Columbus Plays Itself

In this Student Voices essay, Vassar student Charlie Tynan analyzes architecture and emotionality in the 2017 film Columbus.
[Ed. note: This article is part of our bi-annual, peer-reviewed Student Voices section. Click here to read about this issue and the other articles in the section.]

When discussing modern architecture, Columbus, Indiana is probably not the first city that comes to mind. Or the second. Or the third. Columbus, however, plays a rich and textured role in the history of modern architecture and is full of important buildings. This landscape is foregrounded in Kogonada’s 2017 directorial debut, Columbus. Architecture in Columbus is characterized as an emotional touchstone for the characters; only through talking about and observing architecture can the characters open up. The positioning of architecture as conducive to emotionality is combined with its function of reinforcing political and social structures, suggesting that not only is the personal political, but so is the physical.

In 1999, the city of Columbus applied to register a number of locations in the city as historic with the National Park Service. As the application form states, “the Columbus area hosts an exceptional collection of Modern buildings, landscapes, and public sculpture” by designers and architects who experimented with form in Columbus before moving on to create “more famous” works in other places.1National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form (Indianapolis, Indiana: 1991), 1. The city, specifically the downtown area, exists as a cultural and social artifact of artistic legacy. In a book examining the history of modern architecture, Alan Colquhoun states that, though the term is ambiguous, it can be “understood more specifically as an architecture conscious of its own modernity and striving for change.”2Alan Colquhoun, Modern Architecture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 9. It is interesting to note that the form registering the historic sites acknowledges the overlooked nature of Columbus’s architectural importance, stating that there are more famous works elsewhere. This unrecognized potential is an important part of Kogonada’s film, as we see Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman taking care of her mother while deciding whether to leave and study architecture, grappling with her own unrecognized potential. Just like modern architecture, Casey is conscious of her own modernity and striving for change. By situating his film in a city with important, albeit overlooked, architectural works rather than more recognizable monuments (like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago), Kogonada draws a connection between diegetic and non-diegetic reality, as we see the reflection of Casey’s indeterminate confidence in the reputations of the buildings.

Columbus characterizes architecture in several ways: as historically significant; as a mirror to the mental and emotional state of the protagonists; and as a pathway to accessing one’s emotionality. The historical importance of Columbus, as seen in the sixty-one-page form detailing the history of architecture in Columbus and listing every building it designates as important, is at the forefront of the film from the first moment. Jin (John Cho) arrives in Columbus to look after his comatose father, a famous architect; Casey cares for her mother, a recovering drug addict. Casey is also able to spew out historical facts about different buildings in Columbus without hesitation. Architecture is inescapable for these characters, whether this is for better or for worse. For Jin it is oppressive, representing his father and their relationship; for Casey, it is hopeful, the key to her future. Through their talks, they find ways of understanding each other, despite their first interaction, wherein Casey hears Jin speaking Korean and assumes he is not American. Architecture, then, is metaphorically significant as much as it is historically.

Another way that architecture is characterized in the film is as a conduit for emotional vulnerability. This is evident in a scene that takes place outside the Irwin Union Bank, designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1954, in which Jin asks Casey why the building moves her.3National Park Service, National Register, 9.

Casey and Jin stand at the exterior of the Irwin Union Bank centered in a long shot with their backs to the camera

Before he asks her this, Casey mechanically recites historical facts about the building, in a shot which only shows her reflection in the glass exterior of the bank. However, after Jin asks what moves her, the film cuts to the interior of the bank, placing the viewer inside the architecture being discussed as we observe the rest of their conversation separated from the characters. Their dialogue cannot be heard after this cut, replaced instead with room tone and a sweeping ambient score. This scene illustrates Casey’s connection to the city and to the urban architecture, suggesting that the easiest way for her to communicate is through architecture, through the city itself. As Casey rattles off historical facts about the bank, we only see her reflection; there is a disconnect between her intellectual interest in the building and her full, corporeal self. When the film cuts to her answering Jin’s question about why the building moves her, we see her centered in the frame, fully present. It is not only the facts that tie Casey to the city, but her emotions as well. As Andrew Carew states, “here, architecture can be a source of salvation – not just in terms of literal buildings in which humans can be healed… but also in the way it can help people find a sense of order and calm in chaotic lives.”4Andrew Carew, “Building the Fourth Wall: Architecture and the Moving Image,” Screen Education, no. 93 (2019). Only in describing the bank and her relationship to it can Casey be fully visible and real and can she fully articulate herself to others. That we, the viewers, are not privy to her answer and are instead positioned within the architecture looking out, suggests that her emotional connection is her own, that it is not ours to consume and dissect; this action of withholding the viewer pleasure or closure is a political one, a designation I will explore later in the paper.

The threefold characterization of architecture as historically significant, metaphorically potent, and personally emotional does not mean that these characterizations are separate from each other; rather, these all exist at the same time, blurred and mixed together. The implication of this mixing is that the linkage between emotionality and historicity is architecture, and that this linkage is built (at least in Columbus) via metaphor, as can be seen in the aforementioned scene at the Irwin Union Bank. This intermingling is also seen in the situations of the characters: Casey’s identity is an amalgamation of her love of architecture and her relationship with her mother; Jin’s identity is an amalgamation of his dislike of architecture and his relationship with his father. These characters’ individual histories and emotionalities are explained through the architecture; it is impossible to dissect one without also dissecting the other.

Columbus is a political exploration of identity and how identity cannot be extricated from its physical surroundings. In its depiction of an Asian American and a lower-class woman struggling to reconcile their identities with the reality of their situations, the film suggests that not only is the personal political, but the physical is political, as well: more specifically, that the physical is personal is political. In “The Quiet Radicalism of Columbus,” Bilal Qureshi explores some of the political underpinnings of the film, especially as it relates to the political landscape of the post-election year it was released in. He states that the fact that “Korean dialogue hovers in and out of the film without subtitles” encapsulates the subtle approach to politics that Kogonada implements.5Bilal Qureshi, “The Quiet Radicalism of Columbus,” Film Quarterly 71, no. 3 (March 2018), 78. It is this denial of accessibility or comprehension that marks the film as political; similar to how Casey’s explanation of why the Irwin Union Bank moves her is not heard, by withholding viewer identification and pleasure with one of the main characters via lack of translation, Kogonada suggests that not all viewers deserve to receive this identification or pleasure. Identity plays an important role not only in the lives of the characters, but also in the lives of the audience.

The film not only depicts real-life physical structures in Columbus, but also social structures like racism or sexism that affect the lives of the fictional characters. Travis Warren Cooper argues that this positioning of the film as “real” (or, rather, not completely fictional) points to it being a neorealist film. If we understand Columbus as taking inspiration from the neorealist movement, an intensely political style of filmmaking, then this allows Kogonada to “defy Hollywood norms, blend the ethnographic with the fictional, refocus on marginalia, and speak through cinematography and narrative to architectural and design theory.”6Travis Warren Cooper, “Kogonada’s Urban Neorealism,” Film Criticism 44, no. 1 (January 2020). Additionally, the use of location shooting (a key aspect of neorealism) emphasizes both the importance of the architecture and the importance of this specific architecture, rather than other, more recognizable modern buildings. Through the blending of real and fictional, the idea that the physical is personal is political becomes concrete. For example, there is a scene in which Jin and Casey go to a building which Casey says comforts her; interestingly, this is another branch of the Irwin Union Bank, but this one designed by a woman, Deborah Berke. It is one of the only landmarks featured in the film that was designed by a woman.7Cooper, “Kogonada’s Urban Neorealism.” Here we see the physical (the bank) combined with the personal (Casey’s emotional response to it) and with the political (the subtle nod to gender inequality in the architectural field). By using real world landmarks rather than fully fictional, metaphorical ones, Kogonada makes it impossible to separate the film and its messaging from reality. Through Kogonada’s manipulation of the visual identification of the viewer and his use of neorealist techniques, the film can be read as intensely (though subtly) political. Architecture, for the characters, is a historical, emotional, and political touchstone.

Casey and Jin sit on a bench at the Round Lake with a view of the Covered Bridge at Mill Race Park in a long shot with the pair in the bottom left corner, backs to the camera, and the lake and bridge spreading out in front of them.

Columbus completed a record-setting run in the titular city, “with 8,953 tickets sold” in a six-week period.8Brian Blair,“Record setting local run of ‘Columbus’ ends — for now,” The Republic, October 17th, 2017. Citizens of Columbus were naturally interested in seeing a film so directly intertwined with their city; the film was also a critical success nationwide. The positioning of architecture as conducive to emotionality in Columbus is juxtaposed with its existence as reinforcing political and social structures, suggesting that not only is the personal political, but so is the physical. That a film as intensely intertwined and in direct conversation with urban theory as this became so popular points to the opening up of conversations on how urbanism is both a product and producer of cinema.



1 National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form (Indianapolis, Indiana: 1991), 1.
2 Alan Colquhoun, Modern Architecture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 9.
3 National Park Service, National Register, 9.
4 Andrew Carew, “Building the Fourth Wall: Architecture and the Moving Image,” Screen Education, no. 93 (2019).
5 Bilal Qureshi, “The Quiet Radicalism of Columbus,” Film Quarterly 71, no. 3 (March 2018), 78.
6 Travis Warren Cooper, “Kogonada’s Urban Neorealism,” Film Criticism 44, no. 1 (January 2020).
7 Cooper, “Kogonada’s Urban Neorealism.”
8 Brian Blair,“Record setting local run of ‘Columbus’ ends — for now,” The Republic, October 17th, 2017.
Tynan, Charlie. "Columbus Plays Itself." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 2 (June 2023)
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