Travel down You are bound to see a large billboard pointing to a roadside attraction on the Midwest Highway. The ones for Columbus, Indiana, however, are hardly turned upside down. Nothing about “Tony Stewart’s Birthplace” and “Mike Pence’s Birthplace” suggests that there is an architectural mecca just off I-65.
At first glance, Columbus is like many other mid-sized cities in the Midwest. There’s a strong sense of community, historic downtown, and Walmarts on the outskirts. (It’s also surrounded by corn.) But what sets Columbus apart from its agricultural neighbors is its architectural heritage. It features more than 80 buildings, landscapes and public works of art by Alexander Girard, IM Pei, Kevin Roche, Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen and Harry Weese. These world-famous designers, whose joint projects include the Louvre Pyramid and the Gateway Arch, found their way to central Indiana by no coincidence. Your work extends beyond Columbus thanks to J. Irwin Miller.
Miller, longtime head of Cummins in Columbus, was a kind of architecture prophet. Miller was exposed to modern design during his student days and believed that high-end architecture could attract potential employees to Columbus. Starting in 1957, Miller convinced city officials to select architects from a shortlist he had drawn up. In return, the Cummins Foundation would pay the architecture fees. The first scholarship went to Harry Weese for the Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary School. Then came Northside Middle School. Then churches, banks and other public institutions. Today more than 50 projects have been sponsored by the Cummins Foundation. They contributed to the city’s nickname – “The Athens of the Plains” – and also provided a background for Columbus exhibition, an annual exploration of architecture, art, design and community.
The Columbus exhibition was launched in 2016 and alternates between the symposium and the exhibition program, much like the Olympic Games alternate between the summer and winter games. This year’s exhibition, which runs until December 1st, shows 18 installations. Think of large-format public works of art that you can sit, walk, and interact with. Like Into the Hedge, a Yayoi Kusama-like labyrinth made of colored webbing. Or corn / meal, whose square picnic tables and rows of corn encourage visitors to reflect on their relationship with food. Whether it was designed by an architect, designer, academic, artist, or graphic designer, each installation explores the idea of “good community design” – a term Columbus knows all too well but which other cities often overlook.
“Columbus has historically invested in great designers, architecture, landscape and art in public spaces and used those investments to make it an interesting place,” said Richard McCoy, CEO of Exhibit Columbus. “Columbus had talent attraction before we even knew what talent attraction was. Now there are all of these iconic buildings recognized around the world. No other city in Indiana has such a legacy, and as Hoosiers, we do not always appreciate or see it. “
It’s true; Indiana is not known for high design. But just because it isn’t in abundance doesn’t mean we don’t deserve it. In fact, everyone deserves access to good design. When we are surrounded by well-designed houses, schools, offices and public spaces, the quality of life increases. Our mental and physical health improves. Public spaces feel more accessible, making us feel more connected and engaged with the community. And we gain cultural, social, historical and economic value through good design.
The design of our houses, schools, offices and public spaces affects the quality of life more than we realize. The problem is we think that it is inaccessible that art and architecture are to the elite.
“In the end, however, the fairest thing about Exhibit Columbus is that you don’t have to think about it,” says McCoy. “It’s just cool. It’s thoughtful. “
“We work very hard to disrupt these types of thoughts,” says McCoy. “Columbus used excellent designers to make a city better for everyone: schools, fire stations, hospitals, parks, the library, churches. These things are all in the public domain. “
In other words, Columbus’ world-class architecture was designed not for tourists or architecture critics, but for its residents. That tradition continues in Exhibit Columbus, where site-specific installations celebrate the built environment while highlighting the role design plays in a vibrant, sustainable city. The seamless mix of art, architecture and community then becomes a lesson in how cities can be person-centered.
McCoy hopes that after exploring Exhibit Columbus, visitors will see their own community in a different way. By asking “Is this place accessible?” “Is this place inviting?” And “Does this place really represent us?” People imagine how their own city can improve. “In the end, however, the fairest thing about Exhibit Columbus is that you don’t have to think about it,” notes McCoy. “It’s just cool. It’s thoughtful. “
The exhibition shows four types of installations, including one by students from the region, theirs installation reflects the notion of diversity and density in Columbus. There are also six university design research grants that highlight the work of leading architecture professors. “So many of them design and do architectural research in their programs,” says McCoy. “This is an opportunity for professors young and old to showcase their research.” Especially fascinating is Playscape, designed by Sean Ahlquist, Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan. Made from specially knitted fabrics and interactive lighting, Playscape enables people with Autism Spectrum Disorders to create their own sensory experience.
“We’re not trying to set up an Instagram exhibit, but it will happen. But while you’re here, you may be questioning the way you think about space and community. “
The Citizens’ Projects on Washington Street are also a must see. Each of the five installations was designed by a non-profit organization dedicated to community improvement. This includes LA-Más from Los Angeles who designed an informal meeting room called Thank U, Next. An exhibition from PienZa Sostenible in Mexico City shows four apiaries and challenges us to consider the importance of bees everywhere. Indy’s own People for Urban Progress also has an installation. Your Jungle Streetscape “works” the urban landscape with the help of reflective panels.
Unsurprisingly, the five Miller Prize winners are at the heart of the Columbus exhibit. These high profile installations can be found in some of the city’s most iconic locations – the City Hall and Library Square. These are the designs that are often the most criticized, the most researched, and the most photographed. For example, there are SO-ILs Into the Hedge. This playful interpretation of the landscape shows a colorful network of nets and trees – a place where you can easily spend an hour. Like Bryony Roberts Studio’s installation in City Hall, Into the Hedge is an Instagram hotspot – not that McCoy or the designers are intentionally trying to create one.
“The Columbus exhibition is an experience, and people want to bring back experiences with cool pictures,” admits McCoy. “We’re not trying to set up an Instagram exhibit, but it will happen. But while you’re here, you may be questioning the way you think about space and community. “
Columbus is one of the few places in Indiana where you can ponder the identity of the place. Where the everyday architecture is extraordinary. Where art critics and instagrammers can see, explore and dream about new ideas for their own hometown. But that’s a bit long for a billboard.