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'Columbus' and the means of modernism in architecture

film review

The town of Columbus, Ind. is the setting of writer-director Kogonada's film "Columbus," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
The town of Columbus, Ind. is the setting of writer-director Kogonada's film "Columbus," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

To those who call Columbus, Ind. home, the sight of tourists clustered in packs, mulling around the streets, is not uncommon. Visitors ogle the city’s buildings — many of them sterling examples of modern architecture — marveling at the feats of design, wondering how so many iconic architects converged on one relatively small Midwestern community.

And so, of course, the film “Columbus,” which takes place in the titular Mecca of modernist architecture and charts the quiet blossoming of an odd-couple friendship between Jin (John Cho) and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), is full of shots composed around two things: angular, glass-paned modernist buildings and droves of tourists come to see them.

These were the images that met me on the cool Thursday night I saw “Columbus” at the Hunt Library at N.C. State. I was there for the film, caught up in the promise of the rapturous reviews I’d read after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. However, my fellow moviegoers appeared less concerned with the narrative of “Columbus” or its critical reception and more concerned with the film’s setting, the modern architecture and the group that had organized the screening, North Carolina Modernist Houses.

“We are a nonprofit that focuses on preserving, promoting and documenting modernist homes,” NCMH Development Director Rebekah Laney told me as I peppered her with questions prior to the screening. “We were started as a database, one man putting local homes that were in modernist style on this website, and now we are the largest digital archive in the world focusing on modernist architecture.”

When Laney wasn’t warmly greeting moviegoers and dispensing tickets, she told me that North Carolina is home to the third largest concentration of modernist houses in the country, that the organization has hosted the movie series of which “Columbus” was a part for about five years (the organization itself is 10 years old) and that one of the group’s tours, which span the country and world, found them in Columbus, Ind. Before I entered the auditorium to find my seat, I asked one last question: What is the value of preserving modernist houses?

“We love modern architecture,” Laney said. “We love the way it lives as well as the way its beauty is displayed, so I think yes, there are a lot of answers to that question, but in general, there’s a lot of history, there’s a lot to be learned from the people [who] built these homes and so preserving them is a win across the board.”

As I watched the film, which is achingly beautiful, I was struck by its interrogation of architecture’s worth, its questioning of what constitutes beauty in a building. Writer-director Kogonada never turns “Columbus” into a love letter. Through his laser-focused attention to visual composition and the quiet exchange of dialogue, Kogonada signals that modern architecture’s worth and meaning lie not in its archetypal aesthetic or design parameters — absence of ornaments, open spaces and the like — but in the way people use the building, live in it, benefit from it.

“In scholarship, I try to think of modernism as more a series of social, political and artistic responses to modernization,” said Burak Erdim, assistant professor of architecture at the N.C. State College of Design. “So that allows us to kind of assess architectural production not in terms of the way it looks, whether it has a flat roof or horizontal windows or what not, but in terms of how it really addresses the needs of a society or the experiences of a society kind of moving through the process of modernization.”

In the film, Jin, whose father is an architect, remarks, “you grow up around something and it feels like nothing.” He and the residents of Columbus, with the exception of Casey, are nonplussed by the feats of modern architecture in their midst. The tourists seem superfluous, strange. Kogonada recognizes this, filming alleyways and streets of cracked pavement with the same geometric precision through which he shoots the buildings — there is an implicit contrast between the beautiful architecture, the tourist stuff, and the side of the community that’s been truly lived-in, perhaps too lived-in. The question at the film’s core is clear: Whom do the buildings, however beautiful they may be, actually serve? 

Kogonada recently spoke with IndieWire on the film’s central question. He said, “This little town became a canvas for modern architects, and for me it became this case study, this experiment, can architecture make a difference – or does modernism and this dream of modernism, what happens if you put it in the middle of this town? What is the effect of that?” 

When I spoke with Juan Coll-Barreu, associate professor of architecture at the N.C. State College of Design, about the future of modern architecture, he said it should be democratic, incorporate the most advanced design possible and evolve to benefit all people on an intimate, human level. Coll-Barreu added that we should focus on the architects trying to accomplish these goals:

“These women and men that are everyday working and trying to make a new architecture, trying to make a better architecture, trying to improve the conditions for the people…”

It’s this question that Kogonada wrestles with throughout the film: How do communities realize the promise of modernism? And more specifically, how do people interact with architectural landmarks in Columbus — a city defined by, in the words of Casey, “meth and modernism”?

As “Columbus” wandered forward, some of the audience began to get restless. They were lost in the film’s slow pace. When Laney took the stage to thank everyone for coming and pass out a few prizes, she remarked, “It was a long one tonight.”

She wasn’t wrong. But the film, so full of detail, every shot thoughtfully composed, felt like a sort of edifying reverie. It was worth the time. All it asked for in return was an attention to detail, a willingness to think critically about the buildings and the way the characters were framed by them. It occurs to me that the same can be said of modern architecture. With attention to design and its relation to people, the potential for nourishment, for edification is nearly boundless.


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