Q&A/City builds reputation as an architectural hotspot
Columbus, Ind., may be overshadowed in political circles by its neighbors Cincinnati and Indianapolis, but in architectural circles, the city is one of the most well-known in the country. That is because Columbus boasts more than 50 public and private buildings — including the main post office, fire stations, schools and churches — that were designed by some of the world’s foremost contemporary architects.
The city offers one- and two-hour walking tours of 21 buildings that include sites designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche, Robert Venturi and Harry Weese. René Campbell, executive director of the city’s visitors center, leads the city’s architectural tour program, which garnered nearly $35,000 in revenue last year.
Q: Why have so many public buildings in Columbus been designed by famous architects?
Campbell: After WWII, Cummins Engine was very concerned that [the city] provide good schools so the company could attract top executives. That was when the [Cummins Foundation’s] Architecture Program began. (As part of the program, the foundation provided the school board with a list of architects from which to choose to build a school. The foundation covered the architect’s fees for whomever the school board chose. The foundation eventually expanded that program to include additional types of public buildings.) There’s no other program like it in the country. It’s an extremely generous program, and it shows what a good corporate citizen can mean to a community.
Q: Why did the city begin offering tours of the architectural sites?
A: The architects who designed [the buildings] here are so significant, and many of the buildings that we have were [created] early in their careers. Architecture students (from all over the country) regard these buildings as a bit of a classroom, sort of like a building museum. We have to remind them that people [work] in them and they go to school in them and they bank in them. Otherwise, we would have people walking in to churches to look around in the middle of a worship service on Sunday morning.
Q: What would you say is the most outstanding public building in town?
A: If you talk to five different people, they’ll name five different buildings. Personally, my favorite of the public buildings is City Hall. It’s very open, and there’s a sense that nothing is behind closed doors. The doors are louvered. You can walk in and out. It’s just a very open space.
Q: Are there any interesting stories about the buildings’ origins?
A: One of the best stories I ever heard was about Robert Stern, who’s done a lot of work with the Disney Corporation. He had never designed a hospital in his career, [but, when the city needed a new hospital,] he said, “I would kill to design a building here in Columbus.” He got the job, and we have a Robert Stern hospital. You look at it, and it looks like a hotel. You walk in the lobby, and it’s very friendly. It’s not the least bit antiseptic.
Q: What do you think the architecture adds to the city?
A: I think it adds a real sense of pride in the community. We have children who go to a library designed by I.M. Pei. People just know it’s a different community. Maya Angelou came through here about a year ago, and she said, “This is the way a community ought to look.” Some people who grew up in the community, then went away to college, and then came back say, “You know, we thought everybody went to school in a building designed by Richard Meier.” They don’t know what a mobile classroom looks like.