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Visit the architectural mecca of Columbus, Indiana, to bask in the mid-century glory of Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s masterpieces and a series of new and innovative installations by renowned designers. We explore the first exhibition of Exhibit Columbus, an annual exploration of architecture, art, design, and community, and ask questions about the value of good design.

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We visit:
Miller House and Garden:
Exhibit Columbus:
Baker's Fine Gifts & Accessories: 433 Washington St, Columbus, IN
Le Petit Caraibes: 412 Washington St, Columbus, IN
The Commons:
First Christian Church and North Christian Church:
Mill Race Park:

Any visit to Columbus should start here:

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 (00:00) to (02:00)

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When I think about small town America, I don't usually conjure a town that emerges from the cornfields like this one.  The small town I imagined does not have a striking bridge announcing your exit from the highway, not does it have populated sidewalks, filled parking spaces, and pristinely maintained parks, and it certainly doesn't have marvels of modern architecture, interspersed with temporary, site-specific art and design installations, but if you drive an hour south of Indianapolis, you'll come across Columbus, Indiana, which has all of these things.

This place is thriving, but why?  

A good place to start in unlocking the mystery of this place is by visiting the former home of J. Erwin and Xenia Miller, who commissioned famed architect Eero Saarinen to design it in 1953.  Dan Kiley was brought on for the surrounding gardens, expanding on the geometries of Saarinen's architecture and creating spacial enclosures in the landscape like this allay of honey locust trees.  A system of cruciform steel columns supports the house and creates a grid that informs the division of the interior.  

You enter to find an open space containing the home's main living areas.  Here, you'll also find the most magnificent of conversation pits, whose pillows were changed seasonally according to the brilliant and colorful interior design scheme and textiles of Alexander Girard.  A terrace overlooks a sweeping lawn that leads to the Flatrock River.  The corners of the house contain the more private areas, a kitchen, the master bedroom, the kids' quarters, and a guest suite.  

Every part of the home is rigorously considered, but still warm and inviting.  It's a masterpiece of modern architecture and design.  The collaborative output of the triumvirate of Saarinen, Kiley, and Girard, as well as the visionary couple who commissioned and cared for it. 

J. Erwin Miller was the president and chairman of Cummins Engine Company, based in Columbus and he wasn't just interested in the design of his own home.  He was involved in the decision to hire architect Eliel Saarinen, Eero's father, for the building of First Christian Church in 1942, which was Columbus's first building in the modern style.

 (02:00) to (04:00)

Adjacent to the church, next to its sunken garden is a temporary installation by the architecture firm Studio: Indigenous based in Milwaukee.  Made of rebar and copper-meshed scales, the structure was inspired by the dwellings of the (?~2:19) people indigenous to Indiana.  Its vertical form echoes and points to the church's tower and is aligned to mark the autumnal equinox.  "Wiikiaami" is a welcoming shelter with just the right amount of Sun filtering through and with its careful sighting next to the church helps me appreciate the many different types of structures we humans construct to gather, socialize, and worship.

The installation is part of the first Exhibit Columbus, which describes itself as an annual exploration of architecture, art, design, and community.  Last year, there was a symposium to kick off a discussion about the state of architecture and design in Columbus and this year, there's an exhibition featuring 18 outdoor, site-responsive installations.  You'll find another of these across the street in front of the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, designed by I.M. Pei and completed in 1969.  Boston-based firm IKD has created the "Conversation Plinth" that encircles the Henry Moore sculpture that sits in the library plaza, a gift to the city from the Millers installed in 1971. 

IKD's "Plinth" is inspired in part by the conversation pit we saw earlier, but rather than sinking into the ground, it rises up, inviting new ways to circulate around the sculpture and allowing for views of the plaza from new heights.  Like Moore's sculpture, its curvilinear forms counteract the rigid geometries of the buildings that surround it.  

From there, we stopped by the Visitor's Center, where we snagged an Exhibit Columbus map and plotted our course.  We passed the home and gardens where Miller grew up.  He came from prominent Columbus stock, as you can probably tell, from the family that owned the town bank.  After studying at Yale and Oxford, Miller returned and took the helm at Cummins Engine, transforming the company into a very successful one.  

 (04:00) to (06:00)

In 1954, he established the Cummins Foundation and made an open offer to the city that the Foundation would pay all architects' fees for the construction of new buildings, so long as they selected an architect from a Miller approved list, and that's why you'll find schools like Lincoln Elementary, designed in 1967 by Gunnar Birkerts.  Next is Central Middle School by Perkins & Will.  In between the schools are Exhibit Columbus installations by teams of students and faculty from five midwestern universities with Master's programs in architecture and design.  One of these is Cloud/Bank by a group from the University of Michigan, a structure that is playfully sprouting corn with pig benches frolicking about its feet.  

I was especially drawn to the Univeristy of Cincinnati's contribution, made entirely of recycled and repurposed materials, an enclosure that from the outside presents the blank backsides of tiles and then reveals their colorful faces within.  This array of hand-crafted, ceramic tiles was made by the Rookwood Pottery Company based out of Cincinnati since 1880.  

Along this stretch, you'll see a wide range of approaches to this particular site, within this particular town, and impressive demonstrations of material experimentation.  We headed back toward Main Street and past the mirrored glass facade of the 1978 AT&T switching center, admiring the brightly colored stacks of the building's HVAC system.  A functional, oft-disguised aspect of the building is not only given prominence, but made a hallmark of the design.

Just next door, we found an installation outside of a historic post office.  This one created by a team of high school students from Columbus.  A series of panels strung with vibrant plastic lacing with colors inspired by the work of Alexander Girard, vibrate in the wind, and are arranged into a maze-like structure that can be explored from within.

Washington Street is Columbus's main commercial artery, and along it, you'll find charming shops like Baker's Fine Gifts, where we witnessed an epic showdown between the shop dog and a renegate bird.  Spoiler alert: the bird escaped.  

 (06:00) to (08:00)

You can buy Exhibit Columbus t-shirts here, too.  International design galleries were tapped to create installations along the street, includig Cody Hoyt's "Theoretical Foyer", replacing existing sidewalk bricks with new concrete  ones, a pixelated version of a motif drawn from Girard Designs seat cushions in Miller House.

We passed a series of concrete benches by Copenhagen-based Petterson & Hein, along with a subtle but seductive progression of low-lying circular elements made by Mexico City-based Productura.  We spotted one outside of the (?~6:33) Saarinen designed Irwin Conference Center and this quiet little form perched on the curb drew my attention the variety of textures and details of my surroundings.

Around the corner, we found Oyler Wu Collaborative's "The Exchange", built off of the canopies that once served as drive-up tellers during the structure's first life as a bank.  This porous but intimate complex of walls, canopies, and benches completes the geometries implied by Saarinen's original design and also plays off of them, looking both new and like it should have always been there.

A few paces away is the Roche Dinkeloo designed Cummins Corporate Office Building, completed in 1984.  It features a prominent (?~7:13), under which Plan B Architecture & Urbanism has propogated a landscape of mirrored columns and grassy knolls, which we weaved our way through, wishing our break room was 1/8 this rad.

We followed a herd of Cummins employees to the nearby Le Petit Caraibes, where we devoured a variety of Caribbean dishes like jerk chicken, lentils, stewed pork, and fried plantains, all delicious, and then needing to walk it off, we continued on, making a brief stop at The Commons, a community gathering space that features an indoor play space for kids, a Subway sandwich shop, and oh hey, this fantastic 1974 kinetic sculpture by Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. 

We stood mesmerized by its twisting shapes and turning gears until we felt the pull from across the street of Brooklyn-based Snarkitecture's "Playhouse", wedged delightfully in an alley.  

 (08:00) to (10:00)

Like any good outdoor exhibition these days, Exhibit Columbus has some very fine Instagrammable moments, and this one with its forced perspective is probaby tops.  Nearby, we admired more of (?~8:15)'s circles.  By this point, they're really winning me over, and also took in a storefront exhibition about the making of Exhibit Columbus.  Models and prototypes are on display of the installations, five of which emerge from the, wait for it, J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize Competition. 

Nationally and internationally recognized design firms were invited to participate in the symposium with winners selected by jury, and although we were still full from lunch, when there's an old fashioned ice cream parlor that's been around since 1900, by all means, you must go in it, and since you're there, you might as well order a root beer float made the old fashioned way by the deft and sassy soda (?~8:52).  It looks really, really good and it was really, really good.

On our way back to our car, we discovered a curious brick wall in a courtyard whose little neon arrow politely suggested we investigate further.  Around back, the structure helpfully shared with us its title and its motivation, a rotating exhibition space providing a window onto the materials that make up the architecture of Columbus.  The wall itself is made of bricks glazed with volcanic ash clay and salt from Mt. Etna.

A short drive away, we sought out North Christian Church, another collaboration of Eero Saarinen on the architecture and Dan Kiley on the landscape.  Sited on a former cornfield, the hexagonal building's sloping roofline sits low, but its spire reaches an epic, 192 feet high, a comparatively tiny cross at the top communicating its purpose.  It's hard to imagine anything holding up next to such a dramaic sight, and the Exhibit Columbus installation on its grounds made by students and faculty from Indiana University wisely does not try to compete. 

It's a light and airy counterpoint to the dark mass of the church, offering a quiet spot to sit in the shade, but the ultimate place to sit in this shade is within the church itself.  

 (10:00) to (12:00)

The experience of which I can find no better word to describe than otherworldly.  Well, that would have been a fine enough moment to conclude our visit.  We didn't want to skip Mill Race Park, a flood plane that was once a tannery, then an area of substandard housing known as Death Valley, and since the '60s, a serene park.  It was redesined in 1992 with a historic bridge set along side a large circular pond.

Here, there's an installation by Aranda Lasch, an arrangement of thousands of off-cuts of Indiana limestone.  While it's stated goal is to articulate fields of activity for contemporary park visitors, its likeness to headstones cannot and should not be ignored.  It's a kind of mini rambling Stonehenge with whorls and successions of (?~10:51)-like stacks, pulling me this way and that in my meandering through it.  It's here that I can't help but wonder, what are public spaces for?  What are we supposed to do here?  Which way do I walk?  Where do I sit?  What kinds of forms encourage circulation, congregation, contemplation, or rememberance?

I ask myself these questions throughout Columbus.  How do we design for private life and for public?  What do we need our spaces to do right now and how does that change over time?  What kinds of gestures, be they small or large, make an impact, and what role do I play?  For that matter, what even is good design?  What are its implications on a daily basis and in the long run?

The installations of Exhibit Columbus are charged with a considerable task of enlivening our engagement with works of architecture, design, and art that are already masterpieces, but in this anomaly of a place created and sustained by an anomaly of a values-driven, multinational, Fortune 500 company, one cannot just rest on one's laurels.  The laurels must not only be cultivatd and maintained, but also constantly assessed, reassessed, and cross-examined.  If we don't continue to think about these places, talk about them, and make new and thoughtful interventions around and about them, how will they continue to be the useful, provocative, and aspirational structures they were designed to be?  

 (12:00) to (12:50)

Columbus was and is a radical experiment in living and through the efforts of its stewards and innovators and makers, those who reside here and those who visit, it has a pretty good chance of staying that way.