwined that they almost happened in the same time. After he went to Greece and Rome and Egypt he discovered something - he wanted to make modern architecture with the presence of ancient ruins. Then the form became immensely important and it is really good. As your father would say – mandala. When the form is right the details will be also right.

Lets speak about the differences and similarities of western and eastern cultures. Lets take three examples – America where You were born, Estonia where Your father was born and Bangladesh, where he built his most important building – the Assembly of Dhaka.
Louis Kahn’s ideas were very practical and real, but they also had a mystical dimension. His search for the right answer, for the right form was a spiritual one. It took a lot of time for people to believe in him, that it was the right trail, that something would come out. In America it is difficult, people are so practical right away, they don’t accept the idea. If you ask “What is the shadow of white light?” the answer would be some colloquial word. Lou wanted to think about things before answering. In India and Bangladesh, people understood his spiritual search, they enjoyed that and wanted to go on that journey with him. This is why his buildings were so successful in the East.

Nathaniel Kahn in his father’s
birth town Kuressaare,
Saaremaa island, Estonia.
Photo: Vilen Künnapu

My experience in Estonia has been fantastic. I feel at home, I feel like having completed a great cycle. My father left in 1905 and I came back 101 years later. This is tremendously exciting and very meaningful to me. The spirit that left here many years ago has come back. Wherever Lou is, he would smile and say – “This is wonderful, you brought my son back”.

A friend of mine told me that Your movie “My Architect” is a total hit in Belgium and in France. I wonder why a portrait of an architect is so popular among so many different people.
It is very gratifying to know that people in different parts of the world like “My Architect”. It’s a story that all of us participate in at some level in some point of our lives. You want to go back to the beginning, find out where you came from and who your parents were. That’s a universal story of a son looking for his father – a profound human story. “My Architect” taps into an archetypal narrative, which has been with us from the beginning of times. In the end, it is about an artist who left some amazing things on this planet. It is also a story about the power and beauty of art. There are a lot of people who are not aware of architecture, yet we live in architecture most of our lives – in classrooms, in homes, in cities. I hope “My Architect” makes them realize what great structures can do. I have heard from people that after seeing the movie they have looked at architecture differently. That makes me enormously happy.

At the end of his life Lou made a project of a synagogue in Philadelphia and built a mosque in Bangladesh (the entrance to the Assembly building in Dhaka). What about Your aspirations in combining various religions?
I have no aspirations to combine religions. As I said, my great religion is the religion of nature. I do have the desire to bring my love of nature to the street, to the movies. We have to respect the Earth more and acknowledge how powerful she is. She has all the power. We don’t have any power – we just think we have the power.

I don’t think my father wanted to unite different religions at all. I think he had a sense of the value, the idea of a religion. Believing that something outside you is bigger than yourself is a good thing. I don’t think it mattered to him whether you were a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim. Part of the power of his buildings is that they were about religion beyond any individual faith. It doesn’t mean he didn’t respect those religions, he did. The fact that Muslims go to mosque several times a day made him design a mosque that was respectful to their needs, and they love it. In fact, the building was originally planned as a 2000 square foot mosque, but he made it into a 20 000 square foot mosque. He had great respect for individual religions, but in the end he considered architecture his religion. Beyond architecture perhaps art was his religion, creativity was his religion. We come back to your first question what is a human being. He would say: fundamentally, human being is a creative thing, a force that exists for a while on the Earth and is able to create beautiful things that nature cannot make.

What other fields of art do You like? You mentioned theatre and music before.
I love all kinds of art. I love painting. I love sculpture although I don’t understand it very well. Recently, I discovered another great Estonian artist – Arvo Pärt. Hearing his music and listening to it closely feels both ancient and modern. That’s something my father certainly was interested in – the idea that something can reach backwards and forwards in time. The art of time travelling – that is very exciting.

Please comment on Your father’s favourite saying “What was has always been, what is has always been, what will be has always been”.
I think I just said it. Art is something that, when you hit it right, makes sense. It comes from the beginning of times, is true now, will always be true. There’s a humble aspect to that statement – when you create something really good you don’t own it. It was already there and it will always be there. That is a wonderful way to think and it goes well against our extremely egoistical age. As Lou said about his favourite composer Beethoven – “Did the world need Beethoven’s 5th symphony? No. But once he wrote it, the world could not do without it”.

Nathaniel Kahn

Nathaniel Kahn is a film director, who lives in Philadelphia, America. He is the author of the documentary „My Architect”.