Can Preservation Be ‘Progressive?’ Exhibit Columbus Symposium Looks Forward in the Shadow of Masters

Academics, architects, and journalists convened for weekend-long symposium in Columbus, Indiana, to discuss radical approaches to preservation in a global, digital age.

Exhibit Columbus Symposium 2018
Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church Courtesy Exhibit Columbus

Out on 5th Street in Columbus, Indiana, looking toward First Christian Church, you might think you’re in Helsinki. Opened in 1942 and designed by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, it was the first Modern building in an old railroad town now remarkably blessed with them. The church’s stereometry, its finely honed brickwork, and well-worn limestone features belong to a colder, grayer climate, and indeed, it’s best appreciated in the early afternoon, when the high summer sun plunges it into shadow.

It’s likely that Americans know Columbus less for its strange and fascinating collection of midcentury Modernist buildings and more as the familial home of Vice President Mike Pence. But he wasn’t the first around these parts who was thought to have designs on the White House. J. Irwin Miller, a local industrialist, was deemed by Esquire magazine in 1967 to be presidential material. His name never appeared on a ballot, however; instead, his influence would be felt most in the not-quite-adjacent realm of architectural history.

It is thanks to Miller that Important Architecture can (still) be found in this municipality of 46,000. As the homegrown éminence gris, Miller—chummily referred to by local guides as “J.I.” and “Mr. Miller”—famously established a fund that offset the architects’ fees for public works including schools, libraries, churches, and fire stations. (Clients had only to choose from a shortlist of designers provided by Miller.)

Miller’s father, Hugh Thomas, a politician and head of the Cummins diesel engine company, to this day the area’s largest jobs provider, first invited Eliel Saarinen to Columbus to design First Christian Church, then called the Tabernacle. The experience brought together their sons, J. Irwin and Eero, who (according to town lore) bonded over sundaes at Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor. From the younger Saarinen, Miller first gained insights into the value of good design and would work over the subsequent decades—with the likes of Alexander Girard and Kevin Roche—to raise Columbus’s stature to that of the “Athens on the Prairie.”

For the last weekend in September this fall, First Christian Church was one of several local landmarks that played host to a number of forward-looking talks given by a mix of architects and academics on the topic of “progressive” preservation. The programming was part of Exhibit Columbus, which is entering its sophomoric run. Unlike other biennials, Exhibit Columbus, which comprises a slew of site-specific installations, is staggered so that in off-years, organizers—Docomomo U.S.; AIA, Indiana and Kentucky chapters; and the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields—host a national design symposium.

The physical remnants of the inaugural exhibition are nonchalantly sprinkled the area in and around Washington Street, Columbus’s main drag. Oyler Wu Collaborative’s pirouetting pavilion, so mirage-like in the initial renderings, is somehow leaden and flimsy in person, making an odd bedfellow for Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Union Bank. The graceful lilt of studio:indigenous’s parametric wigwam Wiikiaami nearby is easily lost among a dense grove of trees. But there are more piquant finds. Take Formafantasma’s Window to Columbus, a small volcanic glazed brick wall-cum-reliquary that “does” very little but adds immense mystery to its little slice-of-town.

Exhibit Columbus Symposium 2018
Barry Threw took the opportunity to launch the latest phase of #newpalmyra, an ongoing project to digitally reproduce the ancient city of Palmyra in present-day Syria. Courtesy Exhibit Columbus

The number of these ephemeral structures will propagate next summer. (The fate of the older installations is uncertain at the moment, and already only a fraction of the original group remains in place.) Among the ranks of designers slated to produce new works are promising talents Bryony Roberts, best known for her urban choreographic performances, and the design nonprofit LA-Más, as well as more established names like Frida Escobedo and Jing Liu of SO-IL. Save for Escobedo, who was unable to make the trip, all the designers delivered dutiful presentations of their respective portfolios as a way to give visitors and locals a sense of what’s to come.

To that end, the artist and historian Jorge Otero-Pailos, whose Ethics of Dust series has become a byword for experimental preservation, enchanted with his well-honed lecture, itself a kind of choreography in which he elevates dust mites and cigar stains to the stuff of architectural heritage. Pacing across the dais of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church (1988), designed by Gunnar Birkerts, Otero-Pailos gestured toward projected images of the soot-and-grime casts he’s made over the years, some reproducing the walls and ceilings of places as divergent as Doge’s Palace and the Glass House.

This forensic approach was perpetuated at the following day’s talks, where architect Joshua Ayoroa and the technologist Barry Threw extemporated on the capabilities of 3D scanning. Ayoroa offered the more meat-and-potatoes presentation, one which foregrounded practical utility—3D scans allow architects and planners to obtain incredibly accurate site information very quickly—and seemed incurious about the technology’s broader, even speculative applications.

Threw, for his part, took the opportunity to launch the latest phase of #newpalmyra, an ongoing project to digitally reproduce the ancient city of Palmyra in present-day Syria. The toponym rose to notoriety when ISIS occupied the modern city in 2015 and, with zealous abandon, began razing its storied Roman ruins. Threw announced that the crowdsourced venture would expand by soliciting digital recreations from the global creative community.

“Digitization has affordances that real-life preservation does not,” he stated. “There’s good reason to think that 50 years from now we’ll be able to reproduce our sensory apparatus. The mere fact of the boundary between real and virtual will blur.”

Exhibit Columbus Symposium 2018
Visitors to the symposium congregate outside Cleo Rogers Memorial Library. Courtesy Exhibit Columbus

Threw’s comment had been prompted by an earlier declaration of Susan Saarinen, daughter of Eero Saarinen. She had shared with the audience a virtual simulacrum produced by Media Lab Helsinki of her grandfather’s lost Finnish pavilion for the 1900 Paris World Fair. The short animation begins by panning over the would-be building before transitioning inside, where the decorative trimmings, including carvings of owls, bears, and other animals, really shine, and sunlight falls just as it would have. Yet, she expressed profound disbelief that such reproductions—no matter how faithful to the source material—could ever begin to capture the essence of a building, let alone a place. “A picture”—or pixels—she said, “just won’t do it.”

It was the hope of the organizers that juxtaposing space and content might yield fruitful, or at least, memorable dialogues: the serene Nordicism of First Christian Church, with its gentle asymmetric order and warm chestnut-wood screens, formed the backdrop to Threw’s tech-fueled presentation; the metallicky sanctum of Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church acted the bit player to a presentation about the architect’s better-known work, St. Louis Arch, whose grounds were recently restored. There is nothing inherently profound about such appositions, of course, and these famed rooms, though a joy to congregate in, could never have anticipated Powerpoint.

“Activating” seems to be the aim of many such endeavors, yet many of Columbus’s celebrated buildings—its “Modernist real estate,” as moderator Enrique Ramirez put it—are actively in-use, exactly because they are civic in nature. I.M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library (1969), the picture of stolid, yet generous public architecture, feels well-used and appreciated. Children still clamber up the grand staircase into Gunnar Birkerts’s Lincoln Elementary School (1967), and tweens fumble their way through seasonal dances held in the interior court of Southside Elementary (1969), a surprise-filled Brutalist bunker designed by Eliot Noyes. And behind the heralding facade of Robert Venturi’s Fire Station no. 4, a fireman washed his boots.

One of the event’s key themes, the distance between the real and the virtual, finds its double in Columbus, where the distance between history and the present can often feel similarly wide. Part of the ambition of Exhibit Columbus is to bridge that divide, by attracting new audiences to the city; having been lured by its architectural program, visitors might then patron shops and restaurants, or even the sole independent cinema.

But another anchoring point of discussion was that of community. In recent years especially, the word has become overly capacious, a catch-all trotted out by corporate firms and small-town mayors alike. Few, if any, of the symposium speakers did enough to interrogate the word, though nearly all fleetingly remarked on the political desperation of the times. It is exactly that desperation, however, that calls not for political expediency, but for a nuanced understanding of where we actually find ourselves and where we might go from here.

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