Why Columbus, Indiana, Should Be On Your Design Itinerary This Year

A new annual exhibition draws attention to the Midwestern city’s rich architecture and design heritage.

Furniture and light fixtures in the First Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarinen.

During the first century A.D., Emperor Augustus could claim that he found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. In the 20th century, J. Irwin Miller could make a similar boast of Columbus, Indiana: When he grew up there in the 1910s and ’20s, it was a small Midwestern town; by the time he passed away in 2004, he’d left it a hub of Modernist architecture.

Over the course of five-plus decades, Miller, an executive at the engine-maker Cummins and the founder of the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program, helped bring a cavalcade of major American architects to Columbus, paying the design fees for churches, banks, and other public spaces all over town. The result is roughly 80 works of art, architecture, and landscape architecture—a heritage that Richard McCoy, as director of the arts nonprofit Landmark Columbus, is dedicated to preserving and celebrating. For residents accustomed to passing buildings designed by Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche, or SOM on the way to the corner store, “it’s easy to take these things for granted,” says McCoy, whose organization has lately launched a new initiative to remind both locals and out-of-towners just how special Columbus really is.

The exterior of First Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarinen.

Exhibit Columbus debuted last year with a symposium that brought together designers, fabricators, and other leading thinkers to mull Miller’s legacy and the town’s singular place in the architectural canon. Beginning Aug. 26 and running through late November, the program this year will expand to include an exhibition that includes architects from around the country and the world, all of them responsible for installations reflecting on the city’s past, present, and future. “We created this project as an exploration of what makes Columbus such a great community,” says McCoy, whose team has crafted a series of events and encounters that bring the cityscape to life in new and surprising ways.

At the core of the exhibition is the work of five designers—winners of the inaugural J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize—who will construct installations adjacent to some of the city’s Modernist monuments, responding to them in architectural form. A number of international art galleries have also gotten in on the action, commissioning designers to “create design work that establishes human connections or interactions on a public street,” says Anne Surak, Exhibit Columbus’s director of exhibitions. These urbanist-minded interventions will be complemented by another set of installations by architecture students from six prominent universities, as well as yet more installations from a group of Columbus-area high-schoolers. The broad array of offerings is aimed at drawing in as many different constituencies as possible. As Surak puts it, “We’re thinking about family programming, how to appeal to people with children, how to get the community aware of its surroundings.

Richard McCoy and Anne Surak at the First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana.

As it’s turned out, getting Columbus locals to engage with their built environment and increasing the city’s stature in the design world at large have gone hand in hand: Local metal shops, stonecutters, a concrete company, and others are helping fabricate the installations, and the area’s contractors have gone “above and beyond,” Surak says. The objective, says McCoy, is to change expectations for what places like Columbus can be, and the role architecture can play in transforming them. “In small towns, there’s often this group-think that often brings you back to the middle,” he says. “Columbus shows what happens when you try to be the best you can be.”

A scene at the 2016 Exhibit Columbus symposium.
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