If you’re walking through the streets of Downtown Columbus over the next three months, you will see some unusual structures. Some of the works project sharply into the sky with welded rebar and steel. Others you can walk into like a maze, or climb up.  And still others you might not even notice until you’re standing on top of them.

These temporary installations are designed to have a visual conversation, as it were, with the epic landmarks of modernist architecture in Columbus.

One of the goals of this citywide exhibition, in its inaugural year, is to inspire architects, designers and particularly students — the next generation of architects — to consider making their mark on this Southern Indiana town, according to Richard McCoy, director of Landmark Columbus.

“The main purpose of Exhibit Columbus is to make Columbus a better place to live,” McCoy said about the project in 2016. “To get people to have pride in their community, where they live, work and study. To show that excellent designers are a great way to solve community challenges. And to encourage people to come move to Columbus.”

“At Exhibit Columbus, we created something called the Miller Prize Competition,” he said, before giving a brief description of the program that he’s shepherded over the past several years with his team. “We invited 10 designers, all excellent; we had 10 amazing ideas; with a jury that then had to had to decide the [five] winners; it was almost like the flip of a coin; super-close.”



Not just the Miller Prize-winning installations are on display, however. There are 18 installations all and all, in and around Downtown Columbus, including installations built by high school and university students, and the Washington St. Installations; works that enhance interactivity and connection along Columbus’s main thoroughfare.

(Exhibit Columbus is also about environmental sustainability.  To that end, Indianapolis-based nonprofit People for Urban Progress took last year’s Exhibit Columbus banners and used them to make handbags, for sale in the Upland Columbus Pump House and in the Columbus Area Visitor Center.)

Conversation Plinth, one of the five Miller Prize-winners, sits smack between the First Christian Church designed by Eliel Saarinen, completed in 1942, and the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library designed by I.M. Pei 25 years later. As if that’s not enough in the iconic name-dropping department, Conversation Plinth wraps itself around the Henry Moore sculpture Large Arch.

Plinths are pedestals; the installation itself is formed by a stacked a series of wood pedestals accessed by a walkway around the Henry Moore sculpture that leads you up into a round circular space, supported by steel pillars, some 20 feet up where you can sit down with your friends and have a conversation.

“The plinth signifies importance, something that elevates,” said Tomomi Itakura, a partner in the Boston-based firm IKD, that designed the installation. “The landmarks are all lifted up, all elevated. So Conversation Plinth elevates, creates this series of plinths for people to enjoy… When you get up there you see, you’re at eye level with the buildings now. We all talk about the heros of architecture are so important but we through this project wanted to celebrate the community.”

Yugon Kim, also a partner in IKD, described the exhibit as partly an homage to J. Irwin Miller and the company that he directed as chairman and CEO.

Through the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program, Miller spurred architectural innovation in Columbus after World War II, helping finance public buildings like schools and firehouses, paying the architectural fees, provided that the architects chosen were from a list provided by the Cummins Foundation.

In Miller’s former residence, known simply as the Miller House — an iconic pilgrimage site for architecture geeks and lovers of fine design — there is a feature called the conversation pit, a sunken square of floor space lined with sofas.  (At the Columbus Area Visitors Center you can sign up for a public tour of the Miller House, which is administered by the Indianapolis Museum of Art.)

“What we thought, it’s a little bit sad that the conversation pit is private, that you can’t actually go into it, so how do you bring that out to the public?” said Kim.

Part of the answer lay in the materials used for the construction of Conversation Plinth, which utilizes a cutting-edge material; cross-laminated timber, or CLT.

“This is the first ever commercial pressing of hardwood CLT. The first structure of hardwood CLT ever in the United States,” said Kim. “What’s interesting about it is that we’re taking low value wood which amounts of about 50 percent of every log that is cut down in Indiana. Usually that material goes to low value items. So what we thought is just by rethinking distribution streams to reassemble in this type of assembly, we are able to negate all the items that make it low value and create this very high value structural panel.”

And, it turns out, that CLT has some metaphoric resonance to all things Columbus, and this is something that Kim is well-aware of.

He describes CLT as “massive plywood on steroids” using some materials that might be weak on their own, but combined with other materials are made strong.

And that almost to a T describes the culture of collaboration and innovation that make Columbus, pop. 46,850, not your typical Midwestern town.

“There’s a saying here, the Columbus Way; this a prime example of it,” said Kim. “So this is a large endeavor; we worked with people who were local, people who were national to achieve this.”

Just west on Fifth St. from Conversation Plinth is the University of Michigan installation under construction entitled Cloud/Bank at Central Middle School. Consisting of steel, slip-cast ceramic, and upholstery, it was still under construction on Aug. 25, the day before the official Exhibit Columbus opening.  These were sculptural representations of clouds —  looking about as cloudlike as they could get, being constructed of such materials; they were fixed in place with their legs touching the ground. 

The goal of said structure, according to the Exhibit Columbus field guide, is “to embody and communicate the historic legacy of the distributed networks of design and fabrication of both industry and agriculture in the Great Lakes/Midwest region…”

Panquat Kyemsu, a graduate student in the UM architecture program, was happy to be in the team of students putting the work together. “In school, understanding the concept of design on paper,” he said. “It’s a lot different when you see it through the whole process. I sat through the meetings... seeing how the design changes through that process and trying to make it more a physical thing.”

The Exhibit Columbus installation at 7th and Washington St., entitled “Between the Threads” —   adjacent to the rather colorless historic post office and next door to the AT&T Switching Center with its colorful metal tubes along the side of the building — is the work of students from Columbus East and Columbus North High Schools.

Their installation looks from afar like a giant curtain, in alternating colors, against the gray side of the post office. As you come closer, you find that it is something of a maze into which you can enter. The curtain is made of rex lace, according to Columbus East High School senior Josie Royer.

“We just used a mass amount of it and we wrapped it around the steel panels that we cut and painted them together ourselves and then we bolted them together to create the maze effect,” she said.

“We were also very inspired by Alexander Girard who did a lot of work here in Columbus,” said Cox. “He did a lot of color schemes for lots of the downtown buildings.  We didn’t take a color scheme that he did; we just had that in the back of our minds. And we tried to play off the surrounding environment.” 

Likewise inspired by Girard, is an installation entitled Theoretical Foyer, found on the southeast corner of 7th and Washington Streets. On this corner the regular gray sidewalk bricks are replaced by differently-colored bricks of concrete forming playful motifs.

Theoretical Foyer is one of the Washington Street installations; five works that were created by Exhibit Columbus in concert with five leading international design galleries. Brooklyn based ceramicist Cody Hoyt fabricated 2,500 bricks in order to make this installation describes his work as an “in-between space.” 

“People make pilgrimages here,” he said.  “People seeking solitude; people seeking inspiration; and that reminded me of something like a museum or a temple; or religious base, spiritual.  What if there was some kind of unifying architecture that surrounds the entire space like a floor or a ceiling, a mural, wallpaper, mosaic, something of that nature.”

So he thought that a kind of intricately patterned floor might be a way of unifying the entire city of Columbus, or at least alluding to such an idea.   

“With the space that I was allotted,” he said, “I created what is essentially like a cropped version of what could be something like that.”

Energy conservation and diversity were key themes at the Exhibit Columbus Symposium event "Evening Conversation: Foundations for Design" held at the IMA's Toby Theater. 

Having lived and worked in Indy on and off since 1977, and currently living in Carmel, I've seen the city change a great deal. I love covering the arts in all its forms, and the places where the arts and broader cultural issues intersect.

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