By Philip Berger
Chicago is a city smug about the significance of its built environment and its elevated place in the architectural universe, which is why you have to wonder why it took the city elders so long to devise a concept like the Chicago Architecture Biennial. While the extravaganza promises another exciting edition this fall, it’s worthwhile broadening the architectural lens of the Midwest to investigate what’s going on in Columbus, Indiana, for a compelling counterpoint to the grand festivities here.
Columbus has long been recognized by the design cognoscenti for its concentration of buildings by important architects of the post-WWII era. Now, the city of approximately 46,000, about a four-hour drive south of Chicago, is looking to amplify its profile as a magnet for design enthusiasts and practitioners. The scale and seriousness of what’s happening there may well turn it into the kind of mecca for the design world that Marfa, Texas provides for the contemporary art scene. The city has a lot to work with—its incredible wealth of great modernist buildings coupled with a community shaped by a magnanimous corporate citizen—but the latest chapter of Columbus’ urban development has uniquely high aspirations due to efforts by a group of committed “outsiders” working to transform it from a niche travel destination into a high-functioning and operating center of design innovation and production.
Columbus is what it is largely because of Cummins Inc., long a Fortune 500 manufacturer of engines, filtration and power-generation products. It’s the major employer and driving force in the city. Founded in 1919 by mechanic Clessie Lyle Cummins and banker William G. Irwin, Cummins began its path as an important force in the diesel industry after 1933, when it introduced the Model H engine. At just about the same time, Irwin’s namesake great nephew, J. Irwin Miller, joined the company after his studies at Yale and Oxford.
For folks living in Southern Indiana in the 1930s and 1940s, the Millers were unusually worldly and sophisticated. Irwin and his mother Nettie (née Irwin) were sufficiently interested in art and design to visit the storied Cranbrook Academy in suburban Detroit and become acquainted with the Saarinen family of architects, who had emigrated from Finland to design Cranbrook’s campus in the late 1920s.
In 1938, the Millers commissioned Eliel Saarinen to design their home church—the First Christian—in Columbus. When finished in 1942, the spare, minimalist structure must have seemed almost like a spaceship that had landed on what-was-then a rather ordinary small-town streetscape. The completion of First Christian prompted a theme of innovative architecture that would provide the city with a truly singular character.
“Miller felt that to have a great company, you had to have great people,” says Richard S. McCoy, director of the advocacy/education group Landmark Columbus. As a true believer in the benefits of good design in everyday life, Miller made design appreciation and awareness one of the core values of the community. Similarly, because Cummins was so equated with life in Columbus, the company had to invest in the community. “Miller believed that when you elevated the physical environment, the social and cultural environment rises with it,” McCoy says.
In 1957, Miller, by then serving as Cummins’ chairman, made an unusual offer to the citizens of Columbus. The Cummins Foundation would cover the architectural fees for any new public building in the town. As a result, an almost impossibly impressive roster of renowned architects were hired to design dozens of simple, everyday projects: schools, fire stations, office buildings, libraries, churches. In addition to the Saarinens (and their successor, Kevin Roche), the architectural luminaries have included I. M. Pei, Harry Weese, Richard Meier, César Pelli, Robert Venturi, Edward Larrabee Barnes, John M. Johansen, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, The Architects Collaborative, Myron Goldsmith of SOM, John Carl Warnecke and Gunnar Birkerts.
Columbus is hardly some obscure, undiscovered architectural treasure trove. It’s received a fair share of attention over the decades, but as some have suggested, its acclaim, and its influence, may have peaked in the 1990s. Since then, the city hasn’t produced the same volume of great additions to the canon, although Kohn Pedersen Fox, Deborah Berke and Robert A. M. Stern have all designed projects since the millennium.
The forces behind the latest developments are trying to reinvigorate Columbus’ design heritage, with a sweepingly immersive marquee event and a significant new center for architectural education. “Exhibit Columbus,” is a new event celebrating Columbus and its outsized architectural role. The inaugural exhibition begins August 26 and carries ambitions not dissimilar to the Chicago Architecture Biennial. And in the fall of 2018, the Indiana University Center for Art & Design will welcome its first cohort to a Master of Architecture program focusing on—and located in—Columbus.
McCoy is too humble to admit it, but he is one of a triumvirate of individuals who have arrived in Columbus relatively recently with the goal of helping the city to build on Irwin Miller’s legacy to make what is already a fine community a great one. Joining him in leading this charge are T. Kelly Wilson, the Indiana University (IU) professor who has spearheaded the school’s new Master program, and Jonathan Nesci, the Chicago designer whose installation “100 Variations” was the initial impetus for the “Exhibit Columbus” program.
Wilson, educated at Auburn and Harvard, had been teaching for many years when he came to Columbus for the first time in 2010 and was “blown backwards by so much innovative modernism in this little town.” One of the qualities that sets the architecture apart, he says, is that the design ethos is what he’d call the “humanist modernism” of Saarinen and Weese as opposed to the more hard-edged work of Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe.
Once Wilson committed to joining the IU faculty and developing a new architecture program, he gradually was schooled in what he refers to as “the Columbus way.” He tells the story that, when University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize, he famously wrote an essay explaining that the responsibility of any corporation is to return a profit to its shareholders. Irwin Miller took exception to this assertion and wrote a letter to Professor Friedman, telling him that, at least as regarded Cummins and Columbus, the responsibility of the corporation should be to all its stakeholders—not simply those who own stock in the company, but the employees and the people of the community. “No one called it that at the time,” says Wilson, “but he was saying ‘you are your brother’s keeper,’ which is why corporate profits were reinvested in the community.”
In Columbus, Miller said, “coalition is the key to how everything gets done.” Just about anyone you talk to says the same thing: so many communities talk about the value of public/private partnerships and the benefits of working together, but in Columbus it seems to be the real thing.
It seems almost quaint to think that a city with so rich an architectural inventory didn’t really have any group focused on protecting and supporting the architecture which is such an integral aspect of its fabric until 2015, when the community launched Landmark Columbus, whose stated mission is “to care for and celebrate the world-renowned design heritage of the Columbus, Indiana, area.”
Landmark Columbus was established in part as a response to an overall decline in the city’s fabric. By 2010, although Cummins remained a vital presence, Irwin Miller and his wife were deceased, the family bank—housed in a groundbreaking 1954 Saarinen design—had failed, all the Miller progeny had left the area, Arvin Industries, Inc. (the city’s other major employer) had merged with another company and relocated, and the downtown was “dead.” The situation has slowly turned around and the city is approaching a new moment.
“Exhibit Columbus” is the kind of cultural endeavor you’d be surprised to see even a large city undertake; you would never expect a place of this size and location to attempt it. From late August through Thanksgiving, the city will host more than a dozen site-specific installations and architectural interventions primarily in the downtown area. Five are the winning projects of the J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize, chosen from ten internationally prominent design firms invited to enter, whose work will complement five of the city’s ten National Register of Historic Places sites. Another six projects will be contributions from architecture students at Ball State, Ohio State, University of Cincinnati, University of Michigan, University of Kentucky and from the new Indiana University Center for Art & Design (IUCAD). In addition, five more installations will be provided by designers represented by commercial galleries, including Chicago’s Volume Gallery presenting work by the firm Snarkitecture.
The premise for “Exhibit Columbus” grew out of a more modest project from the talented Chicago designer Jonathan Nesci (see Newcity’s 2016 “Design 50”). Nesci had actually relocated to Kentucky in 2014 when Christopher West, an independent curator working out of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, introduced him to Kelly Wilson, who himself had recently relocated to Columbus from Cambridge to develop the new IU program. Together, they came up with an idea to resuscitate interest in Columbus’ built environment. Nesci’s project—an intervention in the courtyard of Saarinen’s First Christian Church—riffed on the proportions of the Golden Mean in the form of one hundred variations on a table design. All were displayed together in the courtyard and were available for purchase. “100 Variations” was extremely popular, and handily accomplished one of its goals—it really got people talking about design.
Although the organization has engaged curatorial consultant Anne Surak to oversee the entire program, Nesci is taking a lead role in the commercial gallery portion of the exhibition, and Kelly Wilson will direct the student sector.
And while the program will provide the city with a burst of excitement for a few months a year, the new IUCAD program promises to offer a more consistent home for design ideas. “Columbus has a thick layer of educated people who care about quality of the built environment,” says Kelly Wilson. ”In other cities these buildings wouldn’t startle you, but in this context they make up a wonderful fricassee.”
Although expanding tourism to the area is an important goal of “Exhibit Columbus”—and to a lesser extent the introduction of the IUCAD programs—the players say that there are deeper intentions. In addition to Cummins, the city is home to numerous independent businesses, most related to engine manufacturing, who are also stakeholders in attracting talented people to the region and similarly gaining from the community’s design orientation.
Nesci is doing his best to make the talent exchange work both ways by introducing resources already operating in the area to the rest of the world, while also attracting international talent to Columbus. He points to Noblitt Fabricating, an important supplier of prototyping and forming services to Cummins, which saw a substantial boost to its business when it collaborated in the fabrication of Nesci’s “100 Variations.”
“The diversity of talent here has always come from a larger vision of finding the best and brightest,” he says. He’s also been responsible for providing a bridge to Chicago talent, bringing Rick Valicenti’s Thirst firm in to provide identity services to “Exhibit Columbus” and the Columbus Visitor’s Bureau.
It’s well worth noting that Southern Indiana is not a place you would ever guess would be a hotbed of progressive thought in any sphere. Columbus is actually Vice President Mike Pence’s hometown and the county voted solidly Republican in the 2016 election. But while one prominent Columbus resident tells me that, “Mike Pence might be from Columbus, but it doesn’t seem like he shares our values of collaboration for the common good,” the shared belief in the value of good design seems to transcend political viewpoints.
There’s an apparent disconnect here in reconciling the great design heritage of the town—which you would expect to engender progressive thinking on every level—with the essential conservatism of a city that voted solidly Republican in the 2016 election, and that is the hometown of the sitting vice president. The reality is that it’s hard to get people to talk about it.
Most of those I spoke to for this story politely declined to comment. Richard McCoy suggests that with this, as with most aspects of the city’s culture, is a reflection of the example set by the Miller family. “I’d look instead to J. Irwin Miller,” he said, “who has a legendary history of political activism in the U.S. For example, he helped MLK, Jr. arrange the march on Washington and was an advisor to many presidents.”
None of Columbus’ cultural enrichments, either those in the past or upcoming, developed in a vacuum. They are all examples of the collaborations every locality claims to cultivate but Columbus really seems to produce, much because of Irwin Miller and the legacy he created.
IF YOU GO
Columbus is about 230 miles from Chicago, doable for the weekend if you like to drive. (Or you can fly to Indianapolis and rent a car.) Also, it’s just forty-five minutes from Bloomington, one of the greatest college towns in America, and even closer to Nashville, Indiana—a genuinely charming arts and crafts-y community surrounded by the beautiful Brown County State Park. (And if you’re with traveling companions for whom design or college life just doesn’t do it, the state’s largest antiques mall AND outlet mall are just minutes away.)
Consult the Columbus Area Visitors Center’s excellent website, columbus.in.us, for a crash course in the city’s architecture and a comprehensive guide to lodging and other area attractions.
The Visitors Center offers a variety of guided and self-guided tours. The most popular are the Columbus Architecture Tour (a two-hour bus tour that traverses the city) and the Miller House and Garden Tour. Guided tours are offered six days a week April-November and on a limited basis during winter months.
Erin Hawkins, the director of marketing at the Visitors Center, says that, “public buildings and churches are generally open to receiving visitors during normal business hours. Of course, some of our significant buildings belong to private businesses. For example, people can’t just go strolling through Cummins work spaces, though there is a great little Cummins museum in the lobby of their corporate office building, their global headquarters, that is open to the public 8am-5pm each day.”
“Exhibit Columbus,” exhibitcolumbus.org, begins August 26 and lasts through Thanksgiving.