The modern architectural masterpieces of Columbus, Indiana, take a lead role in a debut feature film, says Simon Knox


Simon Knox

Columbus, Indiana – almost certainly unlike the 22 other towns of that name in the United States – is a mecca for modern architecture. With a population of just 46,000, and best known now as the home town of vice-president Mike Pence, it has seven National Historic Landmarks, and buildings by both Eliel and Eero Saarinen, IM Pei, Robert Stern, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier and Kevin Roche, among many others. In an American Institute of Architects’ poll, Columbus ranked sixth in terms of its architectural sights, after Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington DC.


Joseph Irwin Miller (1909-2004), the industrialist and civil rights activist behind engine manufacturer Cummins, brought Columbus its international status. Through the Cummins Foundation, he paid the architects’ fees for all new public buildings in the town, as well commissioning two houses for himself by Eero Saarinen. Writing in ‘Modernist Midwest Mecca’, critic Justin Davidson says Miller “saw social justice as a tool of enlightened capitalism and design as the mark of a gracious, economically thriving city. The civic monuments and well-lit schools he paid for –these were not just the fruits of do-gooder altruism, but tools with which to recruit the brightest talents to a quiet provincial town”. In March last year I visited Columbus on a road trip from Pittsburgh and I was naturally excited to see that its architecture forms an integral part in a film – simply titled ‘Columbus’ – newly released in the UK.


The debut feature film, written and directed by a Korean-American critic who works under the pseudonym Kogonada, is a delicate account of two people adrift in Columbus. Jin (played by John Cho) is keen to escape the monotony of the hospital waiting room while his father, an eminent South Korean architect, in town to deliver a lecture, lies in a coma. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who has put life on hold to keep her addict mother on track, works as a tour guide and librarian. Casey and Jin strike up a friendship and visit the sites: Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, IM Pei’s library, and Eero Saarinen’s Miller House, the Irwin Bank and the North Christian Church. As they wander, their conversations range across idealism and the healing power of buildings and modernism’s relationship with religion, punctuated by memorable lines such as “meths and modernism”.

The unhurried pace of the film allows us  to linger over the interiors and facades in detail, and these are made just as suggestive as much of the dialogue. Kogonada carefully frames the actors in doorways and reflects them in mirrors, foregrounding the architecture, with much taking place within the Irwin Miller family home, The film is admirably acted, artfully composed, and employs Columbus’s sharp modern architecture to balance the tribulations of love in a very tender way.

‘Columbus’ is written and directed by Kogonada, and produced by Depth of Field, Nonetheless Productions and Superlative Films

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