In light of the recently opened 2020-2021 Exhibit Columbus, architect and director of MAS Studio Iker Gil, who alongside Los Angeles-based architecture and design critic, educator and curator Mimi Zeiger, curated the “New Middles: From Main Street to Megalopolis, What is the Future of the Middle City?” exhibition, talks about the cultural heritage of Columbus, Indiana, speculates on the future of the center of the United States and the regions connected by the Mississippi Watershed, and discusses the larger notion of “middle.”
Can you talk about the importance of Columbus’ design history—past, present and future?
Columbus has a legacy of architecture and design in the service of community. The city is home to a series of remarkable civic buildings, designed by some of the best architects of their day, such as Harry Weese, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Robert Venturi, I.M. Pei and Gunnar Birkerts. Others, like Alexander Girard, worked at the scale of interiors to major urban proposals that re-envisioned the central business district. Susana Torre, who was the first woman invited to design a building in the city, created the first firehouse designed to integrate women in the firefighting force. So, the importance of the architecture in Columbus goes well beyond its physical boundaries. We can understand these civic buildings as urban archetypes, models of the twentieth century: main street, bank, park, library, mall, church and school. The question is how these building types can evolve to meet twenty-first century demands and how they can position Columbus as a model for the future of all middle cities. With this edition of Exhibit Columbus and 2021 being the bicentennial of Columbus, it is a perfect time to reflect on its history, but more importantly, its future.
Tell us about “New Middles: From Main Street to Megalopolis, What is the Future of the Middle City?” Why is now the right time for this exhibition?
The third cycle of Exhibit Columbus is the first one that invited outside curators to think about Columbus and to bring a new perspective about this remarkable city. “New Middles,” the theme that Mimi and I developed, explores the future of the center of the United States and the regions connected by the Mississippi Watershed, speculating on an ecology stretching beyond political borders. When we position Columbus as part of this larger network of places up and downstream, we see how the city shares affinities and similar concerns around economics, the environment and equity. For example, photography fellows David Schalliol and Virginia Hanusik have been documenting parts of Columbus and the Mississippi watershed from social, economic and environmental perspectives, illustrating the interconnections between people, place and the built environment.
Through “New Middles,” we are focusing on working with a selection of teams that are researching key issues of our time: changing demographics, technology, mobility, climate change, health crises and ways that cities are trying to address past and present injustices. We are interested in engaging these big ideas and manifesting them through installations that are in relationship to the city of Columbus in terms of its built environment as well as its community. At a time when we are facing complex challenges, when we are dealing with a global pandemic, and when trust between people feels fragile, it is important to come together and identify ways to move forward.
“Midwest, mid-sized, or middle American, the notion of ‘middle’ goes beyond geography and does not mean average or neutral. Middle is its own condition, especially in relation to changing demographics, technology, mobility, climate change, health crises, and ways that cities are trying to address past and present injustices,” per the 2020-2021 Exhibit Columbus text. Can you elaborate on the notion of “middle” and its advantages within the architecture and design realms as well as the world at-large?
We see Middle as a network of relationships, multiple centers and potentials. We celebrate the middle as a center point that connects ideas and people together. In certain aspects, Columbus’ legacy is unique but the issues that impact Columbus today are also shared with other cities of the same size across the U.S. We are using Columbus as a laboratory for design as civic investment but understanding that is part of a much larger network of places and conditions. That framework allows for initiatives and experiences to be shared, connect distant places, and establish alliances between communities.
Mimi and I are also thinking about the middle as a moment in time that connects past and future. As Columbus celebrates its bicentennial in 2021, we think about this significant moment as part of a much longer trajectory, one that begins with the Indigenous settlements that predate Columbus itself and looks to the next two years (the duration of the next cycle of Exhibit Columbus), the next generation in twenty years, or the next 200 years.
Positioning Columbus as an important node in this network and as part of this long trajectory opens new possibilities and opportunities to address the challenges that cities and communities face today.
Where do you foresee the Future of the Middle City?
With “New Middles” we want to introduce the sense that there is not a singular future but multiple futures. If in the past, this idea of utopia was singular and represented a certain demographic or experience, we think that it is important to celebrate this plurality of futures, experiences and timelines. The singular narrative that has characterized the way we currently understand Columbus has rendered invisible other experiences and histories present in the city. In that sense, Olalekan Jeyifous’ installation brings to light two events organized by the Human Relations Commission: “Africa and Black and White America” and the “Columbus Black Arts Festival.” His work inspires multiple futures for Columbus drawn from Black creative practice and experience, stories largely erased from the dominant narrative. These events and histories were hiding in plain sight. This year’s exhibition is an opportunity to reclaim these histories as we envision multiple futures. Perhaps this is an opportunity to complement that dominant narrative we all know, avoid the over-simplification of histories, and create new futures that think about community and the built environment in a just, inclusive, sustainable and equitable way.
What are you hoping the viewer will take away?
We want people to see Columbus as a place that imagines new architectures and landscapes as a way to positively move our cities forward. We want locals and visitors to interact with the installations in a playful way, celebrate the temporary additions to the architecture of Columbus, and at the same time, think about the issues that each team is exploring, why they are relevant today, and the paths those installation open to address those issues. Throughout this cycle of Exhibit Columbus, we have introduced themes and ways of looking at a place that we hope can continue past the duration of the exhibition. These are complex and important issues and ideas that don’t end when an exhibition ends. We hope that the conversations that we have had with the architects, designers, artists, academics, thinkers and local community throughout the last two years and the work presented serves as a strong foundation to continue to think about Columbus and other places facing similar challenges and opportunities.
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