My hometown, My thesis: Place and Identity in Columbus, Indiana

Columbus, Indiana; a small city that has come up many times during my architectural education, and my hometown has had more of an impact on my life than I have ever realized. From a field trip back home during a summer architecture workshop at Ball State to Prof. Gamard’s History of Modernity class at Tulane, it has influenced my work and how I design more than I have realized. Like many, while I lived in Columbus, I didn’t realize what was around me. It has taken me 10 years to realize the city’s importance within architectural circles. What I have found in my thesis research about the city and myself, and what I will find through the design phase of my thesis is nothing short of amazing.

First Christian Church – Eliel Saarinen

As many may know, J. Irwin Miller is responsible for the architectural program financed by the Cummins Foundation that has impacted the built form of the city greatly, with input from Eero Saarinen. Miller and Saarinen began a friendship while Eliel Saarinen (Eero’s father) worked on First Christian Church with Miller’s mother. From this beginning, the ideas of place and identity and how they show in built form began to have an effect on Columbus. These ideas of place and identity and how recent construction are beginning to weaken Columbus’ identity as a paradigm shift. This is the basis for my thesis.


Place is the feeling of a landscape and site informed by the experiential and phenomenological to create a sense of belonging and insideness, engendering clearer identity and meaning in a work of architecture and its surroundings. In the modern era, this has been lost with overarching planning policies and homogeneous building that disregards specificities of site. In Columbus, Indiana, Modernism has become the identity of the city through the patronage of J. Irwin Miller. Miller tied identity to built form, as “what is built reflects what a city thinks about itself and what it aims to be”.

In the past ten years, this has shifted in Columbus. Where new constructions once showed a city with optimism for the future, parking garages and other constructions with no regard for this identity are now the norm. New buildings do not “fulfill man’s belief in the nobility of his existence on earth” as Eero Saarinen wished for architecture to do. This thesis will work to strengthen the identity of Columbus through site-relative design of a renovation and addition to Saarinen’s Irwin Union Bank, creating a museum of the city and it’s architecture as well as a catalyst for clearer identity in a city with an identity crisis.

Irwin Union Bank – Eero Saarinen

Columbus’ Identity – A Paradigm Shift

So why is the identity of Columbus a paradigm shift? It begins with J. Irwin Miller himself. His belief of identity in built form and his patronage has shaped the city, a modern Medici where government is the typical form giver. The architectural program brought many of the now hallowed names of Mid-century Modernism (and as is the case with Robert Venturi, Postmodernism), names such as Eliel and Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Harry Weese, Cesar Pelli, John Carl Warnecke, among others, to the city. Collectively, these buildings show optimism for the future, something I feel is currently missing in new construction in Columbus.

Cleo Rogers Memorial Library – I.M. Pei

North Christian Church – Eero Saarinen

On a smaller scale, the individual buildings show this paradigm shift as well. Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church is a paradigm shift, as it is one of the first Modern churches in America. Saarinen eschewed the Gothic and Romanesque revival, creating a church for all in the modern style. His son Eero, in his Irwin Union Bank building creates a paradigm shift, foregoing the traditional teller behind bars fortress bank for open and modern, publicizing the transaction between banker and customer that welcomes everyone. Even the schools I went to show this paradigm shift. Fodrea Elementary (Paul Kennon) was one of the first schools with an open classroom concept, and East High School (Mitchell/Giurgola) has an entire floor solely for study periods, periods incorporated into the day to work on homework (or in my experience, read).

Irwin Union Bank – Eero Saarinen

The Current State of Columbus

New construction in the city is speaking to its time, but unfortunately giving off the wrong ideas of what the city thinks about itself. The new parking garages and future apartment homes, while fulfilling a need in downtown, give off a sense of pessimism. The optimism of other works in the city is missing, as is the idea of the paradigm shift. Parking garages and housing can be paradigm shifters as well. One only needs to look at BIG’s Mountain Dwellings or Stanley Saitowitz’s (Mill Race Park with Van Valkenburgh) Yerba Buena Lofts for new ways of incorporating parking and housing, versus the typical surrounding of the parking garage with housing that is currently under construction on Second St. The same goes for the new Fourth St. Parking Garage as well, as paradigm shifters such as Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica garage or Herzog and de Meuron’s Lincoln Rd. Garage in Miami show ways that the identity of Columbus could be incorporated into these otherwise mundane structures that do not speak to where they are constructed.

Cummins Corporate Headquarters – Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates

As Cummins has expanded, it has instituted a land grab in the city for its offices. For example, this land grab has resulted in a vastly smaller Commons; with one-quarter of the Superblock it used to sit on given over to Cummins office buildings. This has resulted in a community center that is much too small, and with all the aesthetic pleasure of an office building. While it does have a couple bright spots, such as the stage and the new playground that I wish I had when I was a child (although I do miss the red tube and stainless steel quarter-pipe), it is simply lacking the space to not only let Chaos (a kinetic structure by Jean Tinguely) breathe but also to allow for spontaneous community gathering.

They have also purchased Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Union bank building and the subsequent addition by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates. While the addition and the office block that was part of Saarinen’s building is currently being renovated (but with function remaining as offices), little is known of Cummins’ plans for the banking hall. With this information I am proposing that Cummins give the banking pavilion to the city, allowing it along with an addition, to become a museum dedicated to the city and its architecture. This can serve as a catalyst to a clearer identity in Columbus as well as begin to tie the various works of architecture together urbanistically.

Irwin Union Bank Arcade/Offices – Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates

So how does everything tie together?

The museum for the city and its architecture will bring together many aspects of the city and my personal education and experiences. The museum consisting of Saarinen’s bank building and my addition will aim to connect the various works around together urbanistically, attempting to create a cohesive whole out of currently single objects in a field.

The museum will tie into and strengthen the identity of the city by becoming a paradigm shift itself. Many museums by their program become tourist destinations, and many are marketed as such. A museum for the city’s architecture can easily become something regarded by Columbus’ population as solely for tourists if not careful. In my experience it takes moving away and creating “outsideness” in the terms of Edward Relph to truly be able to experience and appreciate the architecture of the city. The paradigm shift of the museum becomes this: how to create this outsideness in both tourists and the city’s population so that both can have a newfound appreciation for the city and its architecture.

Museums have long been my favorite building typology. This love comes from my grandfather taking me to many different museums as a child. I remember days spent at the Childrens Museum, Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the old State Museum. This love of knowledge and learning continued through our games of one-up-manship while watching Jeopardy. In a way, this thesis project is because of my grandfather. He always pushed me to be what I wanted to be (even though he did give me a hard time for picking Tulane over Illinois). This love of museums showed itself during my study abroad trip in Austria and Germany, where I went to many of the museums in Berlin and Vienna. This love showed up in my research fellowship this past summer, studying the museums of Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn.

I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for Columbus the past few months, and have learned new things about my design principles and myself. I’m greatly looking forward to the design phase and sharing the final project with everyone. One question asked by my thesis advisor has me a bit worried. He asked if my work could stand up next to Eero Saarinen’s. We shall see after thesis reviews in 4 months.

North Christian Church – Eero Saarinen
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Josh Mings

Architect and painter. Columbus, IN born, New Orleans educated, Chicago living and trying to leave the world better than I found it.

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