On its outskirts, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Columbus, Indiana is a suburban American town like any other. But travel downtown and you’re suddenly greeted with an unexpected variety of modern architecture. The small midwestern city has for the past half-century been a kind of laboratory for contemporary architecture, attracting designers as diverse as Kevin Roche and IM Pei. Children attend school in a building designed by Richard Meier, congregants attend services in a church designed by Eliel Saarinen.
Drawing on its reputation as an architectural mecca, the town played host this past September to “Exhibit Columbus”, an event geared towards exploring the notion of “progressive” preservation. Now in its second year, Exhibit Columbus was founded by Landmark Columbus in 2016 to share and celebrate the local design legacy – a legacy that in 1942 led to the construction of Saarinen’s First Christian Church in the town center.
Today’s visions for architectural legacy come in a wide variety of forms and scales, with projects on show including a small urban folly from Formafantasma and a “parametric wigwam” from studio:indigenous. But the built works were merely punctuation to an expansive program of talks, panel discussions, and previews on topics of preservation in contemporary architecture.
But the event’s key friction (and richest element) came from the contrast between the local setting and universal themes in discussion. The separation between impression and reality (a discussion led by Susan Saarinen, Eero’s daughter) is particularly acute in Columbus – a place that is known worldwide but actually seen by few except those who live there.