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At first glance, Columbus, Indiana, about an hour’s drive south of Indianapolis, represents the Midwest that Americans are nostalgic for. College sports headline the news, and soda jerks at Zaharakos pull ice cream floats the way they have since 1900. The diesel engine manufacturer Cummins plies its global trade while nearby farmers plan their next crop. Yet a trove of avant-garde architecture—seven National Historic Landmarks from the mid-20th century and many more buildings that exemplify design since then—suggests that the city, population 45,000, prefers to look forward. When it opens in August, the design initiative Exhibit Columbus—in its second year, comprising 15 installations throughout downtown—will underscore this pairing of heartland and modernism.
The city could use a spotlight. “My parents didn’t pay attention to it,” says project helmsman Richard McCoy, a native Hoosier who grew up in West Lafayette, a two-hour drive from Columbus. Even design aficionados haven’t necessarily seen the architecture firsthand. Dwayne Oyler, of Los Angeles architecture studio Oyler Wu Collaborative, says of his first visit (which Exhibit Columbus sponsored last year): “I’m from a small town in Kansas, and I’ve never been to a place where the commitment to the greater good seems so palpable.” The American Institute of Architects calls Columbus the most architecturally important small city in the U.S., but 20 times more people participated in tours run by the Chicago Architecture Foundation last year than strolled through the Columbus Area Visitors Center.
An ecumenical church launched Columbus’s long affair with contemporary expression. Located a few steps from the city’s commercial core and completed in 1942, First Christian Church notably pairs a crisp sanctuary hall with a 166-foot-tall campanile decorated only in gridded reliefs and a minimalist clock mounted left of center. For First Christian’s congregation, austerity meant nobody would feel alienated by the new building. Its approach had no precedent and secured the place of its designer, Eliel Saarinen (father of architect Eero Saarinen), in history.
The city later spawned other career-making buildings. In 1957 Harry Weese linked a series of house-like shapes to form Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary School; nine years later, he would follow a similar playbook, abstracting the civic monuments of Washington, D.C., in his designs for the city’s Metro stations. Master of postmodernism Robert Venturi gave early form to that movement with Fire Station 4, alternating red and white bricks to make the building appear more graphic than spatial. It was his fourth project.
Even the most cutting-edge buildings were conceived with an eye to visual cohesion and community benefit. Which is what makes Columbus more astounding than any one architectural feat. “I don’t think Columbus is a laboratory,” says MoMA curator Sean Anderson. “It’s a conversation between buildings.” In 2016 filmmaker Kogonada, who shot his indie feature, Columbus (a darling of this year’s Sundance Film Festival), on location here, equated the city with the “promise and fulfillment” of modernism. Less recently, Lady Bird Johnson dubbed Columbus the “Athens of the prairie.”
And J. Irwin Miller was its Aristotle. He took over Cummins from his greatuncle in 1947 and was the company’s chairman until 1977. For decades after his family donated the land and commissioned the design for First Christian, he championed architectural excellence. Cummins treated every new headquarters facility as an important commission, and through its foundation offered to pay the design fees for public buildings if those clients selected architects from a vetted shortlist. Behold, Athens.
Since Columbus’s postwar boom, construction has been no less unpretentious, transparent, democratic—in a word, modernist. But its pace has slowed. Mayor Jim Lienhoop also notes that many of his constituents have “become accustomed to the buildings,” just as any native New Yorker might shrug at the Guggenheim. And while Cummins is as strong as ever, Miller’s death in 2004 and the shuttering of the family’s bank in 2009 led some locals to wonder, McCoy says, if their responsibility was to preserve an erstwhile golden age.
Exhibit Columbus proposes that supporting radical new architecture best honors the past. Its centerpiece was a competition for five temporary installations built at modernist icons on Fifth Street, from First Christian and the I. M. Pei–designed library facing it to a riverside park near Cummins headquarters. Winners range from young Turks like Oyler Wu, which has conceived an intricate pavilion, to academic favorite Plan B Architecture & Urbanism of New Haven, Connecticut, which will insert an “urban forest” of mirrored columns and conversation spots inside Cummins HQ’s street-front pergola. New York’s Aranda\ Lasch—which recently built a Deco-inspired retail building in Miami housing tenants such as Tom Ford—is depositing limestone on the banks of a lake as a type of usable land art.
“Each project casts the famed architecture in a new light and asks viewers to see themselves in the city differently,” says Anderson, who served on the competition jury. It all could prove that reports of the Rust Belt’s demise are greatly exaggerated. “There’s a can-do spirit here,” Lienhoop says, “and a lot of it has to do with the architecture.”