A still from the film, Columbus, with Eero Saarinen's North Christian Church in the background
Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and Jin (John Cho), standing in front of Eero Saarinen's North Christian Church in a scene from Columbus. Elisha Christian, Superlative Films/Depth of Field

A new film, Columbus, stars a cast of stunning mid-century buildings across the small Indiana city where it takes place. New initiatives may cultivate its reputation for years to come.

The new movie Columbus, set against the backdrop of largely unknown Columbus, Indiana, tells the story of the budding friendship between Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a local high school grad, and Jin (John Cho), a professional visiting from Korea.

Equally important, it’s a moving portrayal of the influence thoughtful architecture can bring to a place, something the city is thinking about off-screen today.

Columbus is a growing workshop for those who may fashion the next generation of public space. Its unique story is coming to broader recognition now as a touchstone and inspiration.

This city of 44,000, less than an hour’s drive south of Indianapolis, benefited over many decades from both the business savvy and civic-minded philanthropy of the Irwin and Miller families, epitomized in the person of J. Irwin Miller.

Miller, who died in 2004, studied at Yale and Oxford before leading the family business, the Cummins engine company. Cummins is still headquartered in Columbus, generating $17.4 billion in sales last year. As part of his strategy in the 1950s to lure workers to Columbus, Miller offered to pay the architects’ fees for new public works. Such projects, Miller believed, would foster even more buildings with architectural merit.

The results transformed the city. Layered atop its traditional buildings of the 19th and 20th centuries is a collection of over 100 Modernist buildings, including schools, housing, fire stations, banks, churches, homes, a mall, a bridge, and more. Miller asked Eero Saarinen for recommendations of young talent that he thought would be stars one day. This eventually brought to Columbus the designs of I.M. Pei, Harry Weese, Kevin Roche, Deborah Berke, and seven by Saarinen himself, among others.

“The radical architecture somehow is kind to its traditional neighbors. A lot of modernist architecture is rude to its neighbors,” says T. Kelly Wilson, an East Coast architect and academic who has spent the last few years in Columbus, leading an effort by Indiana University to expand its design program while capitalizing on the city’s heritage. “These guys knew how to understand the forces of local.”

It didn’t take long for Wilson, a Brooklyn native who taught at Harvard and was initially doubtful about Columbus, to be won over. Wilson ended up not only being sold on the architecture, but also the entrepreneurial and community spirit that go with it. “They call it ‘The Columbus Way,’” he says. “This little town has been punching above its weight forever.”

A scene from Columbus inside the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library designed by I.M. Pei. (Elisha Christian, Courtesy of Superlative Films)

In fact, IU’s quest has led to the formation of a Master of Architecture degree program*, set to open in Fall 2018. Here, in relationship with the breathtaking buildings and outdoor spaces, Wilson will be able to shape a graduate architecture program around a different paradigm than the copy-this-to-get-hired approach he experienced in the Master’s program at Harvard. He’s also a painter, and encourages his students to understand buildings and cities better by drawing them. He envisions a largely art-based program that thrives on interdisciplinary learning, similar to the Bauhaus. “Synthesis happens in the mind of the individual. And in doing so, you find your own voice,” he says.

Wilson currently directs IU’s Center for Art and Design Columbus, with a variety of outreach programs, including a Young Designers book series for local schoolchildren. Later this month, the annual Exhibit Columbus opens, featuring newly built structures that interact with famous ones. Wilson has advised the high school team on its project.

He acknowledges that there are plenty of locals who don’t care about Columbus’s special buildings. Others, however, are nourished by them on some level in the way you might brag about the national park next door, even if you don’t hike. “They’re more proud of the spirit that made those buildings, than the buildings,” Wilson says.

Deborah Berke, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, is mentioned several times in the movie. In it, a bank she designed captivates Casey, leading to the character’s newfound interest in architecture and her hometown. Berke saw Columbus for the first time last Saturday night at a screening in Manhattan. In an interview afterward, she said the building program (still supported by the Cummins Foundation), “really has given that place a beautiful, unique character that the citizens appreciate, even if they’re not swooning over it.” She added, “It’s part of their everyday lives, and they’re deeply fortunate for that to be the case. You have these beautiful buildings to walk by as part of your life.”

Indeed, in Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, architect Sarah Williams Goldhagen analyzes recent research across a variety of disciplines to offer scientific proof that “the built environments we inhabit are drastically more important than we ever thought they were.” In a recent CityLab interview, she explained that everyone benefits from architecture in ways that speak to our needs as humans and confers dignity on a building’s inhabitants.

Once a person makes that realization, it seems inescapable. In the movie, even a skeptical layman like Jin comes to be moved by the designs Casey shows him.

“Why does your building look like that?” is the essential question that T. Kelly Wilson is determined his new architectural training program will answer. Columbus and its namesake reminds us all what the answer can be: To uplift all who encounter it.

Correction: A previous version of the story stated that Indiana University is opening a new School of Architecture in Fall 2018. It is only launching a Master’s of Architecture program through the School of Art and Design.

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