Praiseworthy Competition with One’s Ancestors: Columbus, IN Architecture Depository

The Time-Life Iconic view of Columbus (based off photography from a Time-Life article in the late 1950s)

“A good life is one led in praiseworthy competition with one’s ancestors. The best response to the gifts we receive from previous generations is to create something of lasting value in our own time and in our own way for future generations.” – J. Irwin Miller

Columbus’ Architecture

J. Irwin Miller’s gift is my hometown of Columbus, Indiana. Believing that architecture “reflects what a city thinks about itself and what it aims to be”, Columbus’ poetic Modernism is a response to previous generations [1]. It is a both/and condition, one of knowledge of the past and using that knowledge to create in your own way for the future, of abstract and material, of pragmatism and poetry.

First Christian Church – Eliel Saarinen

North Christian Church – Eero Saarinen

Twentieth-century architectural discourse was driven largely by either/or: Modernism with the abstract and pragmatic, Postmodernism with the material and poetic. In the increasingly fractured and globalized Twenty-first century world, the either/or dualistic view is no longer sufficient. This both/and condition brings together the either/or conditions of philosophy in the Twentieth Century to create a process design could follow to disseminate meaning and create a dialogue with its total environment. To propel architecture forward, both ends of the spectrum must be used to create an architectural whole [2].

Exhibition/Archive Space – 3rd Floor showing North Christian Church and others

This both/and condition and process begins to point to six overarching design principles:
1] Pragmatic/Poetic – Architecture should be both pragmatic and poetic, allowing the functional and spectacular to come together to create a building that conveys meaning.
2] Didactic/Honesty – Architecture should be didactic in its construction and speak to its materiality.
3] Awareness of Time – Architecture should speak to the temporal, allowing a connection both to history and context as well as to the present and a future filled with doubt and uncertainty.
4] Expression of Story/Narrative – Architecture should tell a story. Without a story, architecture has no structure and cannot speak.
5] The Total Environment – Architecture should be site relative, creating a dialogue and connection with the environment in which it is constructed.
6] Concept/Conclusion – Architecture should always have a strong poetic idea that shapes and is shaped by pragmatic systems, telling a story as you experience the layers of building.

Irwin Union Bank – Eero Saarinen

Irwin Union Bank Arcade and Addition – Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo

Regarding Columbus, Indiana the abstract is found in the Jeffersonian grid imparted upon the Midwest. The later pavilionization of Columbus is a result of the grid, and this grid also works its way into Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Union Bank building through use of the Palladian nine-square grid. The pavilionization of Columbus resulted in an architecture consisting of objects in a field; independent, well defined, and self-referential speaking to an individualism and self-reliance found in the Midwest. What is missing in this formal proposition is the ground, the essential reference plane of the Midwest region. Saarinen himself saw architecture “not as the building alone, but the building in relationship with its surroundings.” This relationship lies within the ground.

Longitudinal Section through Saarinen’s Pavilion and new Depository

Section Model showing Exhibition Void, Mask, and Archive

While the nine-square grid of Saarinen’s bank promotes this formal ideology, it begins to speak to the community and inclusivity much like his father’s work in First Christian Church. Diving deeper into the works of Columbus a lexicon emerges: Green Space (Connecting Public and Nature), Modulating Light (Connecting interior to exterior and time), Publicity/Inclusiveness (Connecting public to built form), Material and Program Innovation (Praiseworthy Competition), Contextual Relationships (Both Blending and Contrasting). Each point of the lexicon serves to disseminate meaning, furthering Saarinen’s belief that “the conveying in architecture of significant meaning is part of the inspirational purpose of architecture.”

Ground floor plan showing connections to existing structures. Upper floors are shaped by the landmarks of the city

Site Model

The bank pavilion embraces each point of the lexicon. It consists of two planes, the Midwest (ground) plane and the roof plane, and the void. The pavilion transitions the bank from the closed, fortress banks of old to a new, welcoming, and public paradigm. The void becomes poetic and open, set within the landscape, a continuance of the outside, public realm. It becomes a both/and wholly different from its surroundings yet connecting to its historical context in downtown Columbus.

Courtyard view through mass of tress which maintains the datum line of 11’6″ (thickness of void) towards depository

It then becomes essential to create a conversation and a journey, not only with Saarinen, but also with the other architectural landmarks in the city, tending to the ground to create a link between disparate objects and a new urban whole. Saarinen’s nine-square grid is expanded across the site, and through manipulation of the existing building, the void is extended down Saarinen’s suspended stairs and into a new courtyard. The two planes and the void become key in this conversation, extruded cross the site along Saarinen’s grid.

View toward First Christian Church in exhibition space

View from Cummins looking down Fifth Street, an architectural axis of the city

The two planes and void turn vertical to create a signal event within the city, a depository of Columbus’ architectural history, a combination of museum and archive that acts as a sentinel that both preserves its heritage and propels it into the future. It creates a heartland within the heartland, responding to the discipline, the vernacular landscape (including the silos and other utilitarian buildings which both Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier admired), and acknowledging the whole and part simultaneously.

Continuing the Void: Vertical Exhibition Void (Top) with Horizontal Bank Void (Bottom)

The Midwest (ground) plane of Saarinen’s pavilion becomes the body of the depository, the void vertical circulation, and the roof plane a mask that becomes a point of dialogue with the city. The planes and void are pierced and shaped by views looking out towards the architectural monuments of the city. Through this responsive mask, which is both concealer and revealer, a process of moving from insideness to outsideness and back again, and the transition from looking to seeing and understanding occurs. It becomes a process of seeing and recognizing difference, while seeking to promote the consignment to the whole.

Poetic (Conversation/Journey) and Pragmatic (Systems) Diagrams

This poetic conversation becomes structured by the pragmatic systems which underscore technological developments in Twentieth and Twenty-first Century architecture – elements of light, envelope and skin, a wandering circulation, structure, and mechanical systems all creating a lexicon, words upon which the poetic story of Columbus is told. Using the both/and condition, the depository imparts knowledge of the city and Miller’s ideals; a dialogue between past and present that both engages in and strives to encourage praiseworthy competition with one’s ancestors.

At the origin of the architectural axes – Fifth and Washington Streets

Project Information:
Master of Architecture Thesis, Tulane University, 2012
Location – 500 Washington St. Columbus, IN 47201
Size – 28,000 square feet new construction + 15,000 square feet renovation
Advisors – Scott Ruff, Kentaro Tsubaki, Elizabeth Burns Gamard
Model Assistance – Kelsey Howard
Research Assistance – Rhonda Bolner, Columbus Indiana Architectural Archive

I welcome any and all comments, and hope you enjoy the project as much as I enjoyed working on it over the past year.


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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.