Columbus, Indiana is a modern architecture petting zoo of the first order. J. Irwin Miller, who became head of his family’s company (which manufactured Cummins diesel engines) after WWII, somehow became enamored of modern architecture, and decided that he would pay the architect’s fees for any civic building in Columbus, if they would hire serious modern architects. Since the 1950s, dozens of significant modern buildings have been built there.
One of the most important is Miller’s own house, designed by Eero Saarinen’s office (with Kevin Roche as project architect), interior design by Alexander Girard, and landscape design by Dan Kiley. The house is a pinwheel design, with pristine, rigorous planning and space. It might seem rather severe and removed if it weren’t for Girard’s exuberant furnishings (most of which I can’t show here, as you’re not allowed to photograph inside.)
The house is superb, but Dan Kiley’s landscape is perhaps even better – extending the grid and zones of the house to the outside, creating an order on the site that is very formal, yet quiet and inviting.
The downtown is full of notable buildings, but it doesn’t feel forced; none of the buildings is striving for dominance. In contrast to today’s flashy starchitect-branded landmarks, these buidlings fit well together, forming a coherent whole with each other, and the more normal commercial buildings of the town. We don’t tend to think of modernist architects as being overly concerned with fitting into the context, but it is very clear that was the intention here. Perhaps this was yet another requirement of the enlightened client?
The Saarinens were clearly the favorites, and after Eero’s early death, much work went to his successor firm, Roche Dinkeloo.
This is a really worthwhile place to visit – we barely scratched the surface in one day. It is amazing to see what effect a great client can have on a whole city.