Irwin Union Bank – Eero Saarinen

When was the last time you saw a bank look this damn good? When Sullivan was designing them, or Deborah Burke’s bank in Columbus, right? Well Eero Saarinen took Sullivan’s (and others) Midwestern Fortress Bank typology and threw it right out the single glazed window in the 1950s. Short in stature and completely transparent, Saarinen’s Irwin Union Bank was the antithesis of the bank typology of the previous era. It wasn’t a closed-off institution, it was public, approachable – like his father’s First Christian Church.

The pavered front entry ties into the Streetscape project undertaken by Alexander Girard that provides a cohesiveness to downtown Columbus. You may think that an all-glass pavilion said “FU context”, but Saarinen was a great architect and the building is contextual – beginning with the blank gray brick wall the building played off of in the 1950s (and later mostly covered up by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo’s arcade and office addition in the 1970s). In addition, the height of the curtainwall matches the height of the storefront in the turn of the century buildings that line Washington Street – making Irwin Union Bank contextual by contrast.

The building itself (now a conference center for Cummins) – is a 9 square grid, which all architects love and is found all throughout history. This 9 square grid is in the ceiling plane – marked with a dome in the center of each grid section that helps to modulate natural and artificial light, blending them together. This helps to enhance the notion of publicity in the building, as the only distinction between interior and exterior outside of the ceiling is a thin envelope of single glazed curtain wall and translucent curtains.

The exterior paver ground plane continues into the building, further enhancing continuity between interior and exterior. Back to the 9 square grid. In the center square – Whoopi Goldberg, I mean a central stair suspended by light metal that recalls the GM tech center and other Saarinen stairs leading to an underground level holding the vault. In the next square – Shadow Stevens, or an enclosed cube of private offices and storage. I probably watched way too much Hollywood Squares as a kid.

I mean, look at all this Mid-Century Modern goodness. Smooth finish ceiling with recessed can lighting meets textured dome diffusing ceiling pendant uplighting – and the tripod wire mounting? Be still my Modernist heart.

To the west of the pavilion lies the former drive thrus and a small park area designed by Dan Kiley. While the drive-thrus were a later addition, they fit into the site – pavers demarcate lanes, a simple ceiling plane and columns provided shade. I’m greatly looking forward to Oyler/Wu’s installation in this area for Exhibit Columbus. Now, the former drive-thru canopies provide shade for downtown workers at lunchtime.

Kiley’s landscape, originally conceptualized as a grid of trees continuing the building grid to the exterior (and by extension the Jeffersonian Grid that orders all of the Midwest) creates a relief space bordered by trees and surrounded by both Saarinen’s pavilion and Roche/Dinkeloo’s arcade. This relief continues into the shaded entry of Roche/Dinkeloo’s Cummins Corporate Office Building, in a way linking two Columbus institutions in the built environment.

While I wish the building was more open to the public now that it is a conference center, the grounds still serve to create the publicity that Saarinen so desired in the building. Seriously Cummins, open the damn thing up to the public every now and then – it is meant to be experienced by the public. IUB is still a great public amenity that gives over so much of itself for the civic realm – something all good architecture should do.

Extra: Irwin Union Bank was the site of my thesis project – click here for more information.

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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.