Design by MASS Design Group, Corn/Meal is a corn maze with a twist on the classic picnic table.
Design by MASS Design Group, Corn/Meal is a corn maze with a twist on the classic picnic table; it’s adjacent to Central Middle School, a project designed by Ralph Johnson of Perkins + Will in 2007. Hadley Fruits

Columbus, Indiana—known for its modern architecture—makes it feel fresh and lived-in during a biennial festival.

On a sunny day in Columbus, Indiana, there’s no more pleasant place to be than at the corner of Fifth Street and Lafayette Avenue.

A broad brick plaza here serves as the town square. The central library, built in the same red brick, faces across the plaza to a historic church with a tall bell tower. Just a stroll away is Washington Street and its bistros, shops, and ice cream parlor. Storefront windows cheer on Columbus East High School athletics—go Olympians, beat North! Fifth and Lafayette is the heart of downtown.

Just 45 minutes south of Indianapolis, Columbus is in most respects a quaint Hoosier town brimming with main-street appeal. But in one vital way, this Smallville is unlike any other place in the country. It is a mecca for Modernism, a repository of mid-century architecture. As unlikely as it sounds, Columbus, Indiana, is a citadel of design.

The Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, for example, was designed by I.M. Pei as a study of grace in brick and light. Anchoring the plaza’s Flemish-bond brickwork is a monumental sculpture by Henry Moore, Large Arch. From a certain viewpoint, the patinated bronze arch neatly frames Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church and bell tower, one of the first early Modernist designs for a religious structure to be built anywhere.

Those are only two examples. Columbus boasts buildings by a murderer’s row of notable architects. William Rawn, Kevin Roche, Susana Torre, Dan Kiley, and many others have left their mark on the town, with schools, offices, parks, bridges, and much more. One map of Columbus lists 97 projects of architectural significance, dating from 1942 to the present day. It’s striking to see so much clean geometry in a single place that isn’t Chicago or New York or Miami.

Columbus is a bastion of Midwest, main-street Modernism. Leaders there know what they’ve got on their hands. In August, the city kicked off Exhibit Columbus, a biennial festival launched two years ago to celebrate the city’s design pedigree. This program, running through December 1, invites up-and-coming architects to respond to high-Modernist buildings in Columbus with their own pavilions, interventions, and activations.

Untitled, designed by Frida Escobedo Studio, features native plants in an elevated platform with built-in seating to contrast to I.M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library and plaza. (Hadley Fruits)

For the next three months, Pei’s plaza is even more inviting than usual. It’s the temporary home for Untitled, an elevated garden terrace designed by Mexico City’s Frida Escobedo Studio. Next to the 1969 library, Escobedo’s platform is a complement in elegance and a contrast in materials (and ideas). More than a dozen other additions and pairings across town make Columbus an ideal destination for lovers of high design, or folks looking for a small-town getaway.

However, the planners behind Exhibit Columbus are aiming for more than pleasant. With the festival’s second iteration, the steering committee looked to architects who focus on community—and designs that would provoke as much as they delight.

“By the end of 2017, we had distilled all that we learned through the first exhibition into a really basic idea,” says Richard McCoy, the executive director of Landmark Columbus, a nonprofit heritage group, and managing director of the Exhibit Columbus program. “The reasons behind why people create thoughtful design are much more important than what it is, or how it’s made.”

Soft Civic, designed by Bryony Roberts Studio, outside the SOM-designed Columbus City Hall. (Hadley Fruits)

An installation paired with Columbus City Hall is an example. The City Hall building is a testament to both civic fortitude and transparency, with cantilevered brick walls and a semi-circular glass curtain wall that form the entrance to the local government chamber. (It was designed by Edward Charles Bassett of the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which also designed the city’s master plan.) For Exhibit Columbus, New York–based Bryony Roberts Studio came up with an installation called Soft Civic, a series of custom steel and nylon rope structures whose purpose is open-ended.

Near the entrance, the rope structures echo the swoop of the glass curtain wall. The nets serve as a playful and inviting contrast to the authority projected by the rampart brick beams. While the curving glass wall of the original SOM design suggests transparency, Soft Civic extends that idea further, out into the community. Standalone structures in the building’s yard lend the site a leisurely atmosphere, making City Hall a place to gather and even relax. The emergency neon color of these scoop seats also evokes a literal safety net, another layer to Soft Civic.

A community meeting at Soft Civic shows how leaders might interact with constituents outside the walls of city hall. (Hadley Fruits)

Both Bryony Roberts and Frida Escobedo are winners of the J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize, the centerpiece of the exhibition program. The prize is named after the longtime mid-century executive and chairman of Cummins, a diesel-engine company headquartered in Columbus, and his wife. After World War II, prospects for the family business were strong: The Interstate Highway System delivered demand that the company could barely keep up with. (Cummins is a Fortune 500 company today.) At the time, J. Irwin Miller worried that teeny Bartholomew County was struggling to attract the world-class engineering talent that the growing company needed.

So in 1954, under Miller’s stewardship, the Cummins Foundation offered to subsidize any new, public, Modernist building in this Bible Belt town by paying for the architectural fees. Miller had a vision: He generated (confidential) lists of preferred architects for each project, which he offered like a menu to institutions such as the school board. From the 1950s on, the program furnished exceptional buildings with the goal of putting Columbus on the map. The Saturday Evening Post dubbed the city “Athens on the Prairie.”

“What you have 60 years later is a collection of really remarkable and remarkably designed schools and fire stations and parks and other public places, which really started out as a response to an economic situation,” Tracy Souza, president and CEO of Heritage Fund, told me before the 2017 festival. Heritage Fund, the local trust for Bartholomew County, holds a $63 million endowment. Among other programs, it supports Landmark Columbus. (Which is not a historic preservation group. Columbus doesn’t have one of those.)

While modern architecture might seem like an odd appeal to nuclear families settling down to raise the Baby Boom generation, it made a certain sense at the dawn of postwar America. The country was tapping an emerging class of architects to design embassies around the world, a projection of soft power; around the same time he drafted his first school for Columbus, Harry Weese designed the (former) U.S. Embassy in Ghana. Modernism was a good look for Columbus when the country was facing forward to the future.

Frida Escobedo Studio's "Untitled" installation for Exhibit Columbus serves as the backdrop for traditional Mexican folk dancers with Ballet Folclórico.
Frida Escobedo Studio's "Untitled" installation for Exhibit Columbus serves as the backdrop for traditional Mexican folk dancers with Ballet Folclórico. (Tony Vasquez)

Much of Modernist Columbus was built in the ‘70s, although the program continued to generate new projects well into the ‘90s. (Then an emerging name, Deborah Berke designed a library branch for nearby Hope, Indiana, in 1998.) While the days of gangbuster growth are likely behind Columbus, the Miller Prize was established to extend that legacy of drawing fresh architectural talent to central Indiana.

This year’s Miller Prize winners also include Agency Landscape + Planning (based in Cambridge, Massachusetts), MASS Design Group (Boston and Kigali, Rwanda), and SO-IL (New York City). Some of the designs that viewers may find most challenging are in the festival’s satellite programs: a university design-research fellowship and a showcase of civic projects on Washington Street. (Local high-school students kicked in an installation, too.)

Thank U, Next, by LA Más, can be reconfigured to serve the needs of anyone meeting up along Columbus’s main street. (Hadley Fruits)

Thank U, Next, a main-street installation from a Los Angeles–based urban design nonprofit called LA Más, seemed to call the whole enterprise into question. The design project comprises a series of colorful, modular outdoor-furniture components, which can be reconfigured to meet community needs. Bright kiosks list upcoming events, ranging from a heist-based role-playing game for teens (“Boy Problems: Steal a vault of unreleased songs by Canadian pop star Carly Rae Jepsen”) to a big old picnic (“Mesa Colectiva es un picnic especial para las comunidades latinas y caribeñas de Columbus”). As with many places in the Midwest, growth in Columbus (and Bartholomew County) owes to minority populations. While the white population here is shrinking slightly, growth is strong among Latinx and especially African-American and Asian residents.

As for the meaning behind the customizable rec room, the title is a dead giveaway: a reference to Ariana Grande’s chart-busting ode to moving on from relationships with gratitude (but moving on nonetheless). Thank U, Next suggests a certain ambivalence toward the grand Modernist achievements of yesteryear, or hesitation about how inclusive these projects really are today. In terms of design, LA Más rejects a formalist approach for a more fugitive strategy.

Not that there aren’t indulgent technical displays to be seen at Exhibit Columbus. Marshall Prado, an assistant professor of design at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, built an eerie biomorphic tower using lightweight glass and carbon-fiber elements. Rising more than 30 feet high, UTK Filament Tower is a feat of computational engineering and robotic fabrication. Fans of horror will appreciate the inky black structure, which rises like calcified goo to mimic the spire of Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church, itself a flying saucer out of pulp science fiction.

Marshall Prado’s UTK Filament Tower as installed next to Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church. (Hadley Fruits)

Maybe the sweetest design in the whole festival belongs to Sean Ahlquist, an associate professor of design at the University of Michigan. Playscape is a funky assemblage on Washington Street near an indoor playpen (designed by César Pelli—it’s a seriously cool playground). While Ahlquist’s project is mindful of Pelli’s exposed structural details, Playscape also looks across the street to an autism clinic for inspiration. His team’s playground piece draws on pediatric research about engaging neurodiverse children. Playscape’s custom fabrics, interactive lighting, and climb-under design are meant for kids who are sometimes easily overstimulated.

(A delightful children’s guide to Exhibit Columbus, produced by Los Angeles graphic artists Rosten Woo and Tiffanie Tran, offers a wonderful explanation for Playscape and the rest of the festival.)

Exhibit Columbus started out as a platform for elevating the city’s historic architecture. Which doesn’t take much: The former office of The Republic newspaper, a pristine glass box designed by SOM, is a seminar in restraint. Roche’s corporate office buildings for Cummins could double as a monograph of his work. John M. Johansen’s L. Frances Smith Elementary School—picture a Brutalist bunker–meets–McDonald’s Playland!—is reason alone to visit.

SO-IL’s Into the Hedge, an homage to a landscape designed by Dan Kiley, as seen from above. (Hadley Fruits)

But with this edition of the festival, Exhibit Columbus has turned the lens around on architecture, and on itself. Social factors are as key to contemporary design as glass was to the Modernist era, and this biennial reflects that trend. Columbus is very much unlike most hotbeds of contemporary design: mostly white, not too affluent but not poor either, far from an airport. Exhibit Columbus reflects on those facts, too, giving some hard thought about who this design is supposed to support.

And Exhibit Columbus feels different from other design festivals as a result. Mostly missing is the high-strung academic bafflegab that attends events in New York or Paris or Dubai. The language of design is accessible here. Families and children are centered in the Columbus festival in a way that is almost never seen in this kind of event. That’s in part the setting—a small town in Indiana makes for a more lived-in experience than the Giardini in Venice—but it also reflects decision-making by both the festival planners and architects.

While family-friendly Exhibit Columbus is far from cosmopolitan, the design festival is no less rigorous as a result. SO-IL’s Into the Hedge is an awesome lawn-sized hammock, for example, but it’s also a thoughtful formal reinterpretation of the hedgerow that Dan Kiley designed for Eero Saarinen’s Miller House. Panel discussions and events during the opening festivities focused on accessibility and equity in design. Hot topics everywhere, but in Columbus these conversations could help steer planning decisions for the future.

“We sought out designers that like the complexities of communities, those that care about process in the same way Irwin Miller cared about process and the public realm,” McCoy says.

In a way, this festival brings the Columbus story full circle. Before he seeded the city with Modernist wonders, Miller helped to shore up the Civil Rights Movement. The Cummins executive was a founder and president of the National Council of Churches, which supported Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaigns. Miller participated in anti-segregation demonstrations, paid bail for activists in the Deep South, and personally led delegations that met with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to voice religious support for racial justice.

Miller and his wife commissioned Saarinen to design the First Christian Church at Fifth and Lafayette in 1942—the first modern building in Columbus, and an early demonstration that faith could be modern. And that progress could be religious. And that a small town could be a design capital. These are the contradictions of heartland Modernism that Columbus is still exploring.

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