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Columbia Business Monthly

Mother of All the Arts

Oct 03, 2017 01:46PM ● By Emily Stevenson
John Temple Ligon

Movies about architecture, the good ones with well-developed plots and believable characters worth talking about, are rare. I remember the opening scenes in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) when Jack Nicholson’s character met Maria Schneider’s on the Barcelona roofs designed by Gaudi. And, of course, we can always cite The Fountainhead.

Still, not much about architecture at the movie house.
Now, however, we get Columbus, a highly praised movie showing the architecture of Columbus, Ind. (Vice President Pence’s hometown), as a character.

Immediately following WWII, the people of Columbus – and in particular Joseph Irwin Miller, head of Cummins Diesel based in Columbus – were holding meetings at the First Christian Church to select an architect for a bigger church. Miller was really impressed with Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero Saarinen, later the design architect of the St. Louis Arch and New York’s TWA terminal. No one at the church was ready to cough up the design fee premium for Saarinen the elder.

Saarinen was a bit turned off with the church committee, but he agreed to a meeting with Miller.

Miller committed to carry the architect’s fee in full while the church paid the rest of the building expenses through completion of construction. Saarinen took the commission.

The new church turned out to be a stunning statement in modern architecture.

Next for consideration was a new elementary school, and Miller repeated his church deal for the school board. Miller submitted a list of recommended architects, some of the best in the country, and as long as the school board chose among Miller’s recommended architects, Miller and his newly formed Cummins Diesel Foundation would cover the design and construction documents fees.

Today, Columbus, Ind. has more than 70 impressive structures designed by some of the country’s best architects, all paid by the Cummins Diesel Foundation.

Columbus is a destination replete with guided architecture tours that bring in at least 40,000 visitors a year.

To drop a few high-profile names, the list of architects and firms with buildings and landscapes in Columbus includes Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, I. M. Pei, and Kevin Roche, all recipients of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent to the Nobel. Other award-winning architects identified in town by its population of 47,000 are Dan Kiley, Harry Weese, Romando Giurgola, Cesar Pelli, Edward Larrebee Barnes, Hardy Holzman and Pfeiffer, Charles Gwathmey, HOK, John Carl Warnecke, Robert A. M. Stern, and Eliot Noyes. Among the 70 buildings put up in the latter half of the 20th century, Columbus can point to seven National Historic Landmarks.

Sculptors seen outdoors in Columbus: Henry Moore, Dale Chihuly, Jean Tinguely, and Robert Indiana.

Remember: all this in a town of 47,000. The American Institute of Architects rates cities, regardless of size, as architecture destinations, places worth visiting for the quality of their visual assets. Columbus is rated No. 6, behind Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington.

Columbus, the movie, was filmed in town over 18 days. It’s an American drama written and directed by Kogonada. The leading man’s architect father is in a coma in the hospital in Columbus. Our hero gets in good with a young woman who wants to become an architect, and to start in that direction she wants to stay in Columbus.

New York Observer’s Oliver Jones said the following in his review: “As much as it is about architecture, the film is also a love letter to movies themselves: the sense of majesty they can capture and the strong little words they allow us to discover.”

If that doesn’t pull you into the movie theater, try this by Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers: “How do you make a ravishing romance about architecture? You’ll find the answer with Kogonada, the video essayist and critic whose debut feature, Columbus, is a spellbinder.”

And then there’s the review in Rotten Tomatoes, which grants Columbus a 97 percent approval rating: “Wonderfully acted and artfully composed, Columbus balances the clean lines of architecture against the messiness of love, with tenderly moving results.”

By the time you read this, Columbus will have come and gone at the Nickelodeon. But the quality of this movie is reportedly so high, it’ll be around somewhere for the rest of our lives.

I personally plan to see it, and both the architecture and the movie will be the topics at my next Wren Institute for Urban Research lecture, the second Friday in October at my place, 2225 Terrace Way, 6 p.m.