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Columbus, Indiana Trip

BBA Architects on Oct 19, 2023

This summer, as part of our celebration of 30 years in business, we chose to take our staff to Columbus, Indiana, noted as one of the most inspiring architectural locations in the world of modern design.

A small city located an hour south of Indianapolis may not be on everyone's architectural radar, but Columbus is a hidden gem that boasts a remarkable collection of modernist buildings and public art. Columbus is home to an impressive array of architectural attractions that have put the city on the map for design enthusiasts and travelers alike.

The architectural history of Columbus can be traced back to the 1950s when J. Irwin Miller, a local industrialist and former Chairman and CEO of Cummins Engine Co. had a visionary proposal. Miller established the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program, with the belief that great design could enhance the quality of life for residents and attract a strong workforce to the area. Through the foundation, Miller proposed to pay all architectural design fees for public buildings on the condition that clients select an architect from the pre-selected list.   

We began our tour at the spectacular Irwin-Sweeney-Miller family home, where J. Irwin Miller grew up. Originally constructed in 1864 for Joseph Irwin, great-grandfather to J. Irwin, the home was re-imagined in 1910 to the form we see today in an Edwardian style.  At this renovation stage, an expansive sunken garden is designed and built directly to the east of the home. Our team took note of many traditional features that we have seen in some of our own work and paid particular attention to the exterior masonry design, and lovely gardens which were in their full summer glory.

The Irwin-Sweeney-Miller family also led the local First Christian Church, where J. Irwin Miller’s grandfather was the pastor. When the church needed a new building in 1942, J. Irwin, inspired by the emerging modern age, suggested the Finish modernist architect Eliel Saarinen, whose work he had been introduced to while a student at Yale. It was this partnership that inspired the formation of the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program and launched the collaborative relationship between J. Irwin and Eliel’s son, Eero Saarineen. First Christian Church has a striking asymmetrical facade and a soaring free-standing masonry bell tower. The sanctuary features narrow floor-to-ceiling windows adorned with abstract geometric patterns that flood the interior with natural light. 

The centerpiece of our tour was the private home of J. Irwin Miller and his wife Xenia Miller, completed in 1957. The house was designed by Eero Saarinen and remains one of the most iconic architectural masterpieces in Columbus. The home was designed first and foremost as a family home and is a masterpiece of mid-century modern architecture. The house features an open floor plan with a sunken conversation pit.  Walls of glass allow the interior to blend seamlessly with the surrounding landscape. Dan Kiley, the landscape architect for the project, expressed his modern interpretation of formal European gardens by creating outdoor rooms and axial alignments through plantings. The interior design by Alexander Girard brings vibrancy and color to the minimalist architectural palette.  The project is a harmonious marvel, demonstrating successful collaboration between landscape, architecture, and interiors.

Other notable structures on our tour included an impressive array of libraries, schools, and various public buildings designed by Kevin Roche, I.M. Pei, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Harry Weese, and others. We also toured the North Christian Church, by Eero Saarinen designed in 1964. The unique structure is characterized by its hyperbolic paraboloid roof, which creates a striking visual impact.

BBA was attracted to the city's commitment to design excellence that brings visitors from around the world, as well as inspires local residents to appreciate and embrace the beauty of architecture. In a world where architecture often takes a backseat to other forms of art, Columbus stands out as a testament to the power of architecture to shape a community and inspire generations to come.