It's a pity Hollywood has no Oscar for best supporting architecture, because "Columbus" would have been a contender. The quirky indie film was shot in the small Indiana city of 45,000 people, known to modernist design geeks the world over.
The monumental (if mute) second cast was cherry-picked from more than 90 buildings, bridges, parks and sculptures from the mid 20th century to early in this century, plus an 1864 ancestral mansion turned fancy bed-and-breakfast with splendid formal gardens.
The debut feature by one-name visual essayist Kogonada tenderly explores whether architecture can heal the pain of two strangers. Jon Cho plays Jin, a translator who has come from Seoul to see his estranged father, an architecture scholar who fell gravely ill here. Haley Lu Richardson is Casey, a homegrown modernist obsessive who delays college to watch over her mother, a recovering meth addict.
Jin and Casey smoke a lot and talk a lot outside and inside 15 of the city’s most recognizable edifices. An hour after the credits rolled, I was plotting a trip.
Happily, my midcentury ramble coincided with Exhibit Columbus, a three-month celebration of architecture, design, art and community mounted by Landmark Columbus and the Heritage Fund, two cultural nonprofit organizations.
From late August through late November, a new wave of thinkers and makers exhibited projects aimed at sparking conversations about design. Five of the 10 invited competitors won a prestigious J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize and a chunk of cash each to create large-scale installations; another dozen projects came from innovative designers, fabricators and students.
For me, “Columbus” the movie (now on iTunes) and Columbus, the city, delivered an architourism trifecta: a cinematic valentine to great design, a bumper crop of iconic originals and a preview of the next new things.
First stop was the Columbus Area Visitors Center for a $3 detailed map with 97 site photos and pithy captions; the companion mobile guide for smartphones is free with purchase. I also utilized a third option — using the center’s one-page list of Kogonada film locations. During two leisurely days on foot or by car, I ogled the unconnected halves of City Hall’s red brick arch; a brutalist observation tower in Mill Race Park; the soaring and somber limestone pillars of the veterans’ memorial; a mental-health center straddling burbling Haw Creek, and a glass rectangle of a bank cantilevered over three drive-through lanes in a strip mall.
I headed straightaway for Fifth Street, long ago dubbed the “Avenue of the Architects.” From the second floor of the Bartholomew County library, designed in 1959 by I.M. Pei, I peered down at browsers meandering through rows of bookshelves, and gazed up at a vast concrete coffered ceiling that made the interior feel like a hushed literary hive. Pei wanted to anchor Library Plaza with a Henry Moore piece. “Large Arch,” all 12-by-20 heroic feet of weathered green bronze, succeeds magnificently.
During Exhibit Columbus, the arch was partly surrounded by “Conversation Plinth,” by the firm IKD. The multilevel 2017 installation, made of steel and experimental cross-laminated Indiana hardwood (which didn’t weather so well), became an instant gathering place. Day and night, people sat, dozed, texted, did homework, jumped, climbed or just hung out. The Plinth was also a hot venue for cool events, including a yoga class, concerts, bridal party photo ops and a doggy Halloween costume competition.
Directly across Fifth Street stands the city’s original modernist building — Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, with its subtly asymmetrical grid on the facade. Charles Eames designed the pews. Loja Saarinen, a weaver and the first of the few women involved in seven decades of Columbus design, worked with her husband on the “Sermon on the Mount” tapestry. First Baptist’s free-standing, 166-foot-high bell tower provided dramatic contrast to “Wiikiaami,” a 2017 wigwam of weathered metal panels and rebar, an homage to Indiana’s Maayami people by studio:indigenous.
None of this would have happened without J. Irwin Miller. The scion of the diesel engine dynasty Cummins was mad for modernism, hiring the best architects not only for his many corporate buildings but also for schools, libraries, fire stations, hospitals and municipal offices.
By the 1950s, the Cummins Foundation was paying design fees to ensure clean-lined public buildings in the city and county. Miller, however, would only underwrite his five favorite architects. How better, he thought, to lure a sophisticated, international workforce to soybean country 45 miles south of Indianapolis than with an avant-garde oasis?
For his own 1957 modernist family home on 10 choice acres, Miller used his go-to troika: architect Eero Saarinen (Eliel’s son), landscape architect Dan Kiley and interior designer Alexander Girard, whose legendary sunken conversation pit inspired the Conversation Plinth 64 years later. Largely glass, white marble and limestone, the house seamlessly marries the indoors and outdoors, working as well for the Miller kids’ sleepover pillow fights and pool parties as for the parents’ elegant VIP gatherings.
The $25 docent-led tour of what has rightly been called “America’s most significant modernist house” was worth the whole trip because most of the Millers’ original furnishings and collections remain. The most important Impressionist and modern artworks, consigned to Christie’s by their heirs, brought $132 million. They gave their parents’ home to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which opened it to the public.
My second-favorite building was the six-sided North Christian Church, a Saarinen/Kiley/Girard encore. Topped by a gold-leaf cross, the 192-foot spire rises heavenward from a low, hexagonal roof. The sanctuary, with pews around the perimeter, is partially lit by a geometric oculus in the ceiling. The church was Saarinen’s last project. He died in 1964 at 51, three years before its completion.
Kogonada discovered Columbus, a four-hour drive from his Nashville home, on a family outing. He started shooting in 2016, using locals to play tourists and townspeople opposite Cho, Richardson and the rest of the cast.
Not everyone who lives here likes “Columbus.” Too slow, they say, too much swearing and way too much cigarette smoking in an area ravaged by addiction.
Others are thrilled that Kogonada shone his discerning light on the city where, it happens, Vice President Pence grew up, and where millennials are discovering good jobs, affordable housing and a rich cultural history.
Those involved with “Columbus,” the movie, hope its many raves yield such indie accolades as the upcoming Gotham and Independent Spirit awards .
Those involved with Columbus, the city, want to keep the current tourist boomlet going. Next year, Exhibit Columbus will host a high-wattage design symposium; in 2019, a new set of outdoor installations will appear.
On a recent Sunday, New York architect Aaron Schiller, a grandson of J. Irwin Miller, went to see the First Christian Church.
“Are you here for Jesus or are you here for the architecture?’’ he was asked.
A fair question, to be sure, and one likely to be repeated often in the future.
Groer is a writer based in Washington. Find her on Twitter: @anniegroer.
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Hotel Indigo Columbus Architectural Center
400 Brown St.
This 85-room hotel is colorful, contempo and proudly design-oriented, with a lively lobby and bar. Rooms start at $150 for a double, $280 for a suite.
The Inn at Irwin Gardens
608 Fifth St.
This circa-1864 mansion was J. Irwin Miller's ancestral home until his family moved to Saarinen's masterpiece, leaving behind a house full of antiques. Breakfast is in the formal dining room, tea can be taken on the veranda and the gardens are open to the public on a limited basis. Rooms start at $175, suites at $225.
Henry Social Bar
423 Washington St.
A local favorite for its buzzy cocktail scene and modern American menu that hits all the right foodie notes: artisinal, home-baked and handmade. Starters from $8, entrees from $15.
Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor
329 Washington St.
A family-owned establishment, located at the same address since 1900. You could eat a burger, salad or mac and cheese, but I'd skip right to dessert: shakes, cones and malteds, sundaes, sodas and splits. The second floor museum includes a large collection of pre-1900 marble soda fountains. The ground-floor spot is where J. Irwin and Eero Saarinen often discussed projects. Starters from $4.25, sandwiches from $6.75.
Columbus Area Visitors Center
506 Fifth St.
The Columbus Area Visitors Center offers a $3 map that comes with a free mobile guide for smartphones and tablets. The website handles tour reservations and gives more historical detail than fits on the map.
Miller House and Gardens
The $25, docent-led tour of this National Historic Landmark is terrific and fills up early. From December to March, the 90-minute tours are conducted at 12:45 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Specialty tours of the property, owned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, cost from $65 to $100. Tours depart from the Columbus Area Visitors Center; participants are transported to the site via shuttle.
Baker's Fine Gifts
433 Washington St.
The official Exhibit Columbus logo appears all over the city on banners, buildings and clothing, and the best souvenir here is a T-shirt, with one of the eye-popping, colorful logos, for $29.50. The shop also sells chic barware and travel gadgets.