Exhibit Columbus: Adding To The City’s Design Legacy

An architect’s perspective on the Indiana town’s storied design history ahead of the exhibition beginning this week.

When my colleagues and I gather annually at the American Institute of Architects national convention, I’m often asked by those my age, “Has Columbus continued to be at the forefront of promoting excellence in architecture, as it was when we were in college?”

My generation attended architecture school and began practicing during the late-1950s through the mid-1970s. Many of us remember making the pilgrimage to this small Indiana city to see buildings by acclaimed modernist architects that included Eliel and Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, John Carl Warnecke, Gunnar Birkerts, Aldo Giurgola, and Myron Goldsmith. We were also eager to see the latest buildings by slightly younger architects who were beginning to ascend to national acclaim. Among those were Kevin Roche, Cesar Pelli, James Stewart Polshek, and Robert Venturi, all of whom challenged traditional modernist principals. 

My response to my colleagues’ question about Columbus? A resounding yes. Although not in the same quantity as in the ’60s and ’70s, Columbus continues to add buildings that showcase the talents of some of today’s best national architects, including Kotter Kim, William Rawn, and Deborah Burke. Indianapolis firms also have been commissioned for noteworthy projects, such as AXIS’s new, award-winning Cummins Wellness Center.

Perhaps nowhere is the city’s continued commitment to design more evident, however, than in Exhibit Columbus, which opens with a ticketed gala event on August 25. According to its website, the exhibition “explores the past, present, and future of design in Columbus at 18 outdoor, site-responsive installations that energize spaces in and around Columbus’s masterpieces of modern architecture.” Those temporary installations include pieces by five Miller Prize-winning architectural firms and five international design studios, in addition to a few by regional university students. As Cummins CEO J. Irwin Miller did in the 1960s, Exhibit Columbus is bringing world-renowned talent to downtown Columbus while re-energizing the local community around its design heritage. The project already has gained national recognition, most notably a feature in the July issue of Dwell magazine.

One could say Exhibit Columbus carries on the 50-year tradition of integrating sculpture and architecture that began when Miller and architect I.M. Pei commissioned artist Henry Moore to create “Large Arch” outside Pei’s Cleo Rogers Library in 1971. That trend continued with Dale Chihuly’s art class installation in the Columbus Area Visitors Center in 1995. If you ask Richard McCoy, the Landmark Columbus director who spearheaded the new exhibition, this project simply builds on a good thing. “Columbus continues to be a proving ground for the value of great design,” he says.

Exhibit Columbus is free and open to the public, with daily guided tours until it closes on November 26. I urge you not to miss it. As I tell my colleagues at our annual convention, the story of Indiana’s “Athens on the Prairie” didn’t end when we were young. Columbus continues to build on its reputation.


Tony Costello lives in semi-retirement in Muncie, Indiana, and is the Irving Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Architecture and Planning at Ball State University and Principal of Costello + Associates, an award-winning firm he founded in 1976. He was the director of the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives in 2014 and 2015.