#ARCHweek17 – Saarinen’s Impact on Columbus (and me)

For this #ARCHweek17 post, I wanted to go back to my hometown – Columbus, Indiana – and write about two churches that architecturally had an impact on a non-religious kid (I still love church architecture today, it’s weird for someone non-religious right?). One was the beginning of a friendship between J. Irwin Miller and Eero Saarinen that shaped my hometown, and by experience, my views on civic architecture, and the other shapes light to create not just a church building, but architecture and experience – and serves as the “I’m home” moment driving south on US 31 into Columbus.

First Christian Church – Eliel Saarinen

One could argue that the true civic heart of Columbus isn’t The Commons or the Courthouse, it’s the plaza created by two buildings built nearly 30 years apart – Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church and I.M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, with a sculpture by Henry Moore thrown in for good measure. This civic heart, and Columbus as we know it today, would not have occurred without J.Irwin Miller’s family contacting Eliel Saarinen to design a new church for their congregation.

I.M. Pei’s Library Plaza with Henry Moore’s Large Arch in Juxtaposition with Eliel Saarinen’s FCC.

Eliel Saarinen, along with Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, created the first Modernist building in Columbus and one of the first Modernist churches in America. In a way, it was an attempt to signal a new era of Christianity, while recalling all of the traditional elements of a church. Exquisite and ornate statuary on the front facade becomes elegantly streamlined stonework, stone becomes brick, spire separates from sanctuary to become freestanding clock tower – both with clock face and bells becoming a civic landmark object, doors become abstracted into a simple wooden geometric pattern. In recontextualizing the traditional notions of a church, Saarinen made it available to the public. The idea was to make FCC open and inviting through modern form, building in publicity into the design.

Sanctuary and Campanile

Brick and Stonework on Sanctuary

Geometric patterning on doors

Much like in the Gothic Cathedrals in Europe, how light enters the building is tantamount as it is literally the Light of God. Instead of filtering in through varying colors of leaded stained glass, simple vertical openings allow for light to wash across the sanctuary. The light entering the sanctuary bounces off lightly colored surfaces – Saarinen’s experiences with the Northern light in Finland coming together in built form in Columbus. Further recontextualization of the church happens inside – ornate chandeliers hanging from the ceiling become uplighting with simple, modern form in stainless steel, a singular cross, wooden screen over organ piping, and tapestry take the place of a highly details triptych or altarpiece. Pulpit and Choir risers stripped down to essential forms. The common man is welcome here.

Wooden slat screening of organ

The design and construction of First Christian Church began a friendship between J. Irwin Miller and Eero Saarinen that would shape Columbus for the next 30 years. Together they devised the Cummins Foundation, patterned after the GSA’s program for embassies, where the Cummins Foundation would pay for the architectural fees for a civic building (school, church, post office, etc…) designed by an architect selected from the Foundation’s list. Eero Saarinen would go on to complete three more projects with Miller – North Christian Church, the Miller House, and Irwin Union Bank – and his successor firms or architects who worked with Saarinen then started their own firms would complete many more (I even had a professor in school who worked with Roche & Dinkeloo and on the Cummins COB building, which is crazy how small the architecture world is, but maybe a bit of fate too?).

In terms of real, visceral imagery and the feeling I get when I see it – Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church jumps to the top of the list. As mentioned previously, that was the signal I was home. My parents divorced when I was young and my father moved to Indianapolis, so every weekend we had a 45 min to an hour trip there and trip back – which of course is a fresh hell to kids because we were impatient little brats. Coming home on Sunday evenings the lit spire was the beacon contrasting with the never-ending flatness of central Indiana, the signal that we were back home. Even to this day of visiting once or twice a year, I still get that feeling when I see North Christian Church.

North Christian Church – Eero Saarinen

The son following in his father’s footsteps? Perhaps some, but to me Eero in his short time practicing before passing away surpassed his father’s work. it is Modernism meets Expressionism meets Contextualism meets Pragmatism all rolled into one. Eero’s buildings, like Steven Holl, Sverre Fehn, and others – shaped how I view architecture. The concept of the church is incredibly didactic – no side reigns supreme over the others and all come together to point to the sky and towards God. It’s an incredibly poetic concept that defines the culture of the church in built form. Plus, Dan Kiley’s landscape includes parking laid out like church pews. If that isn’t radical recontextualization, I’m not sure what is. Like the Miller House and Irwin Union bank before, masters of their respective crafts came together to create masterpieces – all in a little quiet town.

Isn’t this the coolest view of a church from a parking lot you’ve ever seen?

While North Christian Church uses similar clean geometry and modern materiality as First Christian Church – it begins to deviate heavily. Glazing lifts the roof of the building allowing for light to enter auxiliary spaces – indeed a cut in the landscape separates building from ground. Not only does it produce a lightwell, it produces a sequence – one of climbing stairs from parking to plaza, the plaza sloping down to meet the building, entering under the roof overhang, then climbing stairs into the sanctuary modulating the light of God.

Lightwell/Earth Separation

Structural Steel is exposed at the base versus concealed throughout First Christian Church

Sequence into Sanctuary

As you enter the sanctuary, climbing up the steps to meet the light filtering in from the ceiling, it is a very magical moment. You instinctively know you are entering a sacred space solely through modulation of light and sequence. The modulated skylight dips to create a focal area at the altar – located in the center of the sanctuary – a shift from the traditional location. Interior lighting seeks to blend in with the light of God from the exterior – there are no light surfaces for exterior light to bounce off here. It is a search for a specific kind of light, a sacred light, not the Northern/Gothic let as much light in as possible.


Saarinen and Miller shaped a small town for the better with their vision, and no doubt created a few Columbus-born architects along the way (there are a few of us). The Cummins Foundation is a huge asset to Columbus and its built environment. I went to school in the buildings designed and built by architects (to list: Gunnar Birkerts, Paul Kennon, Eliot Noyes, Harry Weese, among others) chosen by the foundation, spent quite a bit of time at the library (Pei), ran up and down that huge ramp at the Commons (Cesar Pelli) because it was freaking awesome, along with the red tube and stainless steel quarter pipe in the playground. All of these experiences shaped how I view architecture, how I believe architecture should be, and me as an architect focusing on work that has a civic impact. J. Irwin Miller sums it up best:

“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.”



Additional information and blog posts regarding Columbus:

Thesis: Praiseworthy Competition with One’s Ancestors – Columbus, Indiana Architecture Depository

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

The Both/And Condition of Poetry and Pragmatism

North Christian Church Painting

Through the Arch – First Christian Church Painting

Cleo Rogers Memorial Library – I.M. Pei

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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.