Columbus, Indiana; Stalking And Appraising An Architectural Mecca

''Welcome,'' says the billboard for a jewelry store. ''Welcome to Columbus . . . Gym Capital,'' adds another sign, supplied by the state. Not quite the greetings one expects to blazon the highway of an architectural mecca.

One looks for signature buildings, not signage, from the city set up as the shrine of design. Isn't Columbus the Land of Oz for architects and architecture? (No Kentucky-fried graphics need apply.) Isn't Columbus the place where gestures of architectural commitment - not dunkable-donut designs - come out of the cornfields?

But no, the feeling is gray and autumnal, even mournful, this day. It is a week when International Harvester's plight has unsettled Indiana farmers, when the cornstalks, braiding the flatter-than-flat landscape in brown and lifeless plaits, seem to match the somber predictions given to the architectural pilgrim.

It is 40 years since the uncle of J. Irwin Miller, patron of modern design, began Cummins Engine Company's celebrated program by commissioning Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church. More to the point, it is five years since Mr. Miller, an ongoing source of Columbus's talent search and now 72, has moved out of the focal point of company power.

The sleek '70s-style main street mall, called ''Commons'' (architecture by Cesar Pelli, sculpture by Jean Tinguely), inspires no urban bustle this rainy day. The striking brick library (architecture by I. M. Pei, sculpture by Henry Moore) probably has no Willa Cather or Edgar Lee Masters scribbling away.

In further testimony to Cummins's economically troubled town (employment down 10,000 workers), the new Cummins headquarters rising on the main (Washington) street still looks like a stilted semblance of its future self.

And yet, like the skulking cornstalks, the changes at Columbus may be more seasonal than eternal: If the architecture is flawed, the place inscribed in the plains, blemishes and all, is alive and lively in many ways.

Entering its fifth decade, Columbus's architecture attracts as many visitors (55,000) as townspeople (30,000). They start their tours from the 19th-century Visitors Center and, briefed by a slide show and armed with a guidebook, head out on buses to the buildings commissioned directly by the company or launched under the Cummins Engine Foundation.

The foundation, as notable as the architecture, pays the designers' fees and supplies the design review for public buildings throughout the town. Dozens of carefully conceived buildings, perhaps 40 or 50 of above-average excellence, now dot the landscape through such means.

Stalking the results of Columbus's talent-seeking (and talent-securing) - here, Edward Larrabee Barnes's handsome Richards Elementary School; there, Eero Saarinen's now cliched pyramid of the North Christian Church - is like stalking and appraising tamed mushrooms amid 200 or so acres of uncultivated growth.

The work by the likes of the two Saarinens . . . by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo . . . Venturi & Rauch . . . Harry Weese . . . Mitchell-Giurgola . . . is token architecture, randomly placed. Yet, its sometime impotence or occasional outright failure makes for a fascinating statement on the capacity, and incapacity, of thoughtful if timebound design to solve the ills and issues it addresses.

This is what has made Columbus so captivating to architectural observers.

But it is the less recorded urban or communal nature of the Columbus commitment that may carry its design ambitions through future decades.

Former Mayor Max Andress, now community relations director for Cummins, portrays the civic side of the design decisions: the renovation of Washington Street, the building of a school within the poorer portion of Columbus, the elderly housing downtown, and the get-togethers in the ''Commons.'' Vital for Columbus are the loans for landlords who would renovate their downtown stores and, especially, the decision to build that still unfinished Cummins headquarters for 1,000 employees within walking distance of the 19th-century main street's shops.

Resisting the urge to be scrubbed too clean (in the style of Pelli's ''Commons''), the street still bears the sign of a palm reader and boasts trim, brightly colored facades, to be relieved of their barrenness, one hopes, when those employees move in.

Miller himself has carved his office into one such vintage building. From there, he crosses to lunch at the Commons ''and sees most everybody in town,'' most days. Miller made the main street headquarters decision, empowered the foundation, and directed the company to become a kind of conscience for what remains a company town.

A slow-speaking, reserved man with an inner dignity as spacious as his size, Miller continually disclaims his patronage and any altruistic purpose for his architectural noblesse oblige. ''It's expensive to be mediocre,'' he insists.

Columbus adheres to architectural, educational, and community values to secure satisfied employees, Miller says. Otherwise, ''You aren't going to be able to attract good people.''

To Miller, good architecture is a process, a ''dialogue.'' It is problem-solving, not aesthetic trend-following. It is something to be secured from the highest reaches of the profession. ''Obviously you're going to make your share of mistakes,'' he says. ''But you're going to make fewer.''

The same statement sums up Columbus.

Nonetheless, the nagging question persists: Has Miller's - Columbus's - message filtered into the life style of the community? Will Cummins's new, more ''managerial,'' less benign or humanistic generation carry on?

One positive sign is the agreeable and elegant, although a bit aloof, City Hall, by Charles Bassett of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; now a year old, it confirms that the search for excellence has become a trust, not just a treat, for many. More generally, the fact that ''just by living here'' Columbians undergo architectural consciousness-raising is a more certain pledge to quality as leadership shifts. (Former Mayor Andress, for instance, evolved from a sports coach to a building buff.)

Whether Columbus will remain an architectural heart in the heartlands is uncertain, of course. But right now, the beat looks likely to go on.

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