The Shape of Space: Architecture and the Observer in Columbus

A glass bridge overlooks a river, engulfed by the green of trees on either side. Two brick walls stand suspended in the air, their straight ends not quite touching. Benches in a church become a maze of lines, separating a girl and a man before they meet in the aisle. These are the images that Kognoada’s directorial debut Columbus presents to its viewer. Stillness and shapes, and every now and then, a person filling the negative space.

Set in the American city of Columbus, the film follows Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman working in a library and looking after her mother, who avoids the question of when she’s going to leave for college. She wears striped tops and shorts, plain tees and long skirts, with her curly hair in conflict with the modern lines and curves of the spaces she inhabits. Upon a chance encounter with the middle-aged son of an architect she admired, she begins to lead him around the streets and share with him her love of city’s buildings – and an unlikely friendship forms. It’s a film obsessed with lines, symmetry (or lack thereof), and colour – or, in other words, architecture.

“See, it’s asymmetrical, but it’s also still balanced”, Casey explains as she first takes Jin (John Cho) to one of her favourite buildings. Kogonada loves his extreme wides, where the foreground and background paint lines with light and brick across the frame to grasp the characters right in between them. (It must have been meticulously planned for the light to fall just right).  The outside edges of the frame are static, and the characters – separated from the camera itself – are the only things that move. It’s less designed for us to see their faces, and more their movements and mannerisms; it’s more passive, letting the performances reach out on their own terms. The result is that we are observers.

I’m not familiar with Columbus personally, but from the cutaways you can tell it was made for a film like this. There is so much colour and striking architecture literally everywhere. When Casey takes Jin around on her own private tour, it feels like we’re invited too. We’re allowed to hover on things, consider them. This isn’t a fast-paced coming-of-age rom-com, but it doesn’t feel stagnant either. We can take our time studying a sculpture outside the library Casey works at while she has her cigarette, and look at the back of her head as she considers it too.

The camera doesn’t move, we as the viewer aren’t taken literally alongside the characters. We stand further away, static, as the characters move through their world in front of us, dropping hints on a trail for us to collect. Jin stands against painted walls, triangular roofs on grand houses, statues symmetrically aligned before him. Whereas Casey is more often surrounded by modern architecture; brick walls, straight white lines, and green plants.

What we later find out is that Jin is constricted by the expectations of his coma-induced father, his culture, his responsibility to stay until his father dies. But Casey voluntarily stays in Columbus for fear her mother will fall back into drug addiction without her. Casey sees the freedom in her environment, but won’t accept a job to assist an architect, whereas Jin can’t see past the brick walls his father built up for him.

Now, I can see why some people are less of a fan than my little indie-nerd heart. But Kogonada manages to avoid the trap of ‘style over substance’. There’s a sense of emptiness about these places, but one that the characters seem to fill when they enter them. Later in the film, Jin talks on the phone inside a grid of tall pillars. To the side, we see him stand between them, centered in the frame, before he paces in frustration behind a pillar and out of our view. The camera just patiently waits for him to reemerge as he calms down. Kogonada seems to exaggerate the idea that places should be filled, that architecture should be made for people to occupy; to be allowed to fit into the space on their own terms.

The camera aesthetic takes this point further: his wide shots often establish the temperament of his character. The protagonist’s face may be in view, but their companions’ are often hidden behind a wall, or turned away from the camera. Objects in the frame obscure people or movements. It’s like being meticulously placed in a particular seat in the theatre, so the head of the person in front hides any distractions. The lines in the frame all lead to the same place and you can contemplate the main character of the scene.

From what I’ve looked into of modern architecture, it is far more interested in the ‘deconstruction’ of its more traditional uses. Acknowledging historical purposes being focused on symbolic meaning and declarations of statue, postmodern architects reject this – and sometimes go as far in the opposite direction as they can. I can’t help but reintroduce the two brick walls suspended in the air, a metre between their ends. The film seems to be on the same wavelength; with Jin and Casey, their task is to really deconstruct their roles and what they believe is expected of them.

Casey seems to need control. She calls her mum’s unanswered phone (again) while she rearranges a pillow on the chair, straightens an ornament on the side table, and carefully folds ham into her sandwich. She wants order, and finds it in the straight lines and un-moving structures of architecture. I notice that she’s often framed by streetlights that draw lines behind her into a vanishing point hidden by her head. I can’t help but wonder about the reliability of street lights that come on at the exact same time every day, and whether Casey sits waiting for it as she waits for her mother’s phone call.

Now, I’m not an architecture student, but I am a film student (for the next two months anyway). I can’t break down what you’re supposed to get out of buildings, but what the film makes clear is that how you feel when you look at it is just as important. Having brought him to a glass-walled bank, Casey rattles off a list of facts. “Stop with the tour guide mode for a moment”, he interrupts. “Do you like this building intellectually, because of all the facts?’”She hesitates, “No. I’m also moved by it”. “Yes, yes”, he exclaims. “Tell me about that. What moves you?”

This time, when she begins talking, we can’t hear her. But we see her movements, we see her framed in the aisle of trees, miming the lines of the structure in front of her. Jin watches, asks questions, makes her pause. I don’t think we need to be distracted by their dialogue here, we can just watch and listen. “He had this idea, Polshek did, of architecture being a sort of healing art that has the power to restore.” It’s yet later in the film, and Casey and Jin stand on the bank of a river, looking up at the hospital stretching like a bridge between the trees. He stands and she writes, both framed against the sun-drenched afternoon on the trees far behind them. “All the details of this building are mindful of that responsibility.”

A lot of people argue that architecture, traditionally anyway, is something that can only be fully understood by those educated in the theory behind it but, as learned as our protagonists are, I think Kogonada disagrees. Casey notes that Jin has only recently taught himself about architecture, and Jin asks if it matters. “No, I guess not”, she replies. To an extent, I would say the same about cinema, or just about any form of art, but amongst the academic rules that we’ve come to know from school (and Casey is still clearly bothered by) we end up stopping before we get there. Really, it’s just a coming-of-age trope, but it’s handled so delicately I forget about it.

To talk about this film in a logical conclusion would be an injustice, really, since even Jin makes clear he doesn’t want to hear about intellectual facts like his father might have asked of her; he cares about what Casey feels. And, personally, I find that refreshing. The film didn’t even demand my understanding of the architecture it so lovingly presents, as long as I had enough interest to let it do its job in the film. As much as Jin says that architecture’s healing ability is ‘a fantasy that architects tell themselves’, it seems to work for Casey who, at the end of the film, takes Jin’s encouragement to leave Columbus to pursue her architectural dreams.

The final scene shows the two of them beside one of their earlier stops, but this time they are finally both framed identically with a path of trees behind them. No modern architecture, just two people saying goodbye. Columbus just let me watch two people fumble through their lives and let me feel for them. It asks us to acknowledge the intellectual facts but make our own intuitive conclusions about what they should do, and how they – and we – feel.

by Daisy Leigh-Phippard

Daisy is studying film production at Arts University Bournemouth with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. If you can’t find her lost between the shelves of a bookshop you might be able to see her in a dark cinema if you squint hard enough. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s LabyrinthThe HandmaidenFrida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and find her general ramblings as @thedaisydeer at TwitterLetterboxd and Instagram.

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