Finding Architecture’s Soul in ‘Columbus’

The new dramatic film sees in Columbus, Ind. a beautiful but haunted metaphor for life.


A Cbp0920Columbus0920El CopyHaley Lu Richardson and John Cho star in the dramatic film.PHOTO: ELISHA CHRISTIAN / COURTESY OF SUPERLATIVE FILMS AND DEPTH OF FIELD

If you’re interested in architecture, you may know that Columbus, Ind. — a small city just 90 miles west of Cincinnati — is one of America’s most important showcases for Modernist buildings.

That, in itself, makes Columbus special. But now, a new movie called Columbus — a dramatic film, not a documentary — finds an even deeper meaning in the city’s commitment to newness in architecture. It sees in Columbus a beautiful but haunted metaphor for life and the hopes, dreams, delusions, personal struggles and quest for meaning we all have. The film, which is one of the year’s best, opens Friday at the Esquire Theatre. I’d give it an A.

A little background on Columbus the city is appropriate. As the Visit Columbus Indiana website explains, the city “is one of the rare places on Earth where the idea that architecture can improve the human condition has been put to the test.” The force behind this was the late Irwin Miller, a forward-thinking industrialist (his family founded the city’s Cummins Engine Co.) who saw in Modernist architecture a symbol of a better future. Its openness — a reliance on glass, love of clean and uncluttered lines, disavowal of pretentious decoration — seemed part of its search for truthfulness.

The first building that Miller wanted, Eliel Saarinen’s 1942 First Christian Church, has a subtle stone cross embedded in the limestone façade that’s so mirage-like it could float out and hover in the air. In 1957, Saarinen’s son Eero designed Miller’s home, which now is open to the public and has become recognized as one of America’s most important post-World War II homes. Other important architects who have done public structures in Columbus include I.M. Pei, Harry Weese, Robert Venturi, Deborah Berke and Gunnar Birkerts.

To this heritage now comes the movie Columbus, directed and written by Kogonada — the single name favored by a South Korea-born filmmaker who is an acolyte of the great Japanese director Yasujiroō Ozu (1953’s Tokyo Story). He clearly loves and dwells on the architecture — for instance, he sees in the tall and seemingly endless spire of Eero Saarinen’s 1964 North Christian Church, which otherwise has an unassuming exterior, a kind of protector for all who live below it. But Kogonada also has an existential question for Modernism — and, thus, for Columbus: What good is its optimism against the inevitability of death and disease? Does such hopefulness make Modernism — and Columbus — just another delusion about our ability to control our futures?

Such philosophical depth and complexity demand a lot from a movie. But Columbus succeeds smashingly, hugely aided by cinematographer Elisha Christian. It is naturalistically Minimalist in style, with quiet dialogue, introspective music and environmental sounds, long takes and pronounced edits. Yet it’s nevertheless emotional because the screenplay is wise in its understanding of the human condition.

The film features John Cho (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) as the estranged Korean-born son of a noted Korean architectural historian living in the U.S. His father’s grave illness brings the son to Columbus to stand vigil, and he’s angry about it. He seems to hate architecture, although maybe he’s just angry about his father’s devotion to this city at his son’s expense.

But in Columbus, waiting around for his father to die, he meets a young woman from a working-class background who is struggling to live better. Played incredibly soulfully by Haley Lu Richardson, she has developed a fascination with the mysteries of Modernism. To her, it is truly frozen poetry — and she’s trying to find a vocabulary to express that.

Though there is an age difference, they develop a friendship. Her interest seems to point to a promising future in architecture, but she’s afraid to leave a single mother (Michelle Forbes) recovering from drug use and a hard life in general.

Their stories play out quietly, but profoundly. One of the film’s last shots is of the bright red steel beams of a Modernist bridge. It is to be admired as an art object, but also something you have to cross when you come to it. Columbus memorably takes you to it.


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