The Fabric Workshop’s Louis Kahn exhibition and Kogonada’s ‘Columbus’

Nice places to visit, but…

Architects: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

That’s the impression left by one of those serendipitous encounters that can only occur in a very large city — in this case, the confluence of an exhibition (Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture at the Fabric Workshop) and a movie (Kogonada’s Columbus at the Ritz at the Bourse).

Richardson and Cho in 'Columbus': Overwhelmed by brilliance. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

The Columbus of Kogonada’s film is a small city in southern Indiana (population: 44,000). Beginning in the 1950s, industrialist J. Irwin Miller transformed his sleepy town into a modernist architectural mecca by subsidizing new buildings on the condition that those structures be designed by world-class architects (like I.M. Pei, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, Robert Venturi, and James Polshek). “Suddenly, a place I had lived in felt different, like I’d been transported somewhere else,” says Cassandra, the young protagonist of Kogonada’s film.

Sunlight at Exeter

Louis Kahn (1901-1974), for his part, is said to be one of the most influential architects of his century, creating “buildings of archaic beauty and powerful universal symbolism,” according to the Fabric Workshop’s current show: a man known for his “complex spatial compositions and a choreographic mastery of light.”

Such encomiums to Kahn have long mystified me. As BSR’s Pamela Forsythe observes, many of Kahn’s sparkling visions never left the drawing board because he sabotaged them by refusing to compromise. Among those that were completed, Kahn scored at least as many misses as hits. His library at Phillips Exeter Academy, for example, is the world’s second-largest school library, ingeniously designed to encourage students to read by the sunlight streaming through its windows. It's a theoretically brilliant merging of literature and nature that somehow neglects to address the students’ need for alternative light sources in the evenings or on rainy days (of which there are plenty in New Hampshire).

If it doesn’t work…

The Fabric Workshop’s extensive current show, occupying three of the building’s eight floors, makes a noble attempt to address these qualms. In an age when most building is subordinated to financial needs, it argues, “Kahn reminds us of the age-old significance of architecture as the universal conscience of humanity.”

At the exhibit’s reception last week, I managed to corner Kahn’s former colleague Henry Wilcots, who finished Kahn’s National Assembly building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, after Kahn’s sudden death in 1974. When I asked what made Kahn so special, Wilcots replied, “He was about the search. His idea was: You try something, and if it doesn’t work, you try something else. He was still trying and learning when he died.”   

Presumably Kahn found a soulmate in Susan Talbott, the deceptively gentle dynamo who took charge of the Fabric Workshop early last year. Linking fabric and architecture may be a stretch, as Talbott cheerfully admits. On the other hand, this exhibition, organized by the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, is the first major retrospective of Kahn’s work in 20 years, yet it found no venue in Kahn’s home city until Talbott jumped at the chance to host it. It was a gutsy call, much in the best spirit of Kahn himself — and one that has apparently paid off, to judge from the crowds it has attracted so far.

Trapped by brilliance

Nevertheless, the persistent question — does great architecture serve people? — yields a dismaying answer in Kogonada’s Columbus.

The film’s cerebral protagonist, Cassandra (Haley Lu Richardson), is a year out of high school but seemingly uninterested in college, romance, a career, or anything else that we might classify as “getting a life.” Instead, Casey spends her days shelving books at the Bartholomew County Public Library (designed by I.M. Pei) and her nights staring at her town’s other dazzling buildings. She’s so entranced by the local art that she can’t contemplate moving elsewhere. In effect, she’s trapped in Columbus by its stupendous architecture, which seems to speak to her better than any humans can.

A potential soulmate appears in the person of Jin (John Cho), a young Korean man who is also architecturally trapped in Columbus: Jin’s father, a famous architecture professor, lies in a coma at the local hospital (designed by Robert A.M. Stern) after suffering a stroke during a visit to Columbus, forcing Jin to fly halfway around the world to tend to him. Jin hasn’t spoken to his father in a year and has no desire to repair their relationship. “We never talked,” Jin explains. “He just wasn’t interested.” The implication seems clear: Jin’s dad cared more about buildings than people.

End of a marriage

If Columbus were an ordinary movie, Casey and Jin would bond by the closing credits and flee this hell on earth disguised as an inspiring museum. But this is no ordinary movie: what little music it provides is strictly atonal, and Casey and Jin don’t talk at all like movie characters (as Jin astutely observes). But then, they don’t talk like real people either, just as Columbus doesn’t resemble a real town.

Overwhelmed by the uplifting architecture surrounding them, Casey and Jin seem so depressed as to have lost the ability to reach out to each other. Watching this depression manifest itself for 104 minutes is only slightly more interesting than watching paint dry, but perhaps that’s Kogonada’s point: Too much brilliance, day after day, can deaden your senses.

Although my wife and I lived in Indiana for four years in the ‘60s, we never had a chance to visit Columbus. But good friends of ours moved there in 1970. They were a wonderful couple in their early 30s, full of intelligent curiosity about everything the world had to offer and ideally suited to each other, or so we thought. Yet just a few years after their arrival in Columbus, their marriage fell apart. That breakup has mystified us ever since. But after seeing Columbus, I can’t help wondering: was it something in their environment?

Come to think of it, Louis Kahn, for all his theoretical devotion to nature and human community, fathered children by three different women, each of whom was supposedly kept in the dark about the others’ existence and all of whom were left broke when he died penniless. (Kahn’s unconventional approach to housekeeping is one subject of My Architect: A Son’s Journey, a film created in 2003 by Kahn’s son Nathaniel in an attempt to understand his father.)

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: Those who tempt the gods must pay for their arrogance. But if talented and arrogant humans like Kahn didn’t strive to create a better world, we’d still be living in caves. Better a cave than a museum, you say? That is the question.


To read a related review by Pamela Forsythe, click here.

Our readers respond

Margaret Darby

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on September 13, 2017

Thank you so much for this double review. I had visited the Louis Kahn exhibit and was confused that there seemed to be more images of buildings he did not build than those he pushed to completion.

I found the movie Columbus much more positive than you did. When Jin befriended Cassandra, he helped her to see her strength and potential and convinced her not to waste it. In turn, she absolved him of filial guilt. Better than watching paint dry, but, I admit, there is a lot of dead space in that film.

Joseph Glantz

of Levittown, PA on September 14, 2017

To play devil's advocate: Don't most creative projects end up on the cutting room floor? Is Louis Kahn really different than other artists in that respect? And maybe a point about Columbus is that the relationship between Jin and Cassandra was much like the architecture of the town: modern/contemporary, in that two generations could speak to each other in a way that traditional relationships couldn't?

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