Though I’m a Mid-Western American girl I’d never heard of Columbus, Indiana, until an architect told me about it when living in Florida. What I excitedly discovered upon my two visits there was why the AIA lists itamong the top 10 US cities for best architectural innovation and design. Most people think Chicago (which is, fortunately, my home town), San Francisco, Savannah, Boston, and of course, New York.
Columbus, Indiana, is likely known as the home to Cummins Engine Company, which designs and manufactures many types of engines. Its population doesn’t sparkle at 39,000, but its buildings, designed by the grandest names in international architecture, dazzle. Among them is my favorite American building, a building that would have made me cry had people not been around when I first visited in 2007: Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church.
Balthazar Korab, who worked as an architect in Saarinen’s office and later gained renown for his architectural photography, wrote in his book Columbus Indiana, “While he was working on the design, he wrote the congregation that he wanted to make a great building… ‘so that as an architect when I face St. Peter I am able to say that out of the buildings I did during my lifetime one of the best was this little church’.” (Read more about what Saarinen said about the church.) Tragically, Saarinen didn’t live to see the church’s completion in 1964. It may, in fact, have been the last building he worked on.
From the outside the building’s low roof and 192-foot high spire, not to mention its hexagonal shape, lend a sci-fi appearance. Wide steps lead to the entrances, which feature large overhangs that protect visitors outside yet provide daylighting inside. Inside, a massive pipe organ and altar-in-the-round grant community, warmth. Dare this non-religious writer even say there is even magic….
Dense wood among the pews and climbing up the walls envelopes the congregation. Some natural light spills in from an oculus skylight at the base of the spire. The light-colored ceiling is dimly illuminated via subtle tract lighting at head-level. The ceiling dramatically yet gracefully ascends like a metaphor of someone overtaken by rapture. The common spaces are close but not claustrophobic, and the effect warms the visitor. Slightly twisting stairwells are like hands gently beckoning visitors further into the church, and details abound, giving church-goers something this-worldly to ponder.
National Geographic Traveler ranked Columbus as America’s most significant historic place based on its architectural heritage. The city boasts more than 70 buildings by noted modern architects—such as I. M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, and Harry Weese. The city also features public art by internationally renowned architects and artists.