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Unforgettable By Design

By Carol Antman for The Island Eye News

The North Christian Church designed by Eero Saarinen.

“You want to go WHERE?” my two sisters and I asked our mother when she suggested another girl’s trip. “You could choose anywhere. Paris is nice this time of year! Why Columbus, Indiana??”

“But it’s been my dream to go there,” she insisted. Truly we’d follow her anywhere and so the four of us drove from Indianapolis through miles of cornfields to this town of 45,000.

“Everyone has their arm around someone,” my sister Lila noticed as we dined at Henry’s Social Club. This was our first indication that Columbus was realizing the dream of one of its benefactors, J. Irwin Miller who said, “What is built reflects what a city thinks of itself and what it hopes to be”. What he wanted Columbus to be and what it has become is an improbable architectural Mecca that has fostered a creative, friendly community. As the CEO of Cummins Engine, he initiated a program to pay architects’ fees resulting in a city full of celebrated designs by notables such as Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, Kevin Roche, and I.M. Pei.

The AT&T Switching Station designed by Paul Kennon.

Beginning in 1957, Cummins Engine’s largesse spurred the development of over 80 buildings, landscapes and public works or art by internationally known designers. Mr. Miller wanted buildings that were “not monuments to architect’s egos,” but would instead transform the texture of the resident’s daily lives. Today almost 20 unique schools whose designs were inspired by such things as gerbil runs, silos, farmhouses, a tannery and bridges are the cornerstone of the town’s modernist designs.

“Mediocrity is expensive,” Mr. Miller decreed. If you take one of the very popular bus tours as we did, you can see several of the iconic buildings in town including The North Christian Church designed by Eero Saarinen. His soaring design is built around a spire “because the spire is a marvelous symbol of reaching upward to God,” he said. An oculus at the top focuses dramatic light onto the communion table. A massive pipe organ is a sculptural centerpiece.

Famous artists such as Chihuly, Henry Moore and Martin Beach have added sculptures to parks and gathering places that contrast with the covered bridges that dot the area.

Functional, striking designs even include several fire stations and the AT&T Switching Station designed in 1978 by Paul Kennon. Its huge primary colored “organ pipes” are not only a colorful accent, they are part of the HVAC system and have become an iconic image of the city’s modern architecture.

Cummins’ corporate headquarters, which takes up several downtown blocks is a zigzag design in a park-like setting conceived by Kevin Roche and landscape designer Jack Curtis. It features cast-in-place octagonal concrete columns with infilled precast concrete spandrels and narrow windows to provide noise and sun control, innovations when it was designed in 1984.

Jonathan Nesci who is an internationally known furniture designer moved to Columbus in 2009. “I felt like I could really work from anywhere, and the thought of my kids getting a chance to grow up in a place like Columbus was and continues to be very appealing,” he said. “It’s energizing to see the Henry Moore sculpture at different times of day and catch a different view of an Eero Saarinen project…I feel very fortunate to get to interact with these places on a regular basis.”

In 2017 Nesci became the curator for Exhibit Columbus, an annual celebration of architecture, art, design and community that alternates programming between symposium years and exhibit years. He walked us down Washington Street to highlight some of the 15 temporary site-responsive installations, which were designed by artists chosen from 5 international galleries he’d invited to “spark new conversations about the power of design”.

Outside the Rogers Library we climbed atop the massive wooden sculpture Conversation Plinth and then explored the wigwam-inspired construction Wiikiaami that undulated down a walkway. Along the sidewalk, he pointed out discrete interconnected seats, aptly named Pause, placed intermittently to offer a place to stop and get a new perspective.

Snarkitecture was designed to attract children down a fun-filled alley and a popular colored fiber maze made by high school students drew in pedestrians. “I wanted the designers to dig deep into the city’s incredible design and cultural history and make a design that would allow visitors and residents alike to see Columbus in a new way.”

Vision and investment have had big payoffs. Economic vitality has followed: stores report a three-fold sales increase during Exhibit Columbus. The downtown is revitalized and sprawl contained. Visitors fill tours year round.

Columbus’s motto “Unexpected, Unforgettable” is apt. And so, as usual, mom was right. Columbus is a dream destination. As Jonathan Nesci says, “Architecture and design can make a difference and are doing so here. That’s really powerful.”

Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston, S.C. as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see

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