Exhibit Columbus – Miller Prize Installations

Exhibit Columbus – a month later I can still recall the energy of opening weekend. Residents that normally don’t care about architecture are Instagramming the heck out of the installations, kids are looking wide-eyed at the installations like I did when I was a kid experiencing the buildings of Columbus, and the nationwide architecture media is paying attention to Columbus again. It feels like the second wave is coming, and I only hope I’m able to be a part of it and help shape the next generation of buildings in my hometown.

IKD Boston’s Conversation Plinth, Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, Henry Moore’s Large Arch

As I sit writing this, I’m filled with pride and a renewed inspiration from Columbus. I’ve gotten to know the Exhibit Columbus team over the past year and can say that the future of design in Columbus is in very good hands – and repeated mentions of moving back from various members of the community have me thinking about heading back to Columbus as well (but that is a conversation for another blog). I’m separating Exhibit Columbus posts into a few different entries, the first focusing on the Miller Prize installations along the Avenue of the Architects, and my thoughts on each. University and Washington Street installations will account for the other posts.

What are my thoughts overall on the Miller Prize Installations? Coming into Exhibit Columbus and seeing initial renderings of all of the installations, I certainly had a few questions. At the conceptual stage, I felt a couple missed the mark, a couple more were quite good, and really didn’t know what the hell one was going for. In built form? I was quite blown away. All tapped into the design history of Columbus, taking various parts of the architectural heritage, extracting, interpolating, and creating new works that speak with history.

Conversation Plinth – IKD Boston

First up, on the plaza of I.M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, stands the Conversation Plinth by Boston-based IKD. Conversation Plinth formalizes the informal nature of gathering on the library plaza – be it to chat, listen to concerts (we went to many Popfests as a kid), and hang out (I’m sure someone has skateboarded on this by now too). IKD deftly takes cues from Columbus’ history. Paul Rand’s Dancing Cs become circular walls. Eero Saarinen’s and Alexander Girard’s Irwin House conversation pit inverts becoming the pinnacle moment of the plinth.

The most important part of Columbus’ history that IKD references – material innovation. By using cross-laminated timber to create the structure, IKD recalls Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo’s exploration of materials that occurred at the Post Office (Cor-ten Steel), Irwin Union Bank Arcade (Fritted Glazing), and Cummins COB (Precast structure). In fact, this is the first CLT structure built in the United States and comes at a time when the architectural community as a whole is starting to look at reincorporating wood, as when managed correctly wood is one of the most sustainable building materials.

IKD is incredibly successful in their Miller Prize installation, and in many ways the Conversation Plinth is a spectacle of seen and be seen, rooted in place and history. The installation is a great addition to a focal node of architecture in Columbus, adding to Saarinen and Pei without overpowering, allowing all three pieces (along with Henry Moore’s Large Arch) to come together harmoniously.

Wiikiaami – Studio Indigenous

Wiikiaami, courtesy of Chris Cornelius and Studio Indigenous, sits on the grounds of Eero Saarinen’s First Christian Church. I’ll be the first to admit that when I saw the rendering of this installation, I questioned both concept and location – and after seeing it in person, I was wrong to do so. Cornelius’ work is grounded in the tradition and history of Native American tribes, and Wiikiaami plays to a different portion of Columbus’ history.

Formally, Wiikiaami recalls the dwellings of the Myaamia people native to Indiana and creates a modern-day wigwam aligned with the autumnal equinox (I hope someone got some good pictures of this). Not only does the installation recall history and natural phenomena, the spired, circular shape recalls Saarinen’s tower yet contrasts with it all the same.

As the installation most in touch with the natural surroundings, Wiikiaami chases light much like First Christian Church (and most churches). Cornelius isn’t chasing the light of God with the installation, but rather light phenomena as the sun filters through the trees dappling highlights on the perforated metal structure. After this, the metal panels filter light more – creating a dazzling effect of light and shadow by the overlapping of metal panels, finally hitting the ground in stark contrast to the dark flooring.

Didactic in nature and capturing phenomena, I quite enjoyed experiencing Wiikiaami. I think the installation will become stronger in the coming months as the leaves change, summer turns to fall, and the rebar and metal panels begin to oxidize. The installation is meant to weather and last, creating a contradiction to the traditional temporary installations (which this is). By embracing a non-design part of Columbus’ history and combining it with capturing/modulation of light (found in the Saarinen Churches and Irwin Union Bank), Wiikiaami stands at a crossroads of natural and built histories.

The Exchange – Oyler/Wu Collaborative

Sited at the now-defunct drive-thru canopies of Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Union Bank (now Cummins Irwin Conference Center), the Exchange is another installation that I was extremely excited to see once renderings were released. Oyler/Wu have been on my radar for a bit (even if my personal take on architecture doesn’t bear any resemblance), largely due to their rigorous process and willingness to experiment. The process and experimental nature of their practice shows in the Exchange while tying into Columbus’ history and Saarinen’s work.

Oyler/Wu taps into Saarinen’s work with Solid/Void – present in Irwin Union Bank and other Saarinen works. Irwin Union Bank’s first floor as a whole was meant as a void to be connected with the streetscape. The Exchange continues this void but formalizes it by giving it limits – but not hard limits. While there are some “walls” in the traditional sense of the word consisting of solids, much of the form is created through use of steel bar allowing for the void to penetrate the space.

By carving out voids in solids, Oyler/Wu continues the spirit of Saarinen’s work with a 21st century technological spin. By contrasting with Saarinen and giving the void limits, the Exchange creates a new public space out of formerly car-centric site complementing Saarinen’s ideas of publicity in Irwin Union Bank’s design and building upon Dan Kiley’s landscape design for the site. Light plays off the Exchange wonderfully as well. Oyler/Wu hit a homerun here bringing history into the future.

Anything Can Happen In The Woods – Plan B Architecture and Urbanism

Sited in the arcades of Cummins Engine Company’s Corporate Headquarters by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo stands Plan B’s Anything Can Happen in the Woods. When the initial rendering came out for this installation, I was a bit perplexed as to the concept behind the design. The design ties into Roche’s use of material – using mirror-like material (mirrors are found in the interior of the Corporate HQ) to reflect the surroundings and act as trees in the forest of the arcade. In thinking about the design more, Plan B uses some very sly references to Columbus’ design history.

In addition to wrapping the precast columns of the arcade, grassy seating areas were created – which have proven to be very popular with kids and adults alike and activate the arcades for more than just engagement pictures for every single couple living in Columbus. To me, the grassy areas recall the shaped forms that Cesar Pelli created in the playground of the old Commons – tunnels and mounds created in green carpeting combined with the stainless steel half pipe and red fiberglass climbing apparatus, a fond memory for those of us that grew up in Columbus. I’m still not sure about this installation, and will experience it more in October, but I appreciate the sly references to Columbus’ history and the experiential nature of the design.

Another Circle – Aranda/Lasch

Another Circle is a play on the landscape of Mill Race Park – creating Another Circle to contrast with Michael Van Valkenburg’s Circle Lake that features prominently in the park. When the rendering for this installation was released, I was not a fan. Only after viewing the installation did I realize why – no rendering can capture what this installation creates. Formally, it is a circle. Experientially, it is a play scape, an amphitheatre, a place to sit and read, a place to contemplate.

With the circle, the installation plays into its context and activates an otherwise underutilized area of the park. The use of recycled Indiana limestone recalls Indiana’s built history and most famous building material, shaping leftover scraps of stone into various functions and uses. While at the installation, kids were hopping from stone to stone, people were leaning back in the “chairs”, and I imagine that Another Circle functions quite well with a large gathering of people. It proves that first impressions can be wrong and that the most important part of architecture can’t be represented in an image.

Next up:

In the Exhibit Columbus series, I’ll next look at the university installations – designs from Ball State, OSU, Cincinnati, IU, Kentucky, and Michigan along with the design created by high schoolers from East and North (I’m jealous and wish I had that opportunity in high school). After this, a look at Columbus the movie – a fantastic film by Kogonada starring John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, and Columbus. Beautifully shot and poignant – there were portions of the film I strongly related to. Finally, after a return visit in October I’ll look at the Washington Street installations.

For more information on Exhibit Columbus, click here.

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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.