Edwin Arnaudin: As an architect and someone who spent a good chunk of his childhood in Indiana, what significance does the town of Columbus hold for you?
Steve Arnaudin: I knew about Cummins Diesel on account of a car they had entered in the 1952 Indy 500. Yet, it was not until I was in college that I learned about the significant group of modern architecture in Columbus and that primarily one executive with Cummins started the ball rolling on getting notable architects to design buildings there. The Cummins Foundation pays the architectural fees. The significance is that so many great works of modern architecture are in Columbus and that a visionary businessman made this possible.
Edwin: How many times have you visited?
Steve: Just the once, all four of us went there.
Edwin: Despite having two road-tired elementary schoolers in tow, how did seeing the town stack up with the expectations for it you’d presumably built up over the years?
Steve: In spite of the fact that we only saw a fraction of the architecture in Columbus, the place exceeded my expectations. For whatever reason, I was not prepared to see old downtown buildings as well as the modern architecture. I was particularly caught off guard by the magnificence of the Eliel Saarinen designed First Christian Church (the “asymmetrical” church in the movie). To be in that place is a breathtaking emotion experience. Photos do not adequately convey this church’s architectural spirit and soul.
Edwin: On a similar note, when you first heard about Columbus, how did you hope one-name writer/director Kogonada (best known for acclaimed video essays about film history) might incorporate the town into a narrative film — and how did those thoughts compare with the film itself?
Steve: I erroneously assumed that the architecture of Columbus might simply provide an incidental backdrop. However, these works of architecture become actors in the film!
Edwin: Agreed. The integral incorporation of the buildings and their significances into the plot and the lives of 19-year-old design enthusiast Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and Jin (John Cho), who's in town from Seoul to visit his hospitalized architecture scholar father, is a pleasant surprise. I also like the skewering of my Master of Library Science degree [by Casey's book-shelving coworker, played by Rory Culkin], but the film’s respect for architecture is remarkable.
Steve: The MLS jab was unexpected!
Edwin: It had me cracking up!
Kogonada has a sharp eye for framing the buildings so that they’re beautiful but make sense within the story. Did you feel like any one was put to especially strong use?
Steve: There were several buildings that perhaps were used repeatedly for a symbolic reasons, that I have not yet been able to explain. One is the First Christian Church, which is across the street from the I.M. Pei designed library, as well as being across the street from the Inn at Irwin Gardens. Yet, First Christian Church was placed very intentionally in a number of scenes, including scenes from the underside of its two-story building element that “bridges” across a grassy area (e.g. when the professor's assistant played by Parker Posey is on the phone when her boss walks off and collapses). The red tower of the suspension bridge spanning Flatrock River also plays prominently in the movie.
Edwin: As much as I enjoy the scenery and the people who drive the narrative, Columbus often moves at a pace that’s a bit too leisurely for me. Nonetheless, it feels appropriate for Casey and Jin as well as the place while encouraging viewers to take the time to engage with the film’s surroundings. Did you have a similar experience?
Steve: My mood while watching Columbus was one of wanting to savor it, not only on account of the architecture, but because it was apparent from the start that the integration of story and architecture is rich. Any sluggishness of pace did not burden me.
Edwin: Do you think your fellow architects will have a similar response or are some likely to find fault with Kogonada’s use of the beloved town?
Steve: Quite a number of architect colleagues feel obliged to express criticism. In the case of Columbus, I would hope that they would both appreciate the movie and be grateful that the “Emerald City” of modern architecture is being showcased in a worthy manner.
Edwin: Perhaps it will be film critics who become the work’s most vocal champions. It’s received near unanimous positive reviews, rightly praising the visuals and performances by Cho, Posey and especially Richardson, who’s been memorable in a handful of supporting turns (The Bronze; The Edge of Seventeen; Split) and makes the most of her first lead opportunity. (For what it’s worth, her father is a golf course architect.) Were you particularly taken with any of the cast?
Steve: Rightly so, Richardson particularly stood apart from the rest. The story revolves around her character. She seized that role, putting forth a remarkable piece of acting. Others in the film were no slouches. But, Richardson shined.
Edwin: Cho is known for wackier comedic roles (American Pie; the Harold and Kumar stoner movies), so it was a pleasure to see him handle a meatier role with ease. And Posey is one of my favorites, so it’s always a delight to see her. Their combined efforts and those of Kogonada get an A-minus from me.
Steve: I know the name Parker Posey and have seen her in roles. Others in the cast were either less familiar to me; or, I have never heard of them. A-minus is the right grade. A director should not receive an A on a first full length film!
Grade: A-minus. Not rated, but with adult themes and language. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse
(Photos: Superlative Films)