I recently watched Columbus, a movie set in the small Indiana town of the same name, a mecca for modernist architecture and public art, and one lauded by architecture and film buffs alike as a “cinematic valentine to great design“.
Directed by Kogonada, the film orbits around the estranged relationship between a Korean-born man named Jin (John Cho) and his ailing father, a renowned architecture academic who has collapsed and fallen into a coma. While waiting for news about his father’s condition, the film intimately explores the emotional distance between the two, one rooted in a complex past: Jin’s decision to leave his family to pursue his own passions years ago, the lingering guilt of abandoning family commitments, the simmering resentments born between a son measuring up to his acclaimed father.
It’s during his stay Jin also crosses paths with Casey, a young woman who has lived in Columbus, Indiana her entire life. She is a self-identifying “architecture nerd”, well-versed in her hometown’s architectural vernacular, mooring similar emotional conflicts between past and present: hindered aspirations related to a recovering addict mother, the personal doubts of someone who stayed after everyone left, and the simmering realization her prospects are evaporating.
Their parallels sow the seeds of an unhurried friendship, one which blooms around their observations about architecture – her’s in appreciation, his in doubt.
“Notice how the cross and the doors and the clock are all off-center. This design, Saarinen’s design is asymmetrical, yet still remains balanced.” Casey makes this observation during a cigarette break in front of Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church, our introduction to her character. Then later again – this time with Jin – she repeats the same observation about asymmetry verbatim after bringing him to contemplate its significance. This diametric state of symmetry and asymmetry plays a prevalent theme throughout Columbus – both architecturally and emotionally – as each character seeks to find the same balance reflected through the film’s cinematography.
Though Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and Jin (John Cho) are excellent, the film’s main stars are its architecture and landscape. The film takes the audience on a narrative journey through the city of Columbus through beautifully composed scenes, each suggesting a story about the human connection with architecture and the emotions exceptional design evokes. It is through the film’s architectural settings Jin and Casey slowly reveal their innermost emotions, sometimes with only a very minimal amount of dialogue – a subtle complement to many of the film’s quietly contemplative surroundings.
In one scene, Casey brings Jin to her favorite building, offering an appreciative, if not impersonal assessment of the building’s significance. In turn, Jin asks why the building moves her. The scene is filmed with Casey answering Jin in the foreground, the two framed by a symmetrical colonnade of trees. The dialogue is muted and replaced by a serene musical score. In this moment the audience can only imagine Casey’s response, but we can all identify her love and passion simply by her expressions, surrounded by the landscape she intimately knows and loves.
Similarly, my admiration for Columbus arrived quietly – in appreciation of its carefully crafted composition and its subdued nature. As a landscape architect I strive to bring memories and feeling of the natural world into built urban environments, and in Columbus I could identify my own hopes to compose experience so skillfully.