Thursday, August 16, 2018

Through an Architect's Eyes: A Conversation About Columbus

John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson in Kogonada's Columbus. (Photo: IMDB)

Columbus, the indie debut feature by renowned video essayist Kogonada, is widely considered one of the best films of 2017 and garnered a rapturous response at this year’s Ebertfest. Set among the world-famous modernist buildings of Columbus, Indiana, it tells the story of two people stuck in an in-between phase of their lives: Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a nineteen-year-old architecture fan and daughter of a divorced former opioid addict (Michelle Forbes), and Jin (John Cho), the estranged son of a celebrated Korean architecture professor who suddenly collapses. They meet by chance and spend their days together talking about architecture. Both Richardson and Cho give superb performances, Complemented by the assured direction and the formalist cinematography of Elisha Christian, shooting on location in the eponymous town. Columbus stands out for its many gorgeous and moving shots of well-known modernist buildings, including the Miller House, the Columbus Regional Hospital Mental Health Center, the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, and the Irwin Union Bank building. In her review for, Sheila O’Malley writes of the film, “What is remarkable is how intense it is, given the stillness and quiet of Kogonada’s style, and the focus with which he films the buildings.” And Nathan Knapp’s heartfelt analysis of Columbus for the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room is one of the best pieces of film criticism I’ve yet encountered.

As architecture is such a prominent part of the film, I was interested in how someone with formal architectural training might see it. Humphrey Yang is a high-school classmate of mine who received his degree in architecture not too long ago and is now pursuing graduate studies in computational design at Carnegie Mellon. Our discussion below, which has been edited and condensed, covers the art and engineering aspects of architecture, how to shoot an architectural film, why Columbus isn’t one, and how it might have turned out in a non-Western context.

When did you become interested in architecture and design?
I became interested in architecture in freshman year of high school; I made the decision to study architecture even before I decided to focus on humanities. One day I just suddenly became interested in what architects stand for – culture, style, and work that lasts for centuries. Architecture is not only art but also engineering. The work is often long-lasting and inspires people centuries later.

What styles of architecture appeal to you the most?
I was more into modernist architecture before I entered architecture school, the kind of buildings present in the movie. They’re monumental, symbolic, and pristine. The site is clean with few features, and architects can pretty much do whatever they want. After I received architectural training, I became more interested in the opposite style. I admire architects who take a complex [environmental] context into account in their conceptualization and bring novel ideas into the mix. Architects or firms I like include Richard Rogers and B.I.G. The former designs architecture with innovative mechanical systems, and the latter with insightful spatial strategies.

It sounds like you position modernist and contextual architecture as opposites. In the film, a number of modernist buildings seem to interact with their natural contexts, like with water or a low-lying stream.
An iconic building that interacts well with nature is Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright, considered the textbook case. Nature can be compliant, especially when you’re harnessing it aesthetically. I like works that harness nature by mechanical means. Think about evolution: those that survive and thrive are those who adapt and fit the context, rather than those who are merely aesthetically prominent.

There’s one building in the film, the walkway to the mental hospital, that gives Casey a sense of peace. Jin talks about it being designed as a kind of “healing art.” Do you think some buildings can be healing?
I’d say that the hospital building is interacting with its context more visually and scenically. Not sure “healing” is the right term, though. I guess it varies for different people with different experiences. I myself have never felt healed by buildings, but I do find some architectural scenes soothing. For example, in Skyfall, at the end James Bond stands steadily on the rooftop of MI6 overlooking London: that scene is soothing to me because after the hard work saving the country from anarchy, the view of London carrying on like nothing happened is his consolation. Architecture can also be inspiring. Taipei 101 is considered an architectural design failure. Aesthetically, it’s alien to its context, and its bulk volume stands out. To critics, it’s something that’s forced onto the site or context, rather than something that’s, ideally, organic. But I believe the spirit it stands for as the [former] tallest building in the world – hard work and public achievement – is what truly inspires people. It’s more of a cultural statement than a good building.

That scene in Skyfall is immediately preceded by M’s death. Wouldn’t it thus be a form of grieving, or even healing?
I guess you can put it that way. Soothing and healing can be the same thing.

What do you think about the way Columbus uses the architecture of Columbus, Indiana?
In general, I think the director could’ve done a better job. There’s a thing called “cinemetrics” in architecture. Depending on the scene and the film context, the director could’ve shot with different camera movements. Kogonada was inspired by the work of Yasujiro Ozu, who is known for perpendicular shot compositions. I’d argue that Kogonada was influenced by Ozu too much and shot every scene in the movie with static, perpendicular compositions, which may not represent the architecture well. People experience buildings dynamically. We wander around buildings and perceive them as 3D spaces instead of 2D images, as in the film. So I don’t believe that perpendicular static shot compositions are the best way to express architecture.

Do you mean that the ideal architectural film would use a building’s unique spatial arrangement dynamically as an integral part of the story?
Yes. I suggest you look into the book Cinemetrics by Brian McGrath and Jean Gardner. Not only does it explain the relationship between spaces, shots, and stories, but also it enlightens people as to how to enjoy movies in a spatial sense. It explains how three directors capture different spaces differently in response to different stories.

And Kogonada treated the buildings too formally, more like paintings than buildings?
Yes, that’s how I feel. But one thing I think the director did right is, he uses kinetic shots for Jin and Casey’s interactions. All of the shots in the movie are static aside from those of Jin and Casey. Those are dynamic and moving, implying there’s some kind of chemistry between them.

What did you think of the static shots of them beside the car?
I think those shots are more about the chemistry, interactions, and spiritual connection between them, rather than drawing out architectural implications. In fact, I think the buildings are just a medium to express their relationship, and not the focus of the movie. To put it another way, the architecture is the background. The movie would still work if you moved it to New York.

Do you think the buildings are successful as the medium of their relationship?
I don’t know how to answer that, to be honest. The film does take famous and iconic buildings as background, but I don’t see how they augment the storytelling. Again, the movie may work just as well if we moved the scenes to New York.

What did you think of the scenes set in building interiors, like in the library or the Miller House?
I think those scenes are oriented more toward architectural introduction and aesthetics than storytelling. What are those shots for? When Casey is in the library talking with a guy whom she doesn’t like [Gabriel, played by Rory Culkin], why use the waffle structure as background? It doesn’t help the story.

Would you say that the film is more about two people who happen to speak the common language of architecture?
Yes. Architecture is the background rather than the spotlight of the film, despite the fact that Columbus does have plenty of iconic architecture.

What did you think of the film in general?
It depends on what perspective you take. For a layperson or architecture novice, the movie is probably inspiring, but for someone trained in architecture such as myself, the movie is controversial. In terms of personal taste, I think the movie is too docile and calm, lacking the excitement and atmosphere required to make a good movie.

You mentioned that, given how the film uses architecture, it doesn’t really matter where it’s set. Here, Jin, who’s Korean, is stuck in the American Midwest. For a more architectural film, would there be any major differences if it were set in an East Asian context versus a Western one?
The general feeling would be different; notice that most of the buildings in the film are rather monumental – standing by themselves, at most surrounded by nature. In Asia, this would be unlikely to happen. Western buildings are often bright and open, while East-Asian buildings tend to be spatially economic and often sacrifice spatial quality, for example street houses that are elongated and have minimum sunlight intake. The densities are also different. In the movie, you can shoot the buildings cleanly without pedestrians or other disturbances, but in East Asia it would be almost impossible to do so.

So maybe such a film would feel more anxious or claustrophobic?
Yes. But claustrophobia depends on personal experience. We [from Taiwan] probably would find it heartwarming. But it would most likely make Swedes [for example] feel claustrophobic.

– CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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