Here’s Why You Need to Visit Columbus, Indiana This Year
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Here’s Why You Need to Visit Columbus, Indiana This Year

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By Erin V. Mahoney
Exhibit Columbus 2019 debuts a rich program exploring the intersection of community and design in America’s hidden design mecca.

An hour south of Indianapolis, past cornfields and barns—icons of America’s agrarian identity—lies another icon altogether: the unlikely design destination of Columbus, Indiana. The Midwestern city is home to masterworks by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche, César Pelli, and Alexander Girard—to name just a few. It’s also the site of Exhibit Columbus, a design exhibition that should top your must-visit list this year.

Into the Hedge at Bartholomew County Courthouse Lawn by SO-IL

Into the Hedge by SO-IL is a maze-like hedgerow outside the Bartholomew County Court House. After the installation, the trees will be used to restore the hedge surrounding the Miller House.

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Though unlikely, Columbus’s design legacy is no accident. After finding the plans for a local elementary school particularly uninspired, industrialist J. Irwin Miller established the Cummins Foundation in 1954 to pay the architect’s fees for Columbus’s public buildings. Miller believed that by investing in the tangible, the city was thereby investing in the intangible. "Architecture is something you can see. You cannot see a spirit or a temperament or a character, though, and there is an invisible part of this community of which I am very proud because, in a democracy, I think that the process is more important than the product," he told The Washington Post in 1986. Now spanning decades, the city’s investment in architecture, design, and art is staggering: Columbus has one of the most significant collections of modern design in the world.

UTK Filament Tower at North Christian Church by Marshall Prado

University of Tennessee, Knoxville professor Marshall Prado conceived this 30-foot carbon fiber tower that references the spire of Eero Saarinen's North Christian Church behind it.

Since its founding in 2016, Exhibit Columbus has hosted an annual celebration of art, architecture, and design in this extraordinary modern mecca. For this year’s programming, the team looked to the 1986 National Building Museum exhibition, Good Design and the Community: Columbus, Indiana. More than three decades later, Exhibit Columbus 2019 continues to examine the relationship between good design and community well-being.

The city-wide exhibition features 18 site-specific installations by designers, architects, artists, and academics from across the U.S. and Mexico who were selected based on their work in creating positive change within communities. Brought together in Columbus, the dynamic group has created spaces that are both of and for the community.

Corn / Meal at Central Middle School by MASS Design Group 

MASS Design Group cultivated a cornfield on the grounds of Central Middle School to foster conversation about food production and consumption.

It's hard to overstate the powerful effect this has. Walk through town and you’ll encounter someone reading a newly loaned book in Frida Escobedo Studio’s installation, a garden terrace at the I.M. Pei-designed Cleo Rogers Memorial Library. Climb the steps to City Hall, one of many SOM buildings in Columbus, and watch a peaceful demonstration at Bryony Roberts Studio’s steel-and-woven nylon structure. You’ll see students navigate the cornfield MASS Design Group installed on Central Middle School's lawn or a young family enjoy an afternoon snack at LA-Mas’s colorful urban plaza. 

Design is central to the fabric of the Columbus community, and this year’s exhibition showcases just that. What’s more, Exhibit Columbus offers a model—or perhaps a challenge—for other communities to explore how good design is good for us. Read on for more highlights from Exhibit Columbus 2019, then make your plans to visit America’s most unexpected design destination.

Soft Civic at Columbus City Hall by Bryony Roberts Studio

Bryony Roberts Studio custom fabricated steel-and-woven nylon structures outside City Hall to create space for community participation and protest.

Columbus City Hall was designed by Edward Charles Basset of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill in 1981.

Mexico-based nonprofit Pienza Sostenible collaborated with internationally renowned architects and makers to design these striking beehives. The installation warns of the global consequences of a declining bee population.

In Chicago-based Borderless Studio’s Love Letter to the Crump, a large-scale curtain recalls the history of the shuttered Art Deco theater with hopes to spark a preservation effort.
The curtain’s graphic pattern references the work of Alexander Girard.

Etien Santiago and Daniel Luis Martinez, professors at Indiana University's nascent J. Irwin Miller Architecture Program, built this passageway to welcome the community to engage with the students (and vice versa).

Boston-based Agency Landscape + Planning devised a garden to celebrate the often hidden legacy of women at the AT&T Facility. Women were hired to work here as switchboard operators, but lost their jobs to technological advances.

LA-Mas designed this playful urban plaza to promote inclusivity in Columbus's downtown. 

Exhibit Columbus is the flagship event of Landmark Columbus Foundation, whose mission is to care for the design legacy of Columbus and inspire communities to invest in architecture, art, and design to improve people’s lives and make cities better places to live. The 2019 exhibition runs through December 1st and is free and open to the public.

Related Reading:

Ode to a Forward-Thinking America: Columbus, Indiana 

Get an Exclusive Sneak Peek of a New Short Film on Columbus, Indiana

Why Columbus, Indiana, Should Be Your Next Design Destination