Arts » Visual Arts

Some Thoughts on Exhibit Columbus

The Columbus Way (with a few tweaks) should be the American Way


Exhibit Columbus Crowd with Chaos I sculpture in foreground - DAN GROSSMAN
  • Dan Grossman
  • Exhibit Columbus Crowd with Chaos I sculpture in foreground

I walked into the inaugural Exhibit Columbus symposium on Friday, Sept. 30 just as one of the panel discussions was wrapping up. The panel featured three Miller Prize Finalists hoping to display their design installations in Columbus at various sites in the city as part of Exhibit Columbus next year.

The objective of Exhibit Columbus is, in part, to show how inspired architectural design has helped solve challenges particular to this medium-size Indiana city. So I was wondering, coming into this event, if there were wider applications of this biennial series of exhibitions and symposiums beyond the municipal borders of Columbus.

And, as I was happy to see, I wasn’t the only one thinking along these lines.
Onstage panelist Joyce Hsiang, a member of the design firm Plan B + Urbanism, was in the middle of saying something that perked up my ears. “The Columbus way is really not the way of the world, but it should be,” she said.

Driving into Columbus, Ind., it’s easy enough to see that the Columbus way isn’t really the American way, let alone the way of the world. It certainly isn’t the way of much of Columbus, either, if you take into account the many strip malls that you drive by on the way into downtown.

Seeing the modernist architectural gems for which Columbus is so rightly celebrated—like the Bartholomew County Public Library—might make you wonder why such buildings were built here, and not elsewhere. You might wonder, to paraphrase a certain Talking Heads song, well, how did we get here?

You can’t understand the Columbus way, without understanding the symbiotic relationship between Columbus and the Fortune 500 company Cummins, headquartered here. It was the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program, founded in 1957 by Cummins CEO J. Irwin Miller, which was the catalyst for much of Columbus’s architectural exceptionalism.

Richard McCoy, the director of Landmark Columbus—which organized Exhibit Columbus—explained the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program to me back in March while leading me around Columbus in the rain, showing me the architectural sights:

“They [Cummins] have a standing offer for the entire county which says, if you’re a nonprofit, school corporation, city entity, library, nonprofit organization, you can apply to their program and if you need to build a building they will pay the architect’s fees if you choose one of their architects,” McCoy told me.
Richard McCoy in front of Large Arch sculpture by Henry Moore
  • Richard McCoy in front of Large Arch sculpture by Henry Moore

I had been talking to McCoy in preparation for an article that I wrote about him and about Exhibit Columbus back in July for NUVO. So I had reason to be curious about the 3-day-long Exhibit Columbus.

The Keynote Session entitled “Architecture for Everyday Life” began shortly after I arrived on Friday night. That session was introduced by Michelangelo Sabatino, Director of the PhD program at the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

“Despite the high concentration of architect-designed buildings, Columbus is not a museum,” Sabatino said from the lectern. “Every building, from churches and factories and post offices to schools and banks, are an opportunity to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.”
Michaelangelo Sabatino at the lecturn - DAN GROSSMAN
  • Dan Grossman
  • Michaelangelo Sabatino at the lecturn
Sabatino then talked about another Columbus architectural treasure, the Irwin Union Bank designed by Eero Saarinen, built in 1954.

“A statement of continuity with the 19th century urban fabric of Washington Street,” he called it.

And then Sabatino showed an image of a still life painting by Giorgio Morandi on the screen behind him. The objects depicted were cups against a cloud gray backdrop. The colors of the cups were washed out grays and browns: no one cup dared to distinguish itself from the crowd with an ostentatious display of color.

The continuity and restraint that Sabatino sees in this painting is something that he also sees as a positive value in architecture.

The Keynote session in itself consisted of three separate discussions of buildings/architectural projects funded in part by the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program and moderated by Will Miller, J. Irwin Miller’s son.
In the case of two of the projects discussed, the Columbus Regional Hospital and Mill Race Park, flooding was an issue. The park, designed by Michael Von Valkenburgh, had been designed to withstand spring floods.

Flooding was an issue for the Columbus Regional Hospital as well, revamped in 1995 by Robert AM Sterns Architects. But in spite of this revamp, the hospital had to be evacuated in 2008 due to a devastating flood.

Columbus Regional Hospital has since installed flood gates and other flood protection measures should there be equally or more severe flooding along the East Fork of the White River in the future. And it’s a pretty good bet that there will be much more flooding to come, if you consider a certain document entitled “Confronting Climate Change in the US Midwest: Indiana” published by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
All of this begs a certain question. Is it really enough to make buildings in the twenty-first century that, aside from their functional considerations, harmonize together like items from a kitchen shelf?

Look, I appreciate the modernist architecture in Columbus as much as anybody. The glass-walled Commons, where the Keynote Symposium was being held, is a pretty cool building (as is the kinetic sculpture Chaos I designed by-Swiss artist Jean Tinguely in the Commons’ atrium). But what’s the point of all this inspired architecture and innovation if a flood comes and sweeps it all away?

The buildings that I’m truly inspired by these days are the green buildings. I think of The Crystal in London, England: a solar powered building that collects its own rainwater. And then there’s the Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China which uses its own wind turbines to produce clean energy. By and large, this kind of architecture isn’t happening in this country. Or at least, it’s not happening at a quick enough pace.
Don’t get me wrong, though: the architecture of Columbus is worth celebrating, as is its relationship with Cummins.

This company should be commended for its support of Columbus, its history of technical excellence, and for simply for sticking around—unlike the Indy-based Carrier. But they can do more. I’d like to see the leadership of Cummins shift some of their capital away from greenhouse gas producing diesel engines. Yes, I know that Cummins is producing natural gas powered engines and that they are making strides towards sustainability in their operations and in their products. But what if they invested some of their capital in truly cutting edge technologies, like, say, using supercritical carbon dioxide to develop clean energy?

And, more to the point, what if the Columbus Foundation Architecture program were to fund buildings with green roofs and green terraces, powered by wind and solar energy? Or even mixed use high rises incorporating vertical farms?

I’m hoping that Exhibit Columbus will inspire—at the very least—discussions about creating a true twenty-first century architecture. In this way, the Columbus way could become the American way in this (still) brand new century.


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