Notes on Columbus, Indiana


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By T. Kelly Wilson

Columbus, Indiana is home to a body of modern architectural achievements far in excess of what would be expected to be found within a city of 42,000 inhabitants.  Since 1942, well over 100 works of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, interiors and public art, produced by internationally known practitioners have been built in the city.  In spite of this remarkable fact, the story of this designed fabric has more often been the basis of tourism articles in the popular press than the topic of substantive consideration within the design professions.  Attention in occasional New York Times articles, NPR radio pieces, Good Morning America TV coverage, and a sixth place designation amongst cities in the United States for architecture by the American Institute for Architecture, signals that something, indeed, of significance has been occurring here for 70 years.  Yet, aside from being promoted as a tool for boosting tourism, little of the architectural or social significance of the modern buildings in Columbus is understood by the outside world.  

Image (above): Bartholomew County Public Library I. M. Pei 1966

Even among architects there is scant knowledge of the power of these buildings, even though they form a significant part of the story, for good or ill, of Modern design in the postwar American city.  For the new generations of architects graduating from schools of design there is even less awareness, accompanied by a diminishing population of those that were actually involved in the design and construction of these works.

Given that significant works of design by the likes of I. M. Pei, Kevin Roche, Harry Weese, Eliot Noyes, Dan Kiely, Robert Venturi, Alexander Girard, John Carl Warnecke, Gunnar Birkerts, Richard Meier, Norman Fletcher, Deborah Berke, Koetter-Kim, Cesar Pelli, and the Saarinens all exist in one small industrial town, why would this be true?  The absence of any critical literature on either the buildings themselves (there is a tourist index book to be found at the Columbus Visitors Center) or the rather remarkable private/public process that lead to the eventual construction of these resources may in part be, to blame.  It can be conjectured that a mid-western attitude, and certainly the attitude of the great patron of Columbus, Irwin J. Miller, to avoid public exposure and to not flaunt the air of superior ability, lead to no greater evaluation of either buildings or process than what was required to promote the city’s modest tourism.

Images (right): Columbus Post Office, Roche and Dinkerloo associates, 1969

The city, however, now recognizes that the built environment of Columbus faces the consequences of 60 years of physical deterioration and alteration.  And, with the passing of Mr. Miller and the departure of his family from the city, the community and its government must now rise to the challenge of developing the resources that would help support and maintain their monuments.

Taking a page out of the Miller play book, the community of Columbus marshaled its considerable resources in civic spirit, raised funds and turned to Indiana University with the offer of partnership to develop a Center for art and design in Columbus.  Looking to the precedent of the Savannah College of Art and Design, and hoping to augment Columbus’ history with a brave new chapter of creating a place for design where none existed before, buoyed their belief that this city, and its spirit of place, will continue to flourish. Strong stuff.  And typical of
the brave thinking Columbus is known for.

At the base of this idea, to create a mid-western center for art and design, are the aging mid-century modern buildings of Columbus.  The new Indiana University Center for Art+Design is predicated on the idea that the city is to be viewed as a ‘laboratory for design’.  The form of design education IUCA+D is now considering proposes to teach students how to think and to invent at the very intersection of the design disciplines, emphasizing the interconnectedness between art and design.  This is the very same interconnectedness that existed between the designer Alexander Girard, architects Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche and landscape architect Dan Kiley that achieved the stunning example of the Miller house.  This is also the same interconnectedness that created one of the most brilliant urban spaces to be found in the United States; the Library Plaza of 1969 by I. M. Pei.  Pei’s Plaza was designed in considerable response to the First Christian church of 1940 by Eliel Saarinen, a response so sophisticated and nuanced that nearly every element of the plaza and the library building with its statue by sculptor Henry Moore is linked to Saarinen’s church in a cascade of reinforcing, multivalent and interconnected ideas.  A ‘laboratory of design’ means that students spend considerable time experiencing and analyzing the architecture and urbanism of the city, engaging the ideas and design intentions of these remarkable buildings by drawing, mapping and cataloguing them on site - a significant first step in learning how to design and to invent.

Images (above and below): Bartholomew County Home for the Aged (now home to the Salvation Army) 1959

Without the survival of these buildings, and here I mean more than their physical preservation, which is itself a daunting task, I also mean their design ideas, the premise of this hopeful new chapter for Columbus as a design mecca, will be lost.

Many of the buildings that form the collection of modern architecture in Columbus have undergone, or are about to undergo, physical and programmatic change, with no formalized city ordinance for their preservation in place to guide them.  There are certainly instances in architecture where physical change is not recommended, even unwanted. Yet, for many buildings, survival in the city often depends upon intelligent, adoptive re-use - a strategy at the heart of many imaginative works in design and renovation.  How might Columbus, then, preserve their buildings, and the design intentions these buildings express, while promoting growth? How would a city understand and choose the most meaningful form of modification to their monuments to keep them alive and avoid becoming, in the words of a well known contemporary architect, an ‘architectural petting zoo’.

Seven National Historic Landmark designations are already in place for Columbus architecture, but for the other significant buildings in Columbus (the Library Plaza and the Bartholomew County Public Library by Pei come to mind), what is to be done? To answer this question, Columbus has initiated a community-based solution, a bottom up approach to conservation, by tasking a conservation/preservation consultant with creating a process and a plan that would be construed in accordance with the insight and the agreement of its citizens and stakeholders.  And, as Director of the new IU Center for Art+Design, I propose to include within our academic programming new coursework that will inform the education of the designer with the special role of precedent to invigorate and deepen the design process.  

The challenge for caring and maintaining these monuments, however, remains; how would the assessment of these buildings as a set of design intentions be made? How would these assessments survive the charges of subjectivity that are surely to follow, and, if an assessment could be identified, how do they become codified into useful rules?  Does this also mean there is a body of design experts who are relied upon to make the judgment calls that lie at the heart of the process?

The philosophy of the architecture of Columbus is one that made the creation of radically new ideas possible.  This philosophy and the bright, clear belief in the power of the human imagination to create the very best, should also apply to how a city would regard the architectural and urban landscape works that ushered in this formidable concept; that anything is, indeed, possible.

T. Kelly Wilson is the Director and Associate Professor of the Indiana University Center for Art+Design in Columbus.  He received a Bachelor of Architecture from Auburn University and a Master of Architecture from Harvard University.

Wilson is an artist and architect, having recently been twice awarded the Paul Rudolph Fellowship at Auburn University. He held an Associate Professorship at Harvard Graduate School of Design since 1996, where he taught design, visual studies and co-directed the Harvard Rome Program. Wilson’s drawings and paintings are shown in New York City, Boston, Ma, Columbus, Oh, and Providence, RI. Wilson a principal of 3HG+ an architectural and urban design practice involved with international urban projects in Saudi Arabia, Korea and Vietnam and China.

Wilson has been an invited lecturer at many academic institutions, nationally and internationally, including the Bermuda National Gallery of Art, the Jerusalem Studio School, Israel, and the American University in Cairo. His lectures address the subjects of spatial invention within drawing and architecture, focusing upon the perceptual organization of architecture and the city.

He has held academic positions at Harvard University, Columbia University, Yale University, MIT, Auburn University, Florida University, Northeastern University and the Rhode Island School of Design.