clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Exhibit Columbus: A midwest town reasserts its modern architectural heritage

A new exhibition in this mecca of design aims to rekindle its innovative spirit

The Conversation Plinth by IKD, one of the 18 installations of Exhibit Columbus, a new architecture and design event in the small Indiana city that opened last week.
Hadley Fruits

There’s something magical about the streets of Columbus, Indiana, in the late August heat. While strolling downtown’s brick-paved walkways mid-afternoon, the buzz of insects in the trees creates a constant, low-level hum. Packs of elementary school students in gym class run in circles through the city, their conversation and laughter filling the air. As if anticipating the expectations of visitors, strangers in this Midwestern town really do stop to say hello.

Still, amid the small town charm and rows of Victorian buildings, Columbus is as much about the bold future as the warmly nostalgic past. Just look up at the architecture. Thanks to the patronage of J. Irwin Miller, the area’s midcentury industrial titan, this small city of 46,000 boasts more modern architectural marvels per capita than just about anywhere else in the country, and perhaps the world. And late last week, with the opening of its new design festival, Exhibit Columbus, which runs through November 26, local leaders are inviting visitors to both reconsider and reshape the city’s innovative nature.

Window to Columbus, a temporary exhibit and pop-up museum designed by Formafantasma.
Hadley Fruits

Described by a participating designer Yugon Kim as a “conversation between buildings,” the opening weekend of Exhibit Columbus offered both a celebration of the city’s past, and a small preview of a more active future. The hope is that this series of pop-up exhibitions and displays helps Columbus remain a pilgrimage site for the design-savvy.

“We’re not trying to fix a problem,” says Richard McCoy, an event organizer and co-founder, and director of local preservation group Landmark Columbus. “The ‘problem’ is more one of this community trying to be visionary.”

During a stroll along the city’s main drag, Washington Street, a focal point of the event dotted with new benches, displays, and designs, McCoy said that part of the impetus was that Columbus was becoming “more known for what it did rather than what it was doing.” That’s why the format of Exhibit Columbus—small-scale installations, discussions and debates between experts and scholars, public placemaking that invited residents and visitors alike into the streets—seemed so fitting. It’s not a finished concept, he says, merely a first step in building something bigger.

“This succeeds if it makes Columbus a more exciting place to live,” he says. “But it’s hard to understand exactly how to measure that.”

Pause, a series of benches designed by Scandinavian duo Pettersen & Hein, placed on Washington Street
Hadley Fruits
Columbus Circles by Productura, a set of concrete benches installed on Washington Street
Hadley Fruits

What’s interesting about Exhibit Columbus is that despite the city’s singular status as a small-town haven for architectural design (take note NRA, the heartland does appreciate good design), the installations and imagery speak to our current moment of urban reinvention. Columbus, thanks to Cummins and Irwin Miller’s dedication to design, excelled at building stunning examples of then-contemporary architecture in the 20th century. Now, it seems, the question is how to reinvent those structures and that spirit, and add to them, in a way that reinvigorates civic life. Split between 18 temporary, site-specific installations—including sites decorated by Miller Prize winners, Washington Street installations focused on interaction and the streetscape, as well as student work—the event spoke to placemaking and the desire to make cities more human-scale, inviting, and conversational.

Industrialist J. Irwin Miller standing in front of the Irwin Union Bank and Trust Company in 1961.
Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

It’s difficult to overstate the sheer number of architectural gems in the city, and how closely intertwined they are with the everyday in Columbus. Consider what could be a late August Friday for a local parent. Start by dropping the kids off at school at Columbus Signature Academy (by Gunnar Birkerts, which sits across the street from his St.. Peter’s Lutheran Church), then head over to work at Cummins, in the Plant One building (Harry Weese). Again, it’s a late summer Friday, so you decide to check out early, take a lunch break at Mill Race Park (landscaped by Michael Van Valkenburgh), then play a quick little round of golf at Otter Creek (clubhouse designed by Harry Weese, landscape by Dan Kiley). After finishing, you pick up some paperwork at city hall (Edward Charles Bassett, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), then grab the kids and drop them off at Hamilton Center Ice Arena (Harry Weese). During the course of your day, you will have passed numerous structures by famed architects incuding Eero and Elliel Saarinen, Kevin Roche, and I.M. Pei.

First Baptist Church in Columbus, Indiana, designed by Harry Weese (1965).
Hadley Fruits
Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church
Creative Commons image by Hans Kundnani

This bounty was a result of the progressive policies of J. Irwin Miller, former head of Cummins Engine Company, who helped provide the foresight and funding behind many of the city's exemplary structures. Famous for saying that "mediocrity is expensive," Miller helped many of the midcentury’s greatest architects land prime civic commissions in Columbus via the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program, which paid their design fees (in addition to civic pride, he hoped state-of-the-art design would attract talent to his family’s engineering firm). After decades of successfully attracting some of the era’s greatest architects, Cummins’s effort had established the city as an “Athens on the Prairie.” His own home, designed by the dream team of Eero Saarinen, Dan Kiley, and Alexander Girard, is still a highlight, and one of the most important midcentury homes in the country.

The Exchange by the Oyler Wu Collaborative
Hadley Fruits

One could say this legacy cast a shadow on Exhibit Columbus participants, but the most successful installations didn’t try to shout above the existing architectural conversation on Columbus’s streets, but rather aimed to enrich them. The Exchange, designed by Oyler Wu Collaborative, turned a plaza near Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Union Bank into a space for rest and revitalization. Overhangs, once the markers for drive-thru tellers stands, were threaded together with framework of steel, an intricate web of panels and pipes that wrapped the stands like lace.

“It felt like we had the whole town rooting for us,” says designer Dwayne Oyler. “There’s a culture here that really appreciates architecture.”

The Conversation Plinth, by IKD, located across the street from the First Christian Church in Columbus
Hadley Fruits

The Conversation Plinth, by Yugon Kim and Tomomi Itakura of Boston-based firm IKD, turned the area directly in front of the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, overlooking the First Christian Church, into a hive of activity. Stacked rings of locally sourced cross-laminated timber formed a look-out tower. The top level, according to the architects, was inspired by the famous conversation pit found in the Miller House.

A series of installations on Washington Street were creative takes on tactical urbanism. Cody Hoyt’s Theoretical Foyer project, a colorful mural of 2,500 locally pressed bricks, lit up the street, while an installation by local high school students, Between the Treads, made of brightly woven plastic thread called rex lace, was similarly energetic and effervescent, a maze of colorful curtains lining the nearby post office.

Other installations, including the row of University Installations located a few blocks from downtown, had exciting moments, but weren’t as well integrated into the city’s fabric. Synergia, an angular structure designed by Indiana University students that looked like a Zaha Hadid honeycomb, was placed next to Eero Saarinen’s iconic North Christian Church, itself a futuristic spaceship of a church with a towering spire. But, cut off by a significant distance from the other installations Downtown, it felt separate from the main event, as did Another Circle, an installation in the city’s Mill Race Park by Aranda/Lasch consisting of 1,100 limestone pieces scattered across the grounds. Intended as a gathering place, particularly the section of stone arranged to form an outdoor theater, the abstract artwork felt more like a decoration than a true gathering place.

Cody Hoyt’s Theoretical Foyer, an installation of 2,500 multi-colored bricks inside a Columbus intersection
Hadley Fruits

Columbus may not be churning out masterpieces by modernist masters anymore—Ralph Johnson’s 2007 Central Middle School and Cesar Pelli’s 2011 Advanced Manufacturing Center were some of the last large-scale, notable projects to break ground—but as Exhibit Columbus demonstrates, it still has the potential to be part of today’s conversation around making great design a more integrated part of our cities and our everyday. The flocks of locals and visitors snapping photos and posting pictures of the exhibitions suggests the Exhibit has become a true event (and hopefully overshoots initial estimates of 20,000 visitors over its three-month run).

Columbus itself has plenty of great examples of placemaking to point to beyond architecture—modern sculpture dots some of the city’s small plazas, and Alexander Girard, the famous designer, once created an entire integrated streetscape for Washington Street, which, as Curbed architecture critic Alexandra Lange noted, played off the city’s heritage yet presented a bold, progressive vision—that should serve as touchstones for even more ambitious, future versions of the festival. What began last year with a symposium called “Foundations and Futures,” will alternate between biennials and symposia going forward.

Can Exhibit Columbus lead to something permanent? For some designers, the event wasn’t just about architectural conversations and placemaking. Tomomi Itakura of IKD said the Conversation Plinth, made from cross-laminated timber pressed from Indiana ash, beech, maple, hickory wood (hardwood is the state’s biggest crop), hints at a potential future where local industry and design combine to create a new industry.

“The city’s legacy does put a little pressure on us,” says Kim. “But this project has allowed us to refine our design thinking. We can take more risks here.”

As Itakura spoke about the potential of his firm’s project, locals were gathering on the Plinth’s lookout, conversing and taking stock of their small town. Later that evening, as the underside of the rings lit up, kids played on the upper levels. Itakura and Kim had designed the structure to “raise people,” giving them a chance to appreciate their city. Exhibit Columbus, in small but very crucial ways, is doing the same.