Photo courtesy Hadley Fruits/Exhibit Columbus
Travel down any Midwest highway and you’re bound to see a large billboard pointing to a roadside attraction. The ones for Columbus, Indiana, though, are hardly head-turning. Nothing about “Birthplace of Tony Stewart” and “Birthplace of Mike Pence” suggests there’s an architectural mecca just off I-65.
At first glance, Columbus is like many other mid-sized Midwestern cities. There’s a strong sense of community, a historic downtown, and Walmarts on the outskirts. (Also, it’s surrounded by corn.) But what sets Columbus apart from its agricultural neighbors is its architectural heritage. It boasts more than 80 buildings, landscapes, and public works of art by the likes of Alexander Girard, I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche, Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen, and Harry Weese. These world-renowned designers—whose collective projects include the Louvre Pyramid and the Gateway Arch—didn’t find their way to Central Indiana by chance. Their work spans Columbus thanks to J. Irwin Miller.
Miller, longtime head of Columbus-based Cummins, was an architectural prophet of sorts. Exposed to modern design during his college years, Miller believed high-end architecture could lure potential employees to Columbus. So, starting in 1957, Miller convinced city officials to select architects from a shortlist he had created. In exchange, the Cummins Foundation would cover the architectural fees. The first grant went to Harry Weese, for the Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary School. Then came the Northside Middle School. Then churches, banks, and other public facilities. Today, more than 50 projects have been sponsored by the Cummins Foundation. They contributed to the city’s nickname—“The Athens of the Prairie”—and also provide a background for Exhibit Columbus, an annual exploration of architecture, art, design, and community.
Exhibit Columbus launched in 2016 and alternates between symposium and exhibition programming, kind of like how the Olympics alternates between the Summer and Winter Games. This year’s exhibition, which runs through December 1, features 18 installations. Think large-scale, public art pieces you can sit on, walk on, and interact with. Like Into the Hedge, a Yayoi Kusama–like maze of colored webbing. Or Corn/Meal, whose angular picnic tables and rows of corn encourage visitors to think about their relationship with food. Whether it was created by an architect, designer, academic, artist, or graphic designer, each installation explores the idea of “good design in the community”—a notion Columbus knows all too well, but other cities often overlook.
“Columbus has a history of investing in great designers, architecture, landscape, and public art, and using those investments to make it an interesting place,” says Richard McCoy, managing director of Exhibit Columbus. “Columbus had talent attraction before we even knew what talent attraction was. Now there are all these iconic buildings that are recognized around the world. No other city in Indiana has that kind of legacy, and as Hoosiers, we don’t always value or see it.”
It’s true; Indiana isn’t known for high design. But just because it’s not abundant doesn’t mean we don’t deserve it. In fact, everyone deserves access to good design. When we are surrounded by well-designed homes, schools, offices, and public spaces, the quality of our lives increases. Our mental and physical health improves. Public spaces feel more approachable, so we feel more connected to the community, more engaged. And we gain cultural, social, historical, and economic value through good design.
The design of our homes, schools, offices, and public spaces affect the quality of our lives more than we realize. The problem is that we think it’s inaccessible, that art and architecture are for the elite.
“In the end, though, the most equitable 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 really hard at disrupting that type of thought,” 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 within the public realm.”
In other words, Columbus’ world-class architecture was designed not for tourists or architecture critics, but for its residents. This tradition continues in Exhibit Columbus, where site-specific installations celebrate the built environment, yet highlight the role design plays making a vibrant, sustainable city. The seamless blend of art, architecture, and community becomes a lesson, then, in how cities can become person-centered.
McCoy hopes that, after exploring Exhibit Columbus, visitors will look at their own community in a different way. By asking questions like, “Is this place accessible?,” “Is this place welcoming?,” and “Does this place truly represent us?,” people start to imagine how their own city can improve. “In the end, though, the most equitable 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 features four types of installations, including one from area high school students, whose installation reflects the notion of diversity and density in Columbus. There are also six University Design Research Fellowships, which highlight the work of leading architecture professors. “So many of them are doing architectural design and research in their programs,” says McCoy. “This becomes a way for professors young and old to put their research on display.” Particularly intriguing is Playscape, designed Sean Ahlquist, associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan. Comprised of custom-knitted fabrics and interactive lighting, Playscape allows individuals with autism-spectrum disorder craft their own sensory experience.
“We’re not trying to build an Instagram exhibition, but it’s going to happen. But while you’re here, you can challenge the way you think about space and community.”
The Washington Street civic projects are also must-sees. Each of the five installations was designed by a non-profit organization dedicated to making communities better. That includes Los Angeles-based LA-Más, who designed an informal meeting space called Thank U, Next. An exhibit from Mexico City’s PienZa Sostenible features four bee houses and asks us to consider the importance of bees everywhere. Indy’s own People for Urban Progress has an installation, too. Their Jungle Streetscape “edits” the urban landscape through the use of reflective panels.
Not surprisingly, the five Miller Prize recipients are the centerpiece of Exhibit Columbus. These high-profile installations can be found at some of the city’s most iconic spots—the city hall, the library plaza. These are the designs that are often the most-critiqued, most-explored, and most-photographed. There’s SO–IL’s Into the Hedge, for example. This playful interpretation of landscape features a colorful web of netting and trees—a place where you could easily spend an hour. Like Bryony Roberts Studio’s installation at the city hall, Into the Hedge is, well, an Instagram hotspot—not that McCoy or the designers are deliberately trying to create one.
“Exhibit Columbus is an experience, and people want to commemorate experiences by taking cool pictures,” acknowledges McCoy. “We’re not trying to build an Instagram exhibition, but it’s going to happen. But while you’re here, you can challenge the way you think about space and community.”
Columbus is one of the few places in Indiana where you can think about the identity of place. Where the everyday architecture is extraordinary. Where art critics and Instagrammers alike can see and explore and dream new ideas for their own hometown. But that’s a little long for a billboard.