Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

At the heart of Exhibit Columbus, a biennial-like exhibition of 17 architectural installations and pavilions that runs through November 26, lies the question: “What can architecture do for a community?” The community in question is Columbus, Ind., known as the birthplace of Vice President Mike Pence, the home to diesel engine manufacturer Cummins, Inc. (the region’s largest employer), and, most prominently, the site of industrialist and philanthropist (and former Cummins chair) J. Irwin Miller’s experiment in municipal modernism.

That query is just as relevant for the modernist buildings by canonical firms that make up Columbus’ civic and religious fabric as it is for the flights of fancy commissioned for this inaugural exhibit. The expectation that architecture gives something back to the public is innocent enough, but the modernist project comes with the additional baggage of attempting to improve society. Miller capitalized on this agenda when he sponsored an ongoing initiative to bring signature architecture to the city, as reflected by the typologies he emphasized: churches, libraries, schools, fire stations. Unlike other cities steeped in midcentury design, such as Palm Springs, Calif., or New Canaan, Conn., Columbus has few residential expressions, save for the home commissioned by Miller and his wife Xenia.

The Millers’ house is a folly of sorts, an idealized Pompeian villa designed by Eero Saarinen (with idiosyncratic interiors by Alexander Girard) and perched on the edge of the pastoral ideal: an exacting landscape by Dan Kiley. It’s also where a reception kicked off the exhibit’s opening events. Installation designers from across the globe and journalists toasted with rosé and snapped pictures for Instagram, well aware that glimpses inside the house—now maintained by the Indianapolis Museum of Art—are difficult to come by. The property has long been visited only by the family’s influential circle; it was named a National Historic Landmark in 2000, when the Millers still lived there.

J. Irwin Miller died in 2004; Xenia passed four years later. In the decade or so before their deaths, the import of Columbus’ modern heritage seemed to drift from public consciousness. A generation grew up in the suburbs with little connection to the center of the city—to Fifth and Main Streets, where most of the Exhibit Columbus installations are located. For Richard McCoy, director of Landmark Columbus and the force behind the exhibit, the new works are meant to generate wider national interest in the city, but they are also supposed to draw people to the handful of cafés, restaurants, and retail spots that fill the downtown storefronts.

A jury selected the five works located along Fifth Street from an invited pool of 10 practices, who had presented their proposals at a symposium in Columbus last year. Each of the winners—Aranda\Lasch, Plan B Architecture & Urbanism, IKD, Oyler Wu Collaborative, and Studio:indigenous—received $70,000 and was asked to create an installation in dialog with a famous Columbus building or site. “How do you keep a powerful piece of architecture alive?” asks T. Kelly Wilson, director of the Indiana University Center for Art+Design in Columbus and the coordinator of the installations. “Our hope is for these site specific pieces to have a conversation with the past.”

For example, Plan B Architecture’s piece, “Anything can happen in the woods,” was installed at the site of the Cummins Corporate Office Building (1984). The designers fabricated seating out of grass-covered mounds and chrome columns reminiscent of the mirrored interior, designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates, with the goal of turning a generic pergola into a welcoming place for people.

Another five practices were asked to make more tactical work along Main Street with a budget of $10,000; a national or international design gallery nominated each firm. These installations are smaller, more akin to street furniture, but they are also intended to reframe or trigger alternate understandings of the city’s heritage. In addition, pavilions by six university teams from the Midwest and a lone Columbus high school are also located around town in relationship to signature buildings. But they are less about historic interpretation and more about material studies and fabrication techniques.

The Brussels gallery Maniera selected the Mexico City–based firm Productora, whose “Columbus Circles” nestle into the façades of buildings on Main Street, accenting key architectural moments. Productora created the concrete, polished brass, and polished aluminum objects by drawing from the burnt orange and deep blue color palette of Alexander Girard, who in 1961 was asked to propose a beautification scheme to spruce up the dowdy storefronts along Washington Street.

But there is still the question of what exactly do these works… do. Or if they can act as catalyst for the reinterpretation-reinvention of a small Midwestern city. This dubious issue of “use value” is especially relevant in considering the pavilion assemblies that are neither sculpture nor enduring structures. At best, they are exercises in material or formal experimentation. At worst, they are neither, as with the case of “Wiikiaami” by Studio:indigenous, sited near Eliel and Eero Sarrinen’s First Christian Church (1942), the initial product of Miller’s civic initiative.Accompanying texts describe “Wiikiaami” as drawing inspiration from the vernacular of Indiana’s first peoples, but pairing an oversized native dwelling against the church’s’ campanile is both tectonically and politically unresolved. (In fairness, it was rumored that the piece had last minute fabrication issues, which could explain the rather raw use of expanded metal sheets over a simple steel armature.)

By contrast,The Exchange” by Oyler Wu Collaborative is adroitly located at the Irwin Conference Center, formerly the Irwin-Union Trust Bank (1954), designed by Eero Saarinen. Here, Dwayne Oyler and Jenny Wu refashioned the canopies of three disused drive-thru tellers into a semi-enclosed porch. The scheme includes new benches and offers a geometrically fantastic shelter in welded steel and CNC bent steel tubing. Virtuosity is the prime concern here; the exhibit leaves the architectural legacy of Saarinen’s understated design largely unconsidered.

Perhaps the most ambitious piece is “Conversation Plinth” by Boston-based IKD. Sited in front of the 1969 Cleo Rogers Memorial Library (formerly Bartholomew County Public Library), an early work by I.M. Pei and Partners, the installation is a stack of cross-laminated timber disks that encircles a large bronze sculpture by Henry Moore and that rises to create a series of seating and viewing areas. The structure is part of IKD’s two-year investigation into Indiana hardwood products for which it received a $250,000 grant.

The Plinth program, more so than other pavilions, invites direct participation: sitting, standing, hanging out. Given an opportunity to climb something and take in a view, people will gamely gambol upwards. But is this enough to foster community? Inside the library itself a small poster advertises an upcoming fashion show to be held on the Plinth. Another one touts a series of design and yoga classes to be held across Exhibit Columbus locations. What’s less clear is if the pavilion itself is fostering this activity, or if it’s simply encouraging the idea of participation. Maybe the individual architectural gesture matters less than the idea of architecture itself.

Which takes us to Formafantasma’s Washington Street installation, “Window to Columbus.” The Amsterdam-based duo, selected by the London gallery Dzek, constructed a wall out of bricks glazed with volcanic ash from Mount Etna. The material is at once familiar—the neighboring Heritage Fund building is made of bricks, as are other buildings around town—and foreign. Into this wall the designers inserted a window, or rather, a glass vitrine. In it is a facsimile of a flyer from 1990 pulled from the files of Columbus’ Architectural Archives. It reads “Adopt-a-brick,” with copy that explains the potential immortality of underwriting a civic improvement project: “Your downtown is getting a facelift… and you can be part of it!”

What makes Formafantasma’s piece so potent is that these sponsored and engraved bricks are embedded into the Washington Street sidewalks. Without “Window to Columbus,” visitors would casually tread over them, unaware of their civic meaning. Thanks to the installation, the names and dates are spotlighted; they embody an architectural legacy of citizens speaking from one generation to another.