Thursday, June 16, 2011

#28. Tour Columbus Architecture

When one thinks of architecture tours, cities like Chicago and post-Reconstruction Berlin come to mind. Columbus, Indiana, a city of 39,000, is pretty much the last place one would expect to find work by some of the most celebrated architects of the 20th and 21st centuries. But this is surprisingly the case. I must admit that I was doubtful, but after doing a bit of googling, I came across an article by the New York Times' Matt Gross, the former Frugal Traveler. I am an avid reader of the Frugal Traveler blog, so I knew that if Columbus made the cut it would be worth my time.

A bit over an hour's drive from Indianapolis, Columbus is conveniently located off I-65. I have an irrational fear of interstates and semis, so I opted for the traffic light-riddled US 36. Just when I was beginning to hate my choice for the havoc it was wreaking on my breaks, the road opened up and rolling country landscapes prevailed. Time weathered barns, contently oblivious cattle, and open cornfields provided the perfect backdrop for my mini roadtrip. Rolled down windows allowed a warm breeze to infiltrate the car and my friend's mix CD completed the scene. The commute was a harbinger of the peaceful town that awaited me.

Entering Columbus, the town seemed almost cloyingly sweet. Picturesque old estates and a perfectly kept main street seemed to be straight from a State Farm Insurance commercial. I half expected all of the citizens to drop their business and line the streets, goonishly waving to our car full of daytrippers. Sarcastic reverie aside, the town was welcoming and the buildings were beautiful. After reading the NY Times article, I learned of the inexpensive walking tour brochure available at the city's visitor center. The center houses blueprints, history, Dale Chihuly pieces, and unfailingly kind employees. After paying for my fold-out brochure, the cashier played a 15 minute introductory movie for us.

Chihuly pieces in the Visitor Center
Chihuly chandelier
I had no idea what to expect from the movie, but it was very informative. The movie explained how the town came to be ranked sixth in the nation for "architectural innovation and design" by the American Institute of Architects. The story is actually pretty interesting. J. Irwin Miller, a citizen and owner of the Columbus-based Cummins Engine Company, was a dedicated parishioner of the First Christian Church. The community was looking to construct a new place of worship, and Miller wanted to bring modern architecture to the lackluster town.

Miller saw the church as the perfect opportunity and proposed the plan to Eliel Saarinen, a famous Finnish architect. Saarinen turned down the proposal (can you blame him? It was a church in the middle of a cornfield!) but Miller doggedly pursued the matter and eventually brought Saarinen on board. The church became a National Historic Landmark and provided the impetus for the lifelong friendship between Miller and Eero, Eliel's son. Eero, the designer of the St. Louis Arch, went on to design two more National Historic Landmarks for the city: the Irwin Union Bank Building and the J. Irwin Miller home.

Irwin Union Bank Building

Although the movie was helpful, I know hardly anything about modern architecture. Because of this, I felt somewhat unqualified while touring Columbus. Rather than allow this to spoil my day, I decided to stick with my untrained instincts. There were some buildings that wowed me. The entrance bridges to the city, North Christian Church, courthouse, and AT&T Switching Center were all breathtaking. The playground at the newly renovated Commons Mall made me want to revert to my diminutive 10 year old self.

Bridge into Columbus
North Christian Church
Prototype for the Commons Playground

But others were not so impressive. The building that started it all, the First Christian Church, was borderline ugly. The library by I.M. Pei (the man behind the glass addition of the Louvre) seemed outdated. Maybe this is due to my untrained eye, but sometimes uninformed thoughts are more genuine than those warped by popular belief.

First Christian Church
What's with the random tower?

Although I was not enamored with every building, I appreciated the variety. The risks taken were respectable and the motive was admirable. Miller believed that bringing innovative architecture would lead to civic improvement. His belief urged citizens to keep up their properties and take an active role in the design of their city. This involvement created a sense of strong community and pride. The thought of an architectural oasis in the middle of Indiana farmland may seem ridiculous, but in reality it is ingenious.

Columbus citizens even take pride in their minivans...

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