The city of Columbus, Ind. — home, somewhat incongruously, to dozens of buildings designed by such architectural giants as Eero and Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and James Polshek — has been called a “Midwestern Mecca” of midcentury modernism and “Oz for architecture nerds.” One of those nerds has made a movie about the place.
“Columbus” marks the feature debut of director Kogonada, but it’s not a travelogue. Rather, it’s a story that uses place — and buildings — to tell a story about something far less concrete. The story centers on the unlikely friendship between Jin (John Cho), a Korean American translator who rushes from Seoul to Columbus when his father falls into a coma, and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman who lives in town but who dreams of leaving to study architecture. It’s structured around a series of conversations — sometimes philosophical, sometimes metaphysical and often deeply personal — set against several of the city’s landmarks. Jin, the son of an architecture scholar, is jaded about buildings; Casey, who has stayed in Columbus to care for her mother, a recovering meth-head, is a passionate believer in the power of buildings.
Among the featured structures are Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial County Library, where Casey works, and the Eero Saarinen-designed home of J. Irwin Miller, now a house museum owned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. (Miller, an industrialist, philanthropist and architecture patron, was responsible for bringing to Columbus many big design names.)
In a phone interview, the Nashville-based Kogonada, a video artist known for making clip compilations, or supercuts, of the work of such filmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard, prefers to give neither his age nor his real name. His nom de cinema, he says, is only partly a nod to Kogo Noda, the longtime screenwriting partner of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, a hero of Kogonada’s. About the film’s use of architecture, he is similarly cagey — not because he’s hiding anything, but because, as he puts it, “the minute you try to fully explain something, there’s nothing else to pursue.”
Q: Aside from serving as a beautiful backdrop, how does the architecture in “Columbus” function as a vehicle to express your ideas?
A: As I was writing, I was thinking about children and the burden of the parent — the departure of the parent — whether it’s old age, and they might be dying, or for someone Casey’s age who has to leave a parent that she feels responsible for. This question has haunted me for a while: How do we make meaning of absence? Not all architecture addresses absence, but there’s a lot that does. I stumbled on Columbus, Indiana, after reading an article on the town. I visited, not for location, but just out of curiosity. I’m a bit of an architecture nerd myself. When I saw the town, it felt like it was telling that kind of story. It had a mood to it that drew me in. That very day, I thought, “I need to set this story in this town.” It really did make everything come together. Maybe characters are just floating around in your head, and not grounded, until you set them down in a physical space.
Q: Casey has a top-five list of favorite buildings, which she takes Jin on a tour of. I noticed that she doesn’t ever say what her number four is.
A: She doesn’t. That’s right. [Laughs]
Q: Did you have one in mind?
A: I know what her number four is. It’s the Polshek building, the one that goes across the stream, like a bridge.
Q: The Mental Health Services wing of the Columbus Regional Hospital?
A: Yes. I wanted to leave one unspecified. I had an idea of why certain buildings were going to hit Casey in a certain way, and I didn’t want it to look like the sensibility of someone who has loved architecture for 15 years and has studied it. That would be a different list.
Q: What does Saarinen’s Miller House — number one on Casey’s list — tell us about her sensibility?
A: It tells you that she’s really been influenced by architect Deborah Berke, because the Miller House is Berke’s favorite building in the world. If you are a young woman who loves architecture, Berke is going to be a hero to you, because there aren’t a lot of woman architects. The Miller House is probably the most significant building in Columbus. But Casey is looking at it through the eyes of her hero.
Q: Berke, a follower of Saarinen, designed Casey’s third-favorite building: the former Irwin Union Bank, which Casey explains that she fell in love with during the time she was coping with her mom’s addiction.It’s an odd choice, isn’t it? It’s sort of humble and strip-mall-ish.
A: It literally is in a strip mall. It isn’t really seen as architectural, if you don’t have the eyes to see it. It’s unassuming, but a really thoughtful building. It’s difficult for myself — and for Casey — to articulate why it hits her so powerfully.
Q: The building that houses the Republic newspaper is Casey’s fifth-favorite. What’s the appeal there?
A: Casey’s life is really messy. There was a period when it felt very chaotic. There’s something about the clean lines of that building — the transparency, even the way in which emptiness is revealed and structured — that she might not be able to articulate. But you can see the desire for order in her home. If we had shot the interior of her house three years before the action of the film, it wouldn’t look nearly as clean as it does. I wanted her house to look like she had taken over it. There’s something about the modern form itself — which is most obvious in the Mies van der Rohe simplicity that you see in early modernism — that registers with her.
Q: Casey’s number two is another bank, also by Saarinen. And the film features two churches: one by Eero Saarinen, and one by his father, Eliel. What is it with banks and churches?
A: Some of the most prominent modernist structures are churches and banks, which, in regard to what you are designing for, are almost opposites: God and mammon. But Casey’s not thinking about it that way. She’s simply lived around these buildings her whole life. This is the case with a lot of people in Columbus. Some notice buildings, and for others they’re just banks and churches. Jin has been raised by someone who intellectualizes architecture, and he’s grown cynical about it. When he presses Casey to say what moves her about a bank, he’s trying to get her to connect with an emotional response. He wants to know if it’s authentic. I will says this: When Casey answers, I kind of conceal her reasons, purposefully. I don’t want to fully explain her. What’s important to know is that she does have an emotional response.
Q: One question comes up a couple of times in the film: Can a building heal?
A: I don’t want to be coy, because that’s an important question for me: What is the function of art, of architecture or, for that matter, of cinema? Is it just a distraction? Is it something we just do as a career? Does it have power? If so, what does that mean? Polshek wrote about the “responsibility” of an architect. He said the decisions an architect makes are, in some ways, moral decisions. In a world where religion sometimes no longer seems tenable, can art play a role in helping us process what it means to be human? Maybe that involves the healing of certain messiness, or certain wounds.
Q: There are scenes set at the Bartholomew County Veterans Memorial. Are they meant to underscore the theme of absence?
A: Yes, it’s definitely something that’s infused throughout the film. I don’t want to be hyperliteral, but we can’t see space — absence — until someone frames it. The effort to understand our relationship to nothingness is ongoing for me. I suppose it will be, until I turn into nothingness.
Q: You said that Columbus has a mood to it that “drew you in.” What is that mood?
A: Something about that town is, at the same time, very hopeful and very sad. There is something about it that is very pregnant. Mike Pence grew up there. On the one hand, it’s this conservative place. On the other, you have this progressive industrialist, Miller, who believed that architecture and design mattered, and who almost treated Columbus as a kind of case study. He put money down, betting that it mattered. And it definitely has. But it also hasn’t. Columbus isn’t utopian. Architecture didn’t change everything. There’s something that I love about that, because I want to believe so desperately that these things matter, but it also reveals the limits of utopia. There’s is something really lovely, but also haunting, to have a vision of what art can and can’t do.
Columbus (Unrated, 104 minutes). At Landmark’s E Street Cinema.