City Surveys

Modernist Columbus by Serhii Chrucky

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There isn’t a city in America quite like Columbus, Indiana. With a population of only 45,000, it boasts a collection of noteworthy architecture one would expect to find in a city ten times the size. There are buildings designed by Eliel Saarinen and Kevin Roche; Harry Weese and I.M. Pei. What other comparable city has a bank, a church, and a house all designed by Eero Saarinen? 

Columbus’ modern architectural heritage dates back to 1939 when J. Irwin Miller, president of Cummins Engine Company, commissioned Eliel Saarinen to design the First Christian Church. The church is recognized now as one of the earliest examples of Modernist church design in the United States. 

In the mid-1950s, Miller continued commissioning contemporary architects to design buildings both for Cummins and for the city of Columbus. Early works include the Irwin Bank and Trust in 1954, the Cummins Engine Plant in 1955, and Miller’s own home in 1957. By this time, Miller had arranged for Cummins to provide grants to the school board to cover architects fees for the design of primary and secondary schools. The Cummins Foundation Architecture Program was expanded over time to fund the construction of fire stations, government buildings, and parks.

This tradition of commissioning exemplary architects to design private and civic buildings in Columbus has continued through to the present. The number of buildings designed and/or renovated under the Cummins Foundation Program alone is over fifty. I recently spent three days in Columbus and wasn’t able to visit every site, let alone photograph all of them. I hope the photos below inspire you to visit Columbus for yourself.

First Christian Church, Eliel Saarinen, 1942

First Christian Church, Eliel Saarinen, 1942

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Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, I.M. Pei, 1969

Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, I.M. Pei, 1969

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AT&T Switching Center, Paul Kennon, 1978

AT&T Switching Center, Paul Kennon, 1978

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St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Gunnar Birkerts, 1988

St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Gunnar Birkerts, 1988

North Christian Church, Eero Saarinen, 1964

North Christian Church, Eero Saarinen, 1964

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Landscape of North Christian Church, Dan Kiley, 1964

Landscape of North Christian Church, Dan Kiley, 1964

Irwin Union Bank & Trust, Eero Saarinen, 1954

Irwin Union Bank & Trust, Eero Saarinen, 1954

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Cummins Irwin Office Building, Kevin Roche, 1972

Cummins Irwin Office Building, Kevin Roche, 1972

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Cummins Corporate Office Building, Kevin Roche, 1984

Cummins Corporate Office Building, Kevin Roche, 1984

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The Republic, Myron Goldsmith, 1971

The Republic, Myron Goldsmith, 1971

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Columbus City Hall, Edward Bassett, 1981

Columbus City Hall, Edward Bassett, 1981

St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, Ratio Architects (Steven Risting), 2002

St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, Ratio Architects (Steven Risting), 2002

Crump Theatre, 1889/1941

Crump Theatre, 1889/1941

Irwin Garden, 1910

Irwin Garden, 1910

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Buildings on Washington Street

Buildings on Washington Street

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Robert N. Stewart Bridge, 1999

Robert N. Stewart Bridge, 1999

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Bank of the Flatrock River

Bank of the Flatrock River

Columbus Regional Health Mental Health Services, James Polshek, 1972

Columbus Regional Health Mental Health Services, James Polshek, 1972

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Creekview Branch Bank, Deborah Berke, 2006

Creekview Branch Bank, Deborah Berke, 2006

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Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary, Harry Weese, 1957

Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary, Harry Weese, 1957

Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary Addition, Leers Weinzapfel Associates, 1991

Lillian C. Schmitt Elementary Addition, Leers Weinzapfel Associates, 1991

Mill Race Park, Michael Van Valkenburgh, 1992

Mill Race Park, Michael Van Valkenburgh, 1992

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Canal Street, New Orleans by Serhii Chrucky

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I’m standing on the neutral ground of Canal Street in downtown New Orleans. It’s early October but today the lighting is uncharacteristically gray. The undifferentiated mass of clouds and the wet blanket of humidity turns the world into a luminous softbox. This type of weather is decent for shooting architecture so long as you crop the sky or need to photograph a north facing building in the colder months. All these years and I’m still not sure how I feel about photographing on overcast days.

I have the tripod set up next to the curb cut, a safe distance from the streetcars whizzing by my back. The camera is pointed southwest at a Walgreens drugstore on the opposite corner. I’ve been meaning to photograph this building for almost ten years. Built in 1938 in the Art Moderne style in vogue at the time, it’s a three story commercial building with a limestone facade, twice as long as it is wide. There is a cylindrical turret on the corner crammed with neon text: “Walgreen Drugs - Photo - Cosmetics - Prescriptions.” A band of rainbow neon tubes frame the text, coming to a semicircular crescendo at the top of the turret next to a yellow mortar and pestle signifying “pharmacy.” The neon glows nicely on overcast days like this, and it looks even better than it did in my mind all this time.

People are coming and going in waves, alternating with cars doing the same, so I wait for the breaks in between phases. There is one obnoxious truck, wrapped to resemble an alligator, parked in an intrusive position. If I want to get this shot now, and I do, I’m going to have to live with the alligator truck. The universe is often ungenerous in this way - there always seem to be objects like light posts, trees, magazine stands, and parked cars getting in the way of an otherwise perfect vantage point. People aren’t as problematic when they walk through the frame since they can be useful to show scale, utility, or both. Is it better to embrace the chaotic disorder in front of a building than it is to fret about it? I’m standing on the neutral ground of Canal Street like the psychological divide between being satisfied with results, or chucking them and trying again tomorrow. I’ll come back tomorrow.

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