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In an Indiana Town, a Treasure Trove of Modernist Design

“Exhibit Columbus” celebrates the legacies of the architects and designers who filled the town with private and civic works before going on to be some of Modernism’s biggest names.

Synergia, by students of the Indiana University School of Art + Design, supervised by Jianmei Wu and Andres Tovar, outside North Christian Church, the 1964 final work of master architect Eero Saarinen (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

Outside of architecture and design circles, or maybe red carpet events, it is unusual to constantly ask the question: “Who designed this?” Though urban planning and architecture are understood to be major areas of study, it is rare that we consider something like a city as being created by design, or even as a collection of specific architectural intentions. The small city of Columbus, Indiana, however, has developed a large portion of its identity around the legacy of several designers, who came to town to do works at a private and civic scale, before going on to be some of the biggest names in Modernist architecture and design. A design festival in its second year, Exhibit Columbus, seeks to preserve and celebrate that legacy, while simultaneously creating space for the next generation of design talent to find a connection to this incongruously metropolitan town, perched in an otherwise standard stretch of southern Indiana.

Organizer and Exhibit Columbus spearhead, Richard McCoy, outside the dedication ceremony for the University Installations.

“We created Exhibit Columbus to reinvest in the value of good design,” said Richard McCoy, Director of Landmark Columbus and driving force behind the ambitious design festival, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Five or ten years ago, the community wrote down ten community values, and there’s this one, Value of Good Design. It says: We believe that our physical environment affects our aspirations, that a well-built environment inspires people to be excellent. And so this is the value that we wanted to in invest in, with Exhibit Columbus. To say, let’s show off the 75-year history of investing in the value good design, and let’s reinvest in it now, knowing that it will pay off, the next ten, twenty years.”

A charming scene, just off the main drag downtown; Alexander Girard completely redesigned the “drab” Victorian facades of Columbus’ entire main street with a bold 44-color paint scheme.

Columbus’s history of design includes multiple constructions by venerated architect Eero Saarinen, who was responsible for the trendsetting residence of Columbus’ most influential couple, J. Irwin and Xenia Miller, as well as the nearby Irwin Union Bank, and eventually North Christian Church, the first church in the country with a Modernist design. (It was also Saarinen’s final work, due to his untimely passing at the age of 51.) The interior of the Miller House was designed and outfitted stem-to-stern by Alexander Girard, an architect, curator, and interior designer who is enjoying more popular recognition lately, thanks to his foundational work and collaborative influence on other big names in midcentury Modern interiors, like Herman Miller and Charles and Ray Eames. Recently, in a review of the Girard retrospective and symposium at Cranbrook Art Museum (which I fortuitously attended mere weeks before Exhibit Columbus), I grappled with a sense of colonialism in Girard’s work, and a sense of Modernist design as preclusive to the real action of life, in general. My sense is that the clean modular nature of some of Girard’s favorite interior design infrastructure, such as the shadowbox and the shelving-wall, act as a kind of pasteurization field, capturing the folk art that was growing wild in then-largely untraveled corners of the world into tidy, controlled boxes — a kind of hermetic art-zoo. Having seen his astonishing interior in context, preserved as a national historic landmark in the Miller House, I must revise my thinking to attest to the warmth and comfort of Girard’s custom efforts on behalf of the Millers; no detail is left unattended. The house is full of once state-of-the-art systems and clever details that accommodate the lives lived there, but it also provides no shortage of bucolic vistas and places to lounge fashionably in conversation attendant to upper class leisure (including, of course, Girard’s signature “conversation pit” in the living room).

Views from the Miller House, which is owned and cared for by the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. Tours at Miller House and Garden are made possible through the Columbus Area Visitors Center.

Nice places to sit sprout like mushrooms around design festivals, and I sat in many of them as I contemplated the various elements of the festival: in addition to a battery of opening weekend festivities, there are a number of installations around some of the main thoroughfares, as well as two cohorts presenting special projects. The University Installations were created by six faculty-led, Master’s-level college teams, including Ball State, Ohio State University, Universities of Cincinnati, Michigan, and Kentucky, as well as Indiana University. These projects are all on display at Central Middle School (My god, who designed this middle school? Gunnar Birkerts, 1967), with the exception of Synergia at Indiana University, which sits on the lawn below North Christian Church. After dark, Synergia emits a shifting glow of colorful light as it sits in communion with Saarinen’s masterful work. Synergia, which was developed and managed by Jiangmei Wu with Andres Tovar, had an irresistible allure and I found myself returning to the site several times, night and day. University of Cincinnati’s Alchemy presented a kind of sonic silo, which surrounded the visitor with a kaleidoscope of stunning Rookwood tiles, as well as offering an echo point that radiated spoken noise back in stereo. University of Michigan offered an ode to agriculture and nature’s abundance with Cloud/Bank, featuring open-frame farm scene with clouds, fish, corn, and pigs constructed out of metal and plexiglass.

Some visitors to Exhibit Columbus enjoy the installation by University of Cincinnati.

Exhibit Columbus is not a biennial, but rather an annual festival that alternates from symposium to design festival every other year. During the inaugural year, symposium presenters and architecture firms had an opportunity to compete with each other for the first round of the Miller Prize, which was awarded to the winners at each of five proposed sites, enabling the construction of their projects in the festival year. All of these installations are intended for public interaction. At something of a loss for an evaluation matrix for these prizewinning designs, and determined the best metric for the marriage of form and function would be how well I was able to incorporate them into my workout on roller skates, so I strapped in and headed to town on an absurdly beautiful late-summer day.

Another Circle by Aranda/Lash.

First up, Another Circle by Aranda/Lash, in Mill Race Park. The installation strews an expanse of the park, flanked by a large pond and bisected by a roadway, with broken bits of native limestone, sourced from discard piles from a nearby quarry. These are arranged in the vague suggestion of purposive use —classroom, theater, table — and resemble ancient ruins, and also, with white slabs on grass, a graveyard. Being on grass, I could not build any kind of momentum, but some of the pieces lodged at sharp angles enabled me to practice banking, and were also good for leaning against to take a break.

Anything can happen in the woods, by Plan B Architecture & Urbanism

Outside the Cummins Corporate Office Building — a sprawling campus that houses the city’s major employer, a powerhouse of industrial manufacturing and design, responsible for the wealth behind many of the Millers’ pet design projects  — is Anything can happen in the woods, a series of grass seating mounds in clusters, by Plan B Architecture & Urbanism. Obviously, being grass mounds, these were rubbish for skating, and I had just taken a break in the park, so I kept it moving, but I did notice a number of Cummins employees holding court on the mounds.

The Exchange by Oyler Wu Collaborative.

In the next block, outside the Irwin Conference Center, was The Exchange, by Oyler Wu Collaborative, a minimalist-yet-complicated structure, containing blocky concrete benches in an open weave of paleo-futuristic white tendrils; essentially a very good example of the exact thing that pops into everyone’s mind when you say “modern design.” Each bench was adjacent to a curving arch, which made it possible to lie in a plow-position, which is terrific for stretching hamstrings tightened by roller-skating, as Oyler Wu assuredly knows.

Wiikiaami, by studio:indigenous

Outside the First Christian Church, achieving harmony with the surrounding trees as it reaches into the airspace is Wiikiaami, a kind of giant cornucopia (frankly, my first thought was shuttlecock) by studio:indigenous, which was nice to look at, but utterly impossible to skate in any way.

Coversation Plinth by IKD.

Finally, IKD’s Conversation Plinth, which curls around the giant Henry Moore sculpture outside the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library (my god, who designed that library? I. M. Pei, 1969), was the clear winner by my completely arbitrary evaluation system, which I swear I developed before knowing that one of the designs had a giant, sloping ramp, perfect for catching air as you launch across a sidewalk of flustered Midwesterners. Luckily, everyone in Indiana scrupulously obeys the speed limit, so no lives were lost that day. Congrats, IKD, for your highly skateable design!

T. Kelly Wilson (left), J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize Coordinator for Exhibit Columbus, with collaborator Jennifer Riley (right) at IUCA+D, with their sculptural project, The Shadow of an Unknown Bird – one of the largest 3D printed works of art in the world.

The real question on my mind, as I rolled or was shuttled from one incomparable aesthetic experience to the next, was: how much did this focus on design impact the everyday folk of Columbus, Indiana? Was there a higher aptitude, awareness, or literacy for design in the population — or, prone as we are to take the place we’re born for granted, is there perhaps the opposite effect, an assumption that anywhere you go has heart-stopping architecture and triumphs of public sculpture at every turn?

Recent high school graduates Kyle Kingen and Mila Lipinski, contributors to the high school installation, Between the Threads.

I crossed paths, at the opening night party, with a couple recent high-school graduates, members of the team of students that presented a work, Between the Threads, just off Main Street, which is dotted with smaller, standalone pieces from various national contributors. Kyle Kingen, who is headed to begin his undergraduate studies at IUPUI/Herron on the one hand downplayed the impact of growing up in a design mecca. On the other hand, both he and his colleague Mila Lipinski are pursuing higher education in design, and the high school installation was colorful, kinetic, and engaging, demonstrating an extremely strong grasp of design principles, the thousands of colorful strings seeming to simulate a pixelated field when stirred by the breeze.

Dreams of fostering the next Eero Saarinen burn bright in Columbus, IN.

One might imagine that these fresh-faced youngster, off to navigate the world of professional design and architecture, are exactly what McCoy, and all of Columbus, had in mind when they considered the long-term benefits of investing in good design as a cultural value. At very least, they have put together an engaging and inspiring design festival with very deep roots in the community where it has grown.

Exhibit Columbus continues through November 26, with programming and installations all over the city.

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