2017-08-18 16:31:10
Columbus, Ind., Renews Its Big Design Legacy

COLUMBUS, Ind. — Getting around this city, located 45 minutes south of Indianapolis, can take a bit longer than expected. It’s not large, with 46,000 people, but the Midwestern friendliness dictates a certain pace.

At four-way stop signs, drivers wait and wave the others forward with a smile. Even the mayor, James D. Lienhoop, admitted that if he has business to attend to he doesn’t walk along the main drag, Washington Street, because it’s impossible to avoid conversations that slow him down.

Much of the orderly character of this city, which happens to be Vice President Mike Pence’s hometown, comes from the longtime influence of the engine maker Cummins, a major employer that was established in 1919.

But it’s a company town with a twist: It has an unusual depth of remarkable modern, postmodern and contemporary architecture, making it one of America’s most design-sophisticated communities. The Saturday Evening Post once called Columbus “Athens on the prairie” for its dozens of notable buildings, particularly by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen (including the strikingly spire-topped North Christian Church, 1964) and his father, Eliel Saarinen (the blocky-but-ethereal First Christian Church, 1942). Later contributions have come from Robert Venturi, I. M. Pei and Richard Meier, among others.

A onetime Cummins chief executive, J. Irwin Miller, had a defining role in shaping the cityscape, not least with his own home, Eero Saarinen’s Miller House (1957), considered a touchstone of midcentury design. Most lastingly, he established the Cummins Foundation to encourage serious architecture: If you picked from its list of architects, the foundation would pay the design fees.

The architect Robert A. M. Stern, a historian of his field who designed the 1995 Columbus Regional Hospital here, said recently that the city had “far and away” the most significant built environment for a town its size. “As Florence is to Italy, Columbus is to Indiana,” he added.

A recently released movie, “Columbus,” even uses the best-known buildings so prominently that they are almost characters in the film.

But the most iconic structures were constructed decades ago, and so the town, with a “let’s put on a show” spirit, has decided to breathe new life into the local legacy. “Exhibit Columbus,” opening Saturday, Aug. 26, and running through Nov. 26, features 18 different projects by designers from as far as Copenhagen. All are within walking distance of the others, and all sit adjacent to notable buildings of the past.

“There was a feeling that it was known for what it had done, not what it was doing,” said Richard McCoy, the director of the nonprofit group Landmark Columbus, which organized the exhibition. A design forum, “Foundations and Futures,” kicked off the initiative last year and the idea is to alternate biennials and symposia going forward.

One major donor to the $1 million budget of “Exhibit Columbus” is the Heritage Fund, a local foundation that contributed $150,000. “The town has been successful because it’s been willing to experiment,” said Heritage’s president, Tracy Souza.

Earlier this month, Columbus was a hive of experimentation as the visiting designers worked on their installations, which range from the playful to the serious, aided by many small companies, from cement producers to equipment makers.

Even a group of students from local high schools was getting in on the act with a piece made of plastic string called “Between the Threads.” It riffs on the legacy of Alexander Girard, the industrial and textile designer who collaborated with Eero Saarinen on Miller House and once proposed a color scheme for all the Victorian storefronts on Washington Street.

Some of “Exhibit Columbus” projects refer to the city’s famous buildings; others just take the opportunity to dream freely within its architecturally rich framework.

Alex Mustonen, a co-founder of the droll hybrid art and architecture firm Snarkitecture, took the latter approach with his installation “Playhouse.” He arrived from New York for a progress checkup. “It looks so small,” was Mr. Mustonen’s briefly disappointed first response when he saw a side view of “Playhouse” on the immaculate shop floor of Kramer Furniture and Cabinet Makers, a family-run business.

The white plastic structure, a platform under a series of arches, appears deep from the entrance, but the top and bottom come together quickly at the far end. The forced perspective means that only children can fully experience it — a cheeky Snarkitecture move. It will be installed in an alley adjacent to a children’s museum.

“We’re making moments accessible for people who might not normally engage with architecture and design,” Mr. Mustonen said, declaring himself pleased with the structure pending some improvements to its stability. “It’s an invitation.”

The Snarkitecture piece is one of five installations along Washington Street, each budgeted at $10,000. “Pause,” by the Copenhagen-based married duo known as Pettersen & Hein, comprises a series of five pairs of concrete benches, each pair attached by a steel bar, that will be placed centrally to provide a respite from the design onslaught, akin to a straphanger’s grab bar in subway cars.

“They’re conversation pieces,” said Magnus Pettersen, who was fabricating the benches at Shelby Materials, a local concrete supplier. “We want to connect people.”

His hands were messy as he mixed concrete to get the right swirl of green and pink. He and his wife, Lea Hein, were in town for a month, with their children. “The whole city is helping out, and we feel really welcome.” Mr. Pettersen added.

Another five installations, which were awarded the J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize, will serve as the marquee projects of the exhibition. Landmark Columbus created the prize to honor the family’s design legacy, and it provides a beefier budget of $70,000 each.

One structure, called “Wiikiaami,” is shaped like a 50-foot-tall cornucopia. The piece, in front of First Christian Church, has a wood substructure, held together by steel rebar. It will be clad in coppery scales meant to evoke a fish, or a bird’s feathers. Visitors will be encouraged to gather inside and look at the sky through an opening at the top.

As he worked on the base of the piece, a Milwaukee-based artist, Chris Cornelius, of studio: indigenous, said he was inspired by the area’s early domestic architecture, well before the midcentury chic of Miller House.

“I tied into the people who are indigenous to the area,” said Mr. Cornelius, referring to the Myaamia, or Miami, Native American tribe. “What some call a wigwam, they call a wiikiaami.” Mr. Cornelius is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.

The most expansive Miller Prize piece, “Another Circle,” was created from 30 tons of Indiana limestone by the New York- and Tucson-based firm Aranda\Lasch, and it was already taking over a two-acre swath of Mill Race Park.

Some 1,100 pieces of the light gray stone, historically prized by architects, make up the final artwork, with some chunks stacked up and weighing up to 400 pounds. It seemed likely to be well-Instagrammed.

“We recognize that our project is weird,” admitted Benjamin Aranda, the firm’s co-founder, who came to town to oversee the installation with his partner Joaquin Bonifaz. It was 7:30 a.m. and they swatted mosquitoes as they watched workers who were using a GPS to place the stones, which were all donated, in specific locations.

The title refers to a circular lake adjacent to the project site; the 1993 park was designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh and Stanley Saitowitz. “The lake is a perfect mirror, but our circle is rough and diffuse,” Mr. Aranda said.

Reactions have varied. “I had one guy come by and say, ‘May they rest in peace,’” Mr. Aranda said, laughing. “Any time you work with stone, you’ll get these graveyard comparisons, and that’s O.K.” Stonehenge was another popular point of comparison.

Kelly Lazzell, a nursing student, came past the partly complete “Another Circle” as she walked her dogs. “At first I thought, another construction project,” she said, but she warmed to the concept when she was told that some of the stones were positioned as backrests so that people could sit on the grass and watch movies.

That people have vastly different interpretations of art and design was not lost on Mr. Aranda. “One of the most interesting things about doing the project here is that it’s deeply divided politically — it’s purple,” he said. “You have to shoot for a universal message, and that’s more challenging.”

The atomization of the elements in “Another Circle” seemed to reflect the trajectory of design — and the rest of the culture — since the days of soaring, confident, Saarinen-style modernism.

As Mr. Aranda put it: “The world is broken. What do we do with the pieces?”