The enlightened patronage of an American industrialist has something to teach us about how to make great places
Some 23 years ago I drove 13,500 miles around North America in search of great architecture. My journey took me from Eugene, Oregon, where I was studying, to most of the great American cities and I saw firsthand the best that Wright, Mies, Kahn, Saarinen, Gehry, Meier and Morphosis had to offer. My one regret: I missed Fire Station No 4 by Venturi Rauch Scott Brown. It was an accident.
We had arrived in Columbus and found Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center. It was the building of the moment in the style of the moment. It was OK. We then set off in search of the fire station. But, we failed. A few days later we realised we had been in the wrong state. We had of course been in Columbus, Ohio, not Columbus, Indiana.
In 2013 I cycled from Chicago to New York. This time, my route took me to the other Columbus where, at last, I stood in front of Fire Station No 4. In the flesh it was tiny but just as remarkable as it had been the first time I set eyes on its silhouette in a book. We spent less than 24 hours in Columbus but in that short time sought out works by Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarineen, Roche-Dinkeloo, IM Pei, Harry Weese and Edward Larrabee Barnes.
Fire Station No 4 by Venturi Rauch Scott Brown is one of many remarkable buildings commissioned for Columbus, Indiana by the Irwin family
This time I had done my research. I knew that there was more to see than Fire Station No 4 but I had no idea quite how much and why this remote city should harbour such great works of architecture. The answer was patronage.
The story begins in 1937 when the Irwin family commissioned Eliel Saarinen to design the First Christian Church. The Irwins had settled in Columbus in the mid-19th century, established a general store, then the Irwin Union Bank and Trust and in 1919 the Cummins Engine Company which pioneered the commercial diesel engine.
Eliel worked on the church with his son Eero and Ray Eames. In the 1950s Eero designed a glazed pavilion downtown for the Bank and a house for J Irwin Miller. After his death in 1961, his associates Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo took over the practice and designed the downtown Columbus Post Office (1965) with its monumental tiled masonry and Corten steel arcade, and, across the road the Cummins Engine Company HQ (1977), which is where our visit began.
It wasn’t long before our curiosity about the Cummins building yielded an impromptu tour by a knowledgeable member of staff. The tour led to the basement where the walls were adorned with photos of fine buildings, which it turned out were all right here serving a city with a population of just 44,000.
Between 1957 and 1998 the Cummins Foundation Architectural Program funded 42 public buildings including Venturi’s Fire Station No 4; 12 schools by The Architects’ Collaborative, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Gunnar Birkerts, John M Johansen, Mitchell Giurgola and Richard Meier; Roche-Dinkeloo’s post office; a number of apartment buildings by Gwathmey Siegel; the county hospital by Robert Stern; and the county courthouse, county library, county jail and city hall.
Cycling around the leafy streets of Columbus, stumbling upon these works that stand side by side with small town American homes, it is strikingly obvious that this is not patronage as we know it. The town’s designers were chosen from a ‘list of first-rank American architects … suggested by a disinterested group of the country’s most distinguished architects’. Those commissioning the work then ‘had independent control of the project, design and budget’.
Unlike New York, Paris or London, patronage Columbus-style doesn’t bring financial reward, media attention and cultural kudos. Instead, it makes a better place and a richer physical environment because it’s possible, and because you can. The British have learnt many bad habits from Americans but this is an exceptionally good one to which we should pay very careful attention.
Simon Henley one of three principal directors in Henley Halebrown Rorrison Architects, London. He is Lecturer at the University of Southampton School of Civil Engineering and an External Examiner at the Mackintosh Glasgow School of Art as well as author of The Architecture of Parking, which won the RIBA International Book Award for Construction in 2008.