The Economy of Modernism: How The Gift of Architecture Saved A Town

"Where are you headed?" the rental-car agent in Indianapolis asked me, and when I said Columbus, he smiled. "You've come for the architecture." Turns out he grew up there and went to school in a building that's commonly featured in textbooks used at architecture schools around the world. "I didn't really understand until I left," he said. "But I have to wonder, Why is the rest of the world so ugly?"

It's something of a mystery, I have to agree. But compared to Columbus, the rest of the world is ugly. This small industrial town of 37,000 deep in the rust belt has been quietly erecting important works of modern architecture since 1942, when the Miller family, the entrepreneurial dynasty behind Cummins Engine Company, conspired to hire Eliel Saarinen to build the First Christian Church. That building, widely considered the first "modern" church in the country and still a gracious statement of exceptional gravity and purity, must have seemed like the tomb of some outer space pharaoh back in the 1940s, when Columbus's population numbered 16,000. But contrary to what you might think, the people of Columbus fell in love with modern architecture, and modern architects in turn fell in love with Columbus.

Driving over the bright-red suspension bridge that marks the town's gateway, I came upon a quaint 1874 courthouse across the street from the offices of The Republic newspaper, a glowing light chamber of glass and steel designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and built circa 1971. Just beyond was the new city hall, also by SOM. It was as modern as the newspaper building but constructed of the same local orange brick as the courthouse. Around the block, a vintage soda fountain sat catty-corner from the Commons, an indoor center designed by Cesar Pelli in 1973.

In bigger cityscapes, modernist masterpieces often display an Ayn Rand-ish arrogance toward their surroundings, perhaps to distinguish themselves from the clutter or to showcase the importance of the corporation or individual who paid for them. What's remarkable about Columbus was not so much the astonishing fact that this small town has 65 buildings by world-class modern architects as that it wears them so well. The innovative structures blended seamlessly with carefully renovated traditional buildings to create an animated, highly livable townscape where form followed function. I felt a great big "aha!" coming on as I drove around town. This is what modernism is supposed to feel like!

I checked into a bed-and-breakfast in the former city hall, built in 1895, then cross the street to the visitor's center, an Italianate house renovated and expanded in 1995 by Kevin Roche. A volunteer tour guide named Donna Sasse told me she grew up on a farm three miles outside town, went to Detroit as a young adult, then came home for good 25 years ago. Sasse remembered going as a child to the opening day of the Irwin Union Bank & Trust building, designed by Eero Saarinen, Eliel's son, in 1954: "So bright, open, and airy. Unlike anything I'd ever seen," she said. Sasse believed that the spirit of architecture had a deep impact on the character of the entire community. "Anything you do here you expect to do in a grand, fine way, and a right way," she said. "There's a sense of quality."

After a few days in Columbus, I realized there was much more to the relationship between town and architecture than Sasse has let on. Columbus is the nation's finest example of how enlightened business people and local citizens have discovered that the place of art is at the root of, not just as the expression of, economic vitality.

Columbus's unique approach to urban renewal has gained national recognition. A review committee for the Department of the Interior enthusiastically recommended a group of six Columbus buildings for National Historic Landmark status, which made this the first group of modern buildings so designated (only one of the six met the standard requirement of being more than 50 years old). And in 1999, Columbus received a national award from the Council for Economic Development for attracting foreign investment. But what's most interesting is how these two seemingly unrelated events are in fact no coincidence.

Columbus is very much a company town. Forty-five miles south of Indianapolis, it is home to 16 large employers, 11 of which are in the automotive industry. Among these are two Fortune 500 corporations--Arvin Industries, which manufactures catalytic converters and other automotive components and employs 2,800 people; and Cummins Engine Company. Cummins, by far the largest corporate presence in Columbus, with 6,300 employees and revenue of $6.6 billion in 1999, makes diesel engines for everything from pickup trucks to cruise ships. It was started in 1919 by a wealthy local man, William G. Miller, and his former chauffeur, Clessie L. Cummins, who was also a mechanic.

In 1934, Miller's grandnephew J. Irwin Miller took over as general manager, and the business began to boom. Educated at Yale and Oxford, Irwin became an organizer for the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, the first layman elected president of the National Council of Churches, and an active Republican. A 1967 cover of Esquire magazine bears his picture with the headline this man ought to be the next president of the United States.

Cummins had always been a socially responsible, forward-thinking company, but under the younger Miller's leadership, this tradition flourished. Cummins integrated its production line in the 1940s, long before the civil rights movement, and chose not to do business with South Africa under apartheid. Miller also became the town's patron saint of architecture, establishing the Cummins Engine Foundation in the 1950s, which would fund the design of new buildings, along with other philanthropic enterprises. His passion for modernity proved infectious. Other private businesses, churches, and individuals soon caught the design bug and followed suit. As almost everyone you talk to in Columbus eventually says, "We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us." It's a favorite quote of Miller's, from Winston Churchill.

Irwin Miller is now in his nineties and retired. He and his wife, Xenia, divide their time between Florida and the Columbus home built for them by Eero Saarinen (one of Saarinen's only residential projects). So it was Irwin's son Will who explained the genesis and growth of the town's architectural program. A tall, easygoing, polished man, by local repute his father's equal as a corporate and community leader, Will was also president of the other family business, the Irwin Financial Corporation, and served on the Cummins board, the foundation board, and the Economic Development Board.

It was, Will explained, his father's mother, Nettie Irwin Sweeney Miller, who first courted Eliel Saarinen to design a new First Christian Church after the Boston architect originally hired suffered a nervous breakdown and abandoned the commission. Friends of the Millers had told them about seeing a building by Saarinen, and Nettie Miller took it upon herself, as a prominent parishioner and member of the building committee, to go to Chicago to interview him. She talked to Frank Lloyd Wright, too, but preferred Saarinen. "My grandmother was really captivated by Eliel," says Miller. "The story in the family is that she said, 'I'm not sure I will personally like what he designs, but I know it will be a great building.' It was a reach beyond individual taste, for excellence."

Saarinen turned down the commission, feeling that churches, as buildings, were never more than a distasteful show of a congregation's wealth and prestige. That's when Irwin, then in his early thirties, traveled to Chicago to change Saarinen's mind. Will says, "My father's basic theme was that this particular congregation wasn't interested in creating an edifice that reflected the glory of the congregation. What was at the heart of this group of people was, as he put it, 'a simple outer life and a rich inner life,' and that concept appealed to Saarinen."

Will Miller explained the unlikely attraction and bond between the small-town industrialists and the European modernists in philosophical terms: "At one level, the notion of modernism as being about finding beauty and elegance in simplicity is a Midwestern notion--and also the economy of modernism, the lack of ornamentation. What appealed to us about modernism was both the sense of simplicity and the sense of value for money, both of which are traditional Midwestern traits."

For its part, modernism found a proper home, somewhere it could grow and flourish as more than a flashy experiment--as a solid part of the dominant culture.

"My dad liked to say that nothing is more expensive than mediocrity," Miller said, sitting in his office at the Irwin Financial Corporation. It's in an addition to Eero Saarinen's Irwin Union Bank & Trust building, and was designed by Kevin Roche. If the addition seems particularly fluid, it's probably because Roche worked for Saarinen at the time the original building was constructed. Will's office is a high open space; sitting there feels like being inside a spiderweb covered in dew at the top of a tree.

The Cummins Engine Foundation, which funnels a small percentage of Cummins's profits to various charitable activities, has paid out $13.8 million in architectural fees over the years, but the program started serendipitously--not with the Saarinen church but with a school. Miller explained that the school board had a terrible experience building a new school that was both expensive and poorly designed. "Dad approached the board and said, 'We'll give you a list of five young talented architects, and if you pick the architect off that list, Cummins will pay the fee.' The board hired Harry Weese, a young Saarinen associate. A year later, school board members came back and said, 'We need to build another school, so can we have that deal again?' The program didn't become a program until they'd asked several more times."

Nearly 50 years later, the program still worked much the same way. Miller sent me down the street to talk to the president of the Cummins Engine Foundation, Tracy Souza, a round-faced woman whose voice was at once extremely precise and extremely kind--the president of a charitable organization who actually sounds both presidential and charitable. "The point is always to find the best architects for the particular commission, be it a school, a hospital, or a park," said Souza. "There's no master list, even though there are rumors that we have one and lots of people who want to get on it."

The foundation makes up a shortlist of four or five architects drawn from informal consultations with architects who have previously worked in town. Then Cummins gives the client organization the list and says, "Here. Choose." The only requirement is that the organization meet with everyone on the list. Cummins has paid the architectural fees--usually 10 percent of the construction cost--of more than 40 public building projects, including 12 schools, a hospital, city hall, a post office, a jail, a park, libraries, public housing, and fire stations.

"The thing is, good design doesn't cost any more than bad design," Souza said. "The fee structure is the same no matter who you hire. It's the same percentage of your budget."

People in Columbus seemed to have figured that out--that architecture is the most accessible high art going, paid for by money you'd be spending anyway. By now, there were enough individuals and corporations involved in sustaining architecture in Columbus that the Cummins Engine Foundation could step back to the role of respected elder.

A volunteer organization called Preserve to Enjoy, which was started 30 years ago to restore historic houses in Columbus neighborhoods, submitted the Columbus buildings for National Historic Landmark status. The buildings include the First Christian Church, the Miller residence, and the Irwin Union Bank & Trust.

Andy Simms, the volunteer president of Preserve to Enjoy, who worked as a broker at Hilliard Lyons credited the private, voluntary nature of what has evolved in Columbus. "In other towns that want things to look a certain way, there are height restrictions, lists of approved materials, regulations you get to control the aesthetic. Columbus doesn't have any need for those kinds of rules."

In his late thirties, Simms was a recent returnee, ready to settle down and raise a family, but talking to an outsider from the coast, he reminisced about his youthful sabbatical in Los Angeles, and mentioned something that sustains Columbus's profile as much as the contributions of corporations do. "Everywhere you go, people are proud to be from Columbus," he said. "If I were from Seymour, I'd say, 'John Mellenkamp's from Seymour!' If I were from North Vernon, I couldn't even say that. But everyone here knows that I.M. Pei designed our library and that he did the addition to the Louvre in Paris. You can ask any third grader and they'll know that, because they teach it in the schools."

Simms believed that kind of pride was what makes people like him come home to roost, to live and work here and give their time to civic projects. This intangible asset may be one of the greatest benefits to the community Columbus's architecture has been, and it's exactly what Columbus's Economic Development Board is busy making the most of.

The rust belt recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the American automotive industry responded poorly and too late to competition from Japanese car companies, was unkind to much of the Midwest. But as afflicted towns like Flint, Michigan, sank into a state of despair and decay, caving to widespread unemployment as factories closed, Columbus dug in and survived. Cummins Engine closed factories and laid off workers just as other companies did, but it also recognized the danger to the community of unemployment, and deployed one of its top executives, Brooke Tuttle, to address the problem. Tuttle had been working as an executive on loan to MIT, studying policy design, when he read a book called Urban Dynamics, by professor Jake Forrester. Tuttle was inspired to write a white paper about what would happen to Columbus if it lost 5,000 jobs. He circulated the paper, and Cummins's then-CEO, Henry B. Schacht, recognized that such a scenario was imminent.

Schacht dispatched Tuttle to head up the newly formed Economic Development Board, whose members included Schacht; the CEO of Arvin; the publisher of the local newspaper; the head of the local hospital; and the mayor. The board replaced the lost jobs by persuading international companies to locate their North American operations in Columbus. "Since 1985, we've brought in 40 new companies and created 8,800 new jobs," said Tuttle. "We have 14 Japanese companies here. We now have three sushi bars." (I stopped at one of them one early evening, and the place is already filled, mostly with Japanese.)

There was still work to be done. "The problem is, the new jobs are $8- to $10-an-hour jobs," Tuttle winced. That's a far cry from the $15-an-hour wages lost in the recession, but in a town where the average rent of a two-bedroom house is $500 and a tenderloin sandwich at the Columbus Bar & Grill costs $2.95, those were still living wages.

Where Columbus currently shines is as a foothold for international corporations. "They come here and take one look at the place, and they can see themselves fitting in," Tuttle said. The Indian conglomerate Tata agreed to locate two new software-development units in Columbus. Hanumantha Rao, regional manager of Tata Consulting, said the architectural culture of the town was absolutely a factor in his decision. "You won't find that atmosphere in any other small town. It has an international flavor."

With Tata in place, Tuttle hoped to attract IT companies over the next decade much the same way the Board brought in light manufacturing in the late 1980s and 1990s. "We went last fall to an IT trade show in Europe, and it was like shooting fish in a barrel," Tuttle enthused. "Come see us in three years."

Indian or Japanese cultural life is not that far from that of small-town America, with an emphasis on home and family, education, and community building, and very little interest, really, in youth culture, mobility, and entertainment. So the virtues of small-town life, combined with a distinctly international physical environment, gave Columbus an edge over the countless other towns that need investment just as much but had less to offer.

There is no easy way to measure how great an impact architecture has had on Columbus's prosperity. But there's a kernel of something valid in the way architecture has given Columbus the pride to keep itself together through hard times and has made the Midwestern value of beauty in simplicity accessible and apparent to the outside world.

In a way, it's an example of the broken-window theory in reverse: Let one window on a street stay broken, and pretty soon the whole street will go to seed, crime will go up, and the area's economy will fail. You could call Columbus an experiment in the superlative-window theory: What happens if you elevate the physical environment? You raise the bar for everything else.

Proof of this lies in the details. Diamet, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi, was one of the first Japanese companies to come to town 13 years ago. Proximity to customers and an available workforce were the primary reasons, said Diamet's president, Koji Yamada, but the character of the town soon asserted itself. His youngest son, Takeshi, was 14 when the family moved to Columbus. Living there affected him so deeply that he decided to abandon his lifelong goal of being a painter to become an architect. "From Columbus I learned that architecture is not about the forms, like sculpture," Takeshi said over the phone from his office in Philadelphia. "It's nothing less than the integration of human experiences through space. That's what Columbus is: It's integrated."

This article originally appeared in the July 2000 issue of Worth Magazine. Some good ideas never get old!