From Where I Sit: Hello Columbus!

By Tim Springer
Published in the December 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Recently, my wife and I took a trip we’d been planning—and postponing—for several years. We drove through the forests and farms of Illinois and Indiana to our destination—a small town largely unrecognized by the greater population but well known among architecture and design professionals.

Situated some 40 miles south of Indianapolis, Columbus, IN would be just another unremarkable, small Midwestern town were it not for more than half a century of civic effort and social commitment invested in public projects. The story of Columbus is as special as the resulting community and offers many lessons to those of us in the facilities, architecture, and design professions, as well as society at large.

This often overlooked city is home to more examples of outstanding modern architecture than almost any other place in North America—or the world. This is no small admission for someone who takes great pride in the beauty and architectural history of his home city, Chicago. Still, that doesn’t stop me from encouraging everyone to visit and experience this smaller Midwestern town.

Columbus’ love affair with modern architecture began during the Great Depression. At that time, the large and growing congregation of the First Christian Church of Columbus needed to build a new church. It decided to seek a noteworthy architect from among the best and brightest in the country.

Dedicated in 1942, the First Christian Church (originally known as the Tabernacle Church of Christ) was one of the first modern churches in this country. Designed by Eliel Saarinen, the building has greatly influenced subsequent architecture of all types. But the First Christian Church was just the beginning for Columbus.

Following World War II, Columbus (like almost every town in the U.S.), was faced with the challenge of how best to support the demands of returning veterans and the baby boom associated with this population surge. Only one new school had been built between 1929 and 1942, yet the number of residents in the city had doubled.

Fortunately, the town’s largest employers understood they needed to attract the best talent to compete with other companies in larger and potentially more attractive locales. In 1957, Cummins Engine Company’s corporate foundation made a proposal to the Columbus school board; it offered to pay all architectural fees for new schools. There was only one caveat: the building had to be designed by an architect chosen from a list provided by an independent committee of distinguished senior architects formed by the foundation.

The school board would retain independent control of the project, budget, design, and even which architect was selected from the list. Fortunately, the school board accepted. Since 1957, 12 new schools have been built using this approach.

This format, and the associated criteria, has since expanded to include any public building project involving tax dollars. As a result, Columbus is not only filled with wonderful structures, but also outstanding landscape architecture in its parks, engineering and design in its bridges, careful restoration of its historic buildings, and a public art program that rivals communities many times its size. Many private offices, churches, and retail buildings have followed suit.

The architects and artists chosen by Columbus is a who’s who of modern design, including Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, Richard Meier, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, CRSS, I.M. Pei, and Dale Chihuly. The results are so much more than just interesting examples of art and architecture. They are the building blocks of a distinct community.

While Columbus is a small town in the middle of farmland in the central part of the country, it is not a “mini” anything. It is something special in its own right. This is a community that takes pride in—and values—its public spaces. It is a town that recognizes the importance of good design and its impact on quality of life, learning, living, and creating a sense of place.

So what can facilities professionals learn from Columbus? There are a number of lessons. (You knew there had to be a moral to this story, didn’t you?)

When everyone is involved, everyone benefits. The Columbus “adventure” in architecture began because it had visionary and supportive leadership. But it succeeds with the participation of people from all parts of the community.

Facilities planning, architecture, and design are too important to leave solely in the hands of experts. The citizens of Columbus, both individuals and organizations, understand they have to live with each decision made about what gets built, how it looks, and whether or not it serves its purpose. They understand those decisions are too important to be left to someone else.

Good design does not call attention to itself. First and foremost, buildings must be functional. Good design fits into the community and adds to it by serving a purpose with elegance and beauty.

If something looks out of place, it is. You won’t find examples of ego architecture in Columbus. There aren’t any buildings easily identified as a particular designer’s style or that look bizarrely out of place (a museum in Bilbao Spain or a certain band shell by the Chicago lakefront are a few examples that come to mind).

Good places require good planning, and good planning can save money. Many of the schools in Columbus were actually less expensive to build and are much less expensive to operate than alternatives of the same age.

Some of Columbus’ schools employed daylight, convection circulation, and solar gain long before there were green buildings. They apply intelligent configuration and space use to minimize pedestrian traffic and lower maintenance costs.

Good places don’t happen in isolation. As a practice, the school board in Columbus teamed with city planners to ensure a new park was designed and built next to every new school. The idea of designing outdoor places to play next to complementing indoor places to learn seems simple, but it is so seldom done.

Public space is essential for everyone. The public is an essential part of our Republic. I’m not talking about a political party; I mean a society where power rests in the hands of the people.

In the U.S., it seems we have lost track of this critical idea. Too often, “public” has come to mean something inferior or less attractive instead of something belonging to everyone and serving the common good.

Behavior in and toward all things public—schools, transportation, hospitals, libraries, parks, and other public spaces—reflects a growing attitude that public things are only for those who can’t afford private alternatives. Even more troubling, it seems public means, “This place doesn’t really belong to anyone, so I can do whatever I want to here.”

How did we lose the sense of public in our Republic? When there’s no longer a sense of public good, that’s bad.

Good design of public spaces serves the common good—and that means everyone. Like the people of Columbus, we need to recognize that we are all members of the public.

We should care about—and participate in—making decisions about public spaces and the public good. After all, if we don’t, who will?

That’s the way I see it from where I sit. Of course, I could be wrong.


Springer is president and founder of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. and frequently writes and speaks on a wide variety of issues affecting organizations, work, and workplaces. For additional thoughts from Springer, visit his Web site.