Columbus, Indiana: A Modernist Oasis
Located a modest 75 miles from my hometown, Columbus, Indiana is a quiet architectural mecca, curiously rising out of an endless plane of cornfields. The driving directions are simple enough: make 4 lefts, then a right. With my parents in tow, masked up and with pockets full of hand sanitizer, we embarked recently on what was, for me, a much-needed connection with design after months of sheltering in place in San Francisco. For my parents, it was an opportunity to tilt their heads quizzically as I photographed seams in stone slabs, marveled at alignments, and gushed with a schoolgirl’s crush on the brilliance of Alexander Girard.
How does a small town in the middle of nowhere accumulate a continuously growing collection of world-class art and architecture? It all started with a family business called Cummins Engine Company, and an industrialist named J. Irwin Miller. After making Diesel engines for US warships during WWII, Cummins Engines became the leader in the post-war boom, powering the development of roads and infrastructure projects across the country. With a desire to lift the decaying town up with the company, J. Irwin launched the Cummins Foundation. Rooted in the belief that architecture is a means to civic-improvement, the Cummins Foundation would pay for all architects’ fees for new public buildings in Columbus. The only catch? The architect had to be selected from a shortlist proposed by Miller himself.
Through his philanthropic generosity and passion for design, J. Irwin Miller lifted the town through gifts of architectural genius and civic function. Churches by Eliel & Eero Saarinen, a fire station by Robert Venturi, and a library by I.M. Pei are just a few of the highnotes in the city’s impressive collection.
In this short series, I’ll take you on a guided tour of some of Columbus, Indiana’s landmark buildings. We start with The Miller House and Gardens.
The Miller House and Gardens
Designed by architect Eero Saarinen, designer Alexander Girard, and landscape architect Dan Kiley, the Miller House and Garden is a stunning representation of three disciplines coming together in absolute harmony. Commissioned by J. Irwin Miller and his wife Xenia, the home exemplifies the international Modernest aesthetic established by Ludwig Mies van der Rhoe. The flat roof, monolithic glass and stone walls, and open layout showcase the precise attention to detail and mathematical alignments.
For the Love of Grids
Anyone who’s ever worked with me knows my love of grid systems.The Miller House expresses a mathematical precision in such an elegant manner, it’s almost hard to take in. 16 free-standing cruciform steel columns define the 9 square gridded floorplan, centered around a sunken conversation lounge. The orientation of various zones isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it’s functionally brilliant. Cars, guests, the children, parents, service, dining, and recreation all have dedicated zones radiating out from the social center.
Alignments and Artifacts
Second only to my love of grids is my affinity for cultural artifacts. These two vastly different elements come together in sheer perfection everywhere you turn in the Miller House. Seams in the monolithic stone walls track down to the stone floor and run right out of the home where they transition to seams in the concrete pavers. The cruciform columns are on center with a gracious skylight system, and every door frame, window, and vantage point is a masterful composition. Girard’s curation of artifacts, textiles, plants, and fixtures shine in this minimal palace, as restraint and whimsy coexist.
Conversation at Center
The Conversation Pit at the center of the space served a multitude of functions for the Millers. Ringed in custom Girard textiles and an abundance of pillows, the pit hosted cocktail parties, Yale Alumni events, and countless sleepovers and fort building parties. During the winter months, the carpet and textiles were swapped out for rich shades of red and deep earth tones. Such care was taken in making the lounge an enjoyable experience that Girard had the underside of the adjacent piano painted bright red, as it would be seen from the pit. Which makes me wonder…could this be where Louboutin got his big idea?
A Narrative Thread
Girard literally wove storytelling into the home’s textiles. The first rug pictured at right is the first thing you encounter when opening the front door, and it establishes the color palette for the entire space. The abstract pattern is a reference to the cruciform columns, which can be more clearly seen in the second rug, under the dining room table. In addition to being beautiful, the rug is thoughtful in its practicality. The design is most dense under the dining chairs, where the pattern can help hide stains from dropped food and upturned wine glasses. The rug has a seam (which aligns with a seam on the ceiling above and in the stone below) with a concealed zipper that allows it to be removed easily for quick cleaning. It goes without saying that my mom loved this. The third rug pictured is the most narrative in design. Woven into each segment of the rug is an illustration tied to the family’s heritage and interests. A prominent Y for Yale celebrates the alma matter of both architect and client.
Girard’s storytelling through design continues to the dining table. Each member of the family had their own monogram designed by Girard, which Xenia and her friends embroidered onto the seats of the tulip chairs. These personalized touches meant there was no arguing over who sat where at the dinner table, and added a level of whimsy to an otherwise stately setting. Girard also designed the place settings, napkins, and the table itself, which had a lit water basin in the center where Xenia liked to float candles. Ever-so-practical, Girard made sure the water was out of child’s reach, mitigating the risk of all-out water warfare at dinner.
Another functional touch Girard built into the textiles was a color-coded system for each child. The rug in the children’s lounge was a patchwork of colors, each representing one of the five children. A circle of that color was also sewn onto each towel, washcloth, and sheet. Graphically pleasing and surprisingly simple, I assume these dots prevented a lot of finger-pointing over who left their wet towel on the floor or turned a sheet into an art project.
A Modest Master Suite
The modesty and simplicity of the master suite is a reflection of the values of the Millers. A panelized wall system covered in personal artifacts opens to reveal a hidden bar, the room’s only luxury.
Perhaps the best example of the collaboration between Sarrinen, Girard, and Kiley is the layering of spaces at the building’s exterior. Every tree, table, hedge, and sculpture have a relationship not only with each other, but also with the interior. That seam at the center of the dining table, where the water element sits? It runs right outside into the pavers and across the lawn terminating at an antique Roman fountain of the same proportions. Genius.
My Favorite Part: The Garbage
The Miller House is a feast for the eyes. But, you know what my favorite part was? The garbage. Have you ever seen more beautiful bins in your life? Recessed into the terrazzo the three bins are accessible at the front-drive without disturbing the clean lines of the home. Perfectly centered on the seam of the monolithic stone walls…. I could stare at these garbage bins all day long. Now when is the last time… or first time you ever said that?
This is the brilliance of great design.