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Little Columbus Builds a Reputation

Tracking down architectural treasures, from Pei to Pelli, tucked away in an artful Indiana town


COLUMBUS, Ind. — The first five names on the American Institute of Architects' list of significant U.S. cities for innovation and design are hardly surprising: Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C.

It's the sixth city that leaps out from the list: Columbus, Ind.

Not Columbus, the capital of Ohio, or Columbus, Ga., known for Ft. Benning. But the Columbus in Indiana, a town of 35,000 perched at the southern edge of the prairie 40 miles south of Indianapolis.

Since the 1940s, Columbus' citizens have engaged in an extraordinary experiment in modern living, hiring the top international architects to design their public buildings and meld them into the fabric of their 19th century town.

More than 50 buildings represent an honor roll of modern architects: Eliel Saarinen and son Eero, I.M. Pei, Robert Venturi, Cesar Pelli and Paul Kennon. There are public schools by Edward Larrabee Barnes and Richard Meier; public housing projects by the team of Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel; banks by Kevin Roche, who created the master plan ensuring the continued development of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and postmodernist Harry Weese; and a public park by Michael Van Valkenburgh, a celebrated landscape architect and former department chairman at Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

The town boasts six structures on the National Register of Historic Places and 600 well-loved 19th and early 20th century buildings in the historic district, a pastiche of Italianate, Greek and Colonial Revival, Queen Anne, Prairie and Shotgun styles.

Columbus is just 35 miles east of my hometown of Bloomington and close enough that over the decades I've cruised through the rumpled hills of southern Indiana many times to renew my wonderment with the town. I recently drove over for dinner and sauntered through the extraordinary downtown in the light of a brilliant spring moon.

As I neared Columbus, I perked up, knowing that I was close to something that's unmatched in small-town America. The highway swooped through the Second Street Bridge's dramatic red tethered pylons, and I knew I had arrived. Rambling through downtown, I felt as though I was in a living museum of architecture, a giddying walk through time.

The First Christian Church at 531 5th St., finished in 1942, was Columbus' first foray into modernist architecture. It was designed by Eliel Saarinen, father of the International Movement, the bold modernist reaction to the endless decoration and frill of late Victorian architecture.

The church's austere, elegant geometry is a striking counterpoint to the common Gothic and Georgian churches of the Midwest. The simple geometric box of limestone and pale buff brick wears a stone cross on its breast. Beside the massive sanctuary building, a 166-foot-high bell tower is a slender pencil box of brick reaching skyward--an elegant, wholly unsteeple-like expression of unalloyed piety.

Across the way, Pei, one the century's acclaimed architects, designed the 1969 Cleo Rogers Memorial Library at 536 5th St., representing another era of modernism.

Saarinen's church and Pei's library cooperate to form a public area that feels like a gracious Umbrian piazza. It is an intimate cobbled space of proportions that would soothe an ancient Athenian, warm enough to make one linger for civilized discourse.

The plaza centers on sculptor Henry Moore's bronze "Large Arch," a primal paean to Stonehenge. (New York's Museum of Modern Art has a small version. Columbus has the full-scale, 20-foot-tall, 5 1/2-ton piece.)

Columbus' sleek post office at 450 Jackson St., designed by Kevin Roche, is strangely comforting, made with salt-glazed tile--normally seen on vintage silos--and mirrored glass. Maybe it is just the refraction of everyday Indiana life that makes it feel so homey; maybe it is the sheltering canopy that shades the busy sidewalk.

Nearby is the Commons, a black-glass-box shopping center designed by Cesar Pelli, the genius behind the Museum of Modern Art expansion in New York and the new terminal at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The Columbus mall might be stark and modernist on the exterior, but inside beats the heart of Midwestern retailing: a Sears, a two-screen cinema and chain stores.

I watched kids caper under surrealist Jean Tinguely's enormous "Chaos I" sculpture. The scavenged gears and levers and industrial detritus looped and turned and ceaselessly whirled in an incessant pattern of self-creation.

"Life is movement," Tinguely said about his work. "Everything transforms itself, everything modifies itself ceaselessly, and to try to stop it . . . seems to me a mockery of the intensity of life."

He might also have been speaking of Columbus.

Residents here are fond of saying they are different by design. This place is a cultural petri dish where the idea that good architecture can improve the human condition is still being tested with an almost naive faith.

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