The Limits of Architecture

The Limits of Architecture

The modest city of Columbus, Indiana, boasts more than 60 architecturally significant buildings by many Modernist stars. They haven't cured the city's financial woes.

Read Time:
2m 19sec

The source:“Goodbye Columbus” by Philip Nobel, in Metropolis, July 2006, and “Columbus Explored” by John King, in Dwell, July–Aug. 2006.

J. Irwin Miller of Cummins Engine Company was a ­civic-­minded industrialist who believed that uplifting architecture could make the world a better place. He started in 1942 in his hometown, Columbus, Indiana, population 39,000. Over the next six decades, Columbus was transformed into an outdoor museum of Modernist design that is listed among the top six American cities in architectural distinction. Now, however, its downtown is suffering from the same enervating forces that have killed so many small urban centers across the United States. Columbus is beginning to consider the unthinkable: Should it tear down some buildings designed by the nation’s leading architects to keep its downtown ­alive?

When Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church was commis­sioned in 1940, it was only the first of what would become more than 60 architecturally significant buildings in town. Saarinen’s son, Eero, returned two decades later to build the even more striking hexagonal North Christian Church, topped by one of the most famous spires in America. I. M. Pei designed the public library, whose plaza is dominated by sculptor Henry Moore’s Large Arch. William Rawn conceived Fire Station No. 6 as an abstract ­take­off on a barn, Richard Meier built a school, and the list goes on: Harry Weese, Cesar Pelli, Kevin Roche, James Polshek, Charles Gwathmey, John Johansen, Robert Venturi, Gunnar Birkerts, Edward Larrabee Barnes, and John Carl ­Warnecke—­almost a complete ­roll ­call of Modernist ­stars.

But Columbus’s masterful, if small, buildings have not saved the city from the fate of many similar towns across the country, according to Philip Nobel, an architectural writer. Washington Street, the main drag, is dotted with empty storefronts. A restaurant once noted in guidebooks is shuttered. The retail lifeblood of the city has drained away to the Wal-Mart and other “big box” stores on the outskirts. The dense city center surrounded by small single-family houses does not have enough stores to attract much street life, and the downtown has an “8 to 5 existence,” Tom Vujovich, president of the city’s redevelopment commission, told John King, the urban design critic for The San Francisco ­Chronicle.

Now, a redevelopment commission is debating whether the town needs all its showcase buildings. Number one on the endangered list is the Kevin Roche post office from 1970. It occupies an entire block off the main street, and, despite its provenance, is a “leaden exercise in funereal pomp,” according to King. An enclosed shopping mall by Cesar Pelli also faces the redevelopment commission’s scrutiny. In a city with so much, there has been no outcry. Columbus archi­tect Nolan Bingham observes that “there are only a few buildings that will last a truly long time.”

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