Goodbye, Columbus

Modernism failed to save the Indiana town that architecture famously built.

What is architecture for? Shelter, sure: something to keep the rain off, to frustrate the bugs, to make space where there was none before. That’s got to be job one. But it doesn’t hold anyone’s interest for very long. Maybe symbolism follows? Using form and ornament to tell a story or to set a mood? To send a message of power or plenty? To divert and inspire? Those are other road-tested functions for buildings, things that architecture clearly can achieve. It can also, aggregated, give a street wall or even a city a particular flavor or effect. But can it save the world?

J. Irwin Miller thought that architecture could save the world—or at least his small corner of it: Columbus, Indiana. His is one of the great creative patronage stories in all of Modern architecture. In 1942 Eliel Saarinen completed a new building there for the First Christian congregation—a brilliant spare composition in beige brick and translucent glass that may be the finest Modernist church in the country. It was also the first modern building of any type in Columbus, and as it is sited just across from the family’s mansion downtown, Miller had plenty of time to look it over. He was smitten with the church—and with what the building had done to the vitality of his small, somewhat remote town. In a sense, it was “Bilbao,” albeit sacred not secular, 55 years before Bilbao.

Beginning in 1957—after a few more Modernist buildings had taken root, including an exquisite branch for the family’s bank by Eero Saarinen—Miller initiated a program that sought to tap that same energy, but for schools. As the head of Cummins Engine Company—by far the largest and most robust employer in the area—he was a civic father in the old mold, the fate of his wealth linked inextricably to the state of his town. Faced with poor conditions at a local school, Miller decided to take matters into his own hands, hiring Harry Weese (the genius behind Washington, D.C.’s Metro, here in his young buck phase) to design another. Weese’s Modern campus of low peak-roofed sheds proved so popular that the relationship between Cummins and the schools was soon made official: for all new buildings the company would pick up the architect’s fees, encouraging the town in this way to seek out the very best talent.

What started with the schools soon spread to other public construction—post offices, firehouses, the local hospital, and city hall itself. And just as Miller had been inspired by Saarinen’s church, patrons not eligible for the official Cummins sponsorship fell in line and hired the cream of the American midcentury crop. Today this town of 40,000 is famed as a museum of Modern architecture in that just post-orthodox phase, with significant (if suitably small) buildings by Cesar Pelli, I. M. Pei, Kevin Roche, Richard Meier, James Polshek, Charles Gwathmey, John Johansen, Robert Venturi, Gunnar Birkerts, Edward Larrabee Barnes, John Carl Warnecke, the Architects Collaborative, and SOM, in addition to the many by Weese and several by the younger Saarinen. The place only lacks a Paul Rudolph and a Philip Johnson to make it a truly encyclopedic collection from the period in which architects were shedding the formal dogmas of Modern architecture but not yet its social code: the belief that good buildings, properly deployed, could make new cities great and reform dying ones—architecture could save the world.

The utopianism at the heart of the Modern movement was hard to shake. Put enough towers-in-the-park or elegant “functional” buildings in a city, the original thinking went, and the net humanistic uplift that ensued would make a paradise on earth. The mental hygiene of the masses (as we were always seen by the likes of Le Corbusier) would improve apace with the ordering of the metropolis along radiant boulevards. Glass towers and happy citizens; oh, it would have been good to live in the Modern future.

That vision died a thousand deaths, of course—500 due, say, to its interpretation by Stalin’s heirs in Eastern Europe; the rest in the West, in places like the banlieus of Paris or Minoru Yamasaki’s imploded Pruitt-Igoe and all the other housing projects just like it that survived only to live on as reminders of Modernism’s failure to society at scales larger than a single building. Still, at that single-building scale the idea that architecture can save and heal was tenacious.

Miller drank that Kool-Aid. Presiding over the 1964 dedication of a golf club to which Cummins Engine had donated the construction costs, he made his intentions clear. “Why should an industrial company, organized for profit, think it a good and right thing to take a million dollars, and more, of that profit, and give it to this community in the form of this golf course and clubhouse?” he asked, no doubt echoing his shareholders’ concerns. “The answer is that we would like to see the community come to be…the best community of its size in the country.”

Did it? Though last year the town was listed by USA Today among the “10 Great Places to Discover Midwest Charm,” it exhibits the full spectrum of less than charming attributes associated with such places. The downtown is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Even a restaurant there that once made a guide of Indiana’s best has joined the row of shuttered businesses. This fate was hastened by the construction in 1973 of a bronze-glass downtown mall (designed by shopping-center pioneers Gruen Associates) years before the Wal-Mart alit out by the intersection of Taylor Road and Route 31. Cruising those thoroughfares, predictably, one finds the rest of the town as it is actually lived in: the fast food, the Kohl’s, the Lowe’s—all the interchangeable parts of our interchangeable sprawl.

The heart of the town is dense—built as it was full of modest workers’ housing on small lots—but, deprived of commerce, it can’t sustain street life. Instead one finds a lot of rot and ramshackle, and ample evidence, in the occasional passing wraith, of that other newly typical Midwestern charmer: the meth head. According to local police records, drug arrests are up 523 percent since 2001. Seventy-three methamphetamine labs were eliminated in the same period.

Certainly it’s not the fault of the town’s great Modern buildings that Columbus has fallen prey to the same commercial and pharmaceutical scourges that have plagued less designerly burgs. But it does cast Miller’s vision, and the wisdom of the Cummins patronage system, into doubt. Miller made Columbus beautiful in spots with his Modernist faith and his money. But try this thinking problem: imagine for a moment that, instead of backing the creation of individual structures imbued with what was already at that moment a dying creed, Miller had truly thought outside the glass-and-steel box. Would Columbus not be a better place today had all that energy and funding gone into, say, a concerted program of creative urban planning—the best minds focused on the creation of the best space, achieved through the invisible, unsexy means of zoning and finance and codes? The town might not look as cool—it would be deprived of the income that architourism brings—but it might be a safer and happier place to live.

Recent Programs