In the Indie Debut “Columbus,” Midcentury Architecture Stars Beside John Cho

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By Jenny Xie / Published by Dwell
Kogonada’s directorial debut is a bittersweet exploration of loss and filial responsibility set in the architectural landscape of Columbus, Indiana.

When Korean-American filmmaker and video essayist Kogonada visited Columbus, Indiana, inspiration struck.

The small, Midwestern city has long been lauded as a must-see design destination thanks to the patronage of J. Irwin Miller throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. Miller, head of the Cummings Engine Company, footed the bill for public projects provided that the architect was selected from an approved list. As a result, the city boasts scores of midcentury-modernist treasures designed by the likes of Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, Eliot Noyes, and Richard Meier, to name a few.

"It was profound and captivating," says Kogonada of this trip. Even during the drive home, he already knew he wanted to set a movie there, and was building the framework for his first feature film.

That film is Columbus, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and will be released August 4. It stars John Cho as Jin, a Seoul-based translator who comes to town when his father, an architectural critic on a speaking tour, falls ill. During his visit, he meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a teenaged architecture enthusiast who has postponed leaving her hometown in order to take care of her mother.

Their unlikely friendship develops as Casey leads Jin, whose relationship with architecture is reluctant at best, on a tour of her favorite buildings. Soulful, intellectual, and understated, their conversations unfold against a stunning backdrop of architectural icons.

While Cho and Richardson give luminous performances, the buildings they inhabit are compelling characters in their own right. It’s an absolute pleasure to see celebrated buildings such as Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, his son Eero Saarinen’s Miller House, and Myron Goldsmith’s The Republic featured in a way that highlights their intended effect on Columbus’s denizens—and the spiritual impact of architecture overall. 

Architecture and cinema are a really interesting pair of art forms...The marriage of the two is inescapable. -Kogonada

In selecting which structures to feature, Kogonada was scrupulous about considering Casey as a character. "It wasn’t going to be my favorites," he explains. "I looked at the city through her eyes and thought of what she might want to show a visitor, and what she would connect with." Jin’s story arc is also quietly embodied by Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s work, monuments to the father-son relationship.

Death and departure are central themes in Columbus that are telegraphed through the cinematography. "I always knew that this film was going to explore the relationship between absence and presence, both existentially—humans are always faced with loss—but also the way it works out in architecture and design," says Kogonada. "The relationship between negative space and what is foregrounded has always been moving to me."

In one scene, Casey stands before the Irwin Conference Center, singing its praises before Jin interrupts her for sounding too academic: "What are you doing? Who are you? Do you like this building intellectually, because of all the facts?" When she describes her emotional response to it, she becomes inaudible, words replaced by a swell of music. In other instances, characters speak from outside the frame, or reflected in a mirror or glass wall. Says Kogonada, "We were constantly trying to play with things being present, but not fully accessible."

In doing this, Kogonada finds tension between form and content. An aspect that he appreciates about architecture is the fact that it’s "a medium about the form," as he describes. "Architecture and cinema are a really interesting pair of art forms," he says. "Cinema constructs an experience of temporality, and architecture defines space, and what emptiness is. The marriage of the two is inescapable."

A contemplative coming-of-age story set in a beguiling landscape, Columbus is a rich experience for architecture lovers and newcomers alike. It opens in select theaters on August 4. Check out the trailer below.