‘Columbus’: a movie where refined artistry blends modernist architecture with human feelings
There is something graceful and yet powerful in the story that develops in and around the buildings that constitute the backdrop, the backbone and the soul of the movie ‘Columbus’ (2017, available on iTunes). If, like me, you were not aware that the city of Columbus, in Indiana, is considered the mecca of modern architecture, you might think that the director, the South-Korean Kogonada – here at his film debut – had invented this specific setting to spin his story. In reality, during a family outing, Kogonada discovered this quiet town of only 46,000 inhabitant and yet with a disproportionate number of iconic mid-century buildings. And it became his source of inspiration.
The plot of this unconventional indie film moves and develops on two parallel tracks. The opening sees a famous South Korean architect fall to the floor due to a stroke, under the eyes of a woman, his favourite protégé and colleague. Separately, we get to know the protagonist of the movie, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a nineteen-years old girl who, after high school graduation, is working as a page at the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, designed by I.M. Pei (of Bank of China in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid, just to name two of his architectural creations). Only after Casey exchanges a few words over a cigarette with the architect’s son, Jin (John Cho), in town to attend to his ailing father, the story takes shape: we get to know Casey and become aware of her family situation. We also discover more about Jin’s difficult relationship with his father and about his crush, as a teenager, on the woman who is now his father’s protégé.
You might believe that there is nothing exceptional in such a plot. In reality, the special friendship between a mature man, Jin, and a young woman, Casey, takes shape while walking around Columbus and discovering its remarkable buildings and what they meant and mean to Casey, who is obsessed with architecture. Casey takes Jin around as a real tour guide would do, at first, but Jin wants to know what she exactly feels for these buildings, in order for him to see them with different eyes. It is during these explorations that a platonic intimacy develops between the two, despite the age gap, and gives way to fascinating dynamics. Casey and Jin slowly manage to explore and analyse each other’s disturbing issues in a deeper way, in the same profound way in which Casey sees and reacts to the architectural wonders and introduces them to Jin.
Casey’s problems and doubts slowly unwrap, and she admits of being stuck in Columbus and unable to pursue her dream of studying architecture at the university, because she sees herself as her mother’s caretaker. Her mother is a recovering meth addict (and here another less appealing reality unveils: ‘Meth is really big here,’ says Casey. ‘Meth and Modernism’). Casey, with her passion for architecture but her inability to take any important step to cultivate it further, has been unwillingly in wait, and so has Jin, who does not know what will happen to his father. He admits that he might not wish that he recovers, since that would mean dragging on an already estranged relationship. On the other hand, if his father dies, Jin would be forced to mourn a man for whom he only feels anger. He tells Casey that Koreans are expected to honour the dead in a proper manner, by openly showing grief, otherwise their spirits will wander the Earth as ghosts.There is therefore a delicate balance that needs to be found in this daughter-mother and son-father relationship, and that will mark the next steps in the protagonists’ lives.
Similarly to what happens in Kent Haruf’s novel ‘Our Souls at Night’(and in the movie adaptation with the same title, see my review here), ‘Columbus’ is not about grand dramatic revelations. Everything happens at a slow pace and revolves around the personal sphere. Emotions are not forced and thus become more real, impactful, and run parallel, like the architectural lines rendered through the cinematographer’s (Elisha Christian) staggering images of the buildings that make Columbus as a city so special, and Columbus as a movie so original. Beauty is in what surrounds us, even if – like Jin says – ‘You grow up around something and it feels like nothing’. Artistry – which is Kogonada’s skill – makes a special bank building, or library or church, become touching and enriching. Kogonada’s study of positive and negative space is never left to chance. A shot taken indoors or outdoors, a view or a scene from afar or through a mirror, the asymmetrical cross of a church, the perfection of a garden, the striking essentials of the Irwin Union Bank (now the Irwin Conference Centre – designed by Eero Saarinen–a one-story glass pavilion topped with a grid of domes), or the magical night scenes, all become equally, albeit quietly, impactful.
How did the town of Columbus become the meeting point of famous architects to the point of boosting such an incredible number of stunning modernist buildings? Columbus is home to the Cummins Engine Company, which during the times of the American industrialism served as primary employer and source of economic revenue for this town. In the Fifties, Joseph Irwin Miller, a third-generation executive of Cummins,, began the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program with the aim of bringing great architecture to the city. Miller became passionate with the subject while studying at Yale. In his view, recalling the words of Winston Churchill, ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us’. Miller believed in the power of architecture as a drive for social progress.
Selecting its own designs, The Cummins Foundation covered the architects’ fees for new buildings and also a percentage of the construction costs. All buildings were functional and played a role in the civic dimension. They were banks, churches, office buildings and schools and not structures merely created to embellish the town. Internationally renowned designers included Eliel and Eero Saarinen, and some Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureates, like I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, and Robert Venturi. Due to the combination of small-town charm and sophisticated design, Columbus was labelled, in 1964, ‘the Athens of the prairie’.
Miller was a philanthropist and a visionary, who managed to leave an impressive legacy. We can only agree with his creed: ‘Whatever you do in this world, you’ve got a responsibility and a privilege of doing it the very best way you can. And whether it is architecture or cooking or drama or music, the best is none too good for any of us.’