Community's spirit and values shine in its architectural gems

Now and then, amid the welter of grim detail the world calls news, a noble idea is hidden. I found one the other day in Columbus, Ind. The idea, put simply, is this: Fine architecture makes a real difference to the lives and spirits of a populace, and even a small city can have it in abundance. Columbus is not only the headquarters of a pair of Fortune 500 companies, Cummins Engine Company and Arvin Industries. It's also (as design buffs know, but the public generally doesn't) an architectural center of international repute. This city of 32,000 inhabitants has more than 40 buildings designed by contemporary architects such as I.M. Pei, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Harry Weese, Gunnar Birkerts, Kevin Roche, and a host of other luminaries.

How did it achieve such density of design? How might other cities do the same? The man to ask, according to the local residents, is J.Irwin Miller, who was chairman of the board of Cummins Engine from 1951 to 1977. So on a sunny afternoon last month I found him in his downtown office - a vigorous Yale and Oxford graduate who keeps several dictionaries, a Bible, the Columbia Encyclopedia, and the ``Oxford Companion to the Mind'' beside the personal computer and family pictures behind his desk.

The city's romance with design began as a response to some drab-looking ``prefab schools'' built in the 1950s, he told me. ``The company [Cummins Engine] started thinking about it and said, `Look, let's offer them a deal on the next school.''' The deal: If the city would pick a first-rate architect, the Cummins Engine Foundation would pay the architects' fees, which typically run from 6 to 10 percent of construction costs.

Thirty years later, the results are abundantly clear: Not only a dozen schools, but also the post office, the library, the city hall, the courthouse, and a fire station have all benefited from the $10 million that the foundation has poured in. The rub-off on private-sector buildings (not funded by the foundation) has been terrific: The local newspaper plant, a telephone company switching center, a downtown mall, some Cummins buildings, a number of banks, and several churches have all benefited. In addition, dozens of newly refurbished 19th-century buildings are now worth seeing by the 40,000 tourists who trek in each year.

Astonishingly, the idea has not caught on: Mr. Miller has yet to hear of another city where an investment in architects' fees has leveraged such an outpouring of design. Why?

Three reasons come to mind. One has to do with the nature of the community. Long before its architectural program, Columbus prided itself on what Miller calls ``a real commitment to fixing everything that's wrong about the community, particularly at the bottom of the economic pile.'' Community improvement, he insists, doesn't begin in ``a matter of image'' or with a plan to increase tourism, but with a desire to help ``people who are left behind'' through race or poverty. Columbus has worked hard on everything from human rights to teen-age pregnancy: ``We built boys' and girls' clubs long before we ever had a country club,'' he notes.

The architecture program, Miller adds, ``is only the visible part of a multifaceted effort to make this a good community.''

Second, a community needs both a concentration of wealth and an influential individual to carry the banner. That's not hard to find: Despite what cynics say, there are plenty of small cities around the nation with the resources and the leadership to spark-plug such a program.

But third, and most important, a community needs to understand the value of architecture. And that appreciation is sadly lacking in present-day America. Maybe we don't study architecture enough in school - even though it's all around us. Maybe we're too much a home-made nation, descendants of frontier do-it-yourselfers for whom ``design'' was synonymous with ``frill.'' Or maybe we're too caught up in funding social programs to feel we have anything left to give to the brick-and-mortar graces.

But is good architecture a frill? Is it at loggerheads with society's social needs? Not at all: It supports them.

Students of public education, for example, are increasingly recognizing that the surroundings in which students learn are central to their sense of self-worth - and that self-worth is central to education. They know that a good school requires lots more than a building. But they also know that a good building - engaging to the mind and eye, comfortable to inhabit, easy to use - speaks constantly to both teachers and students.``You're worthwhile,'' it says, ``and somebody has cared enough to make a special place for you.''

That voice can also speak out in housing projects, libraries, hospitals, police stations - wherever self-worth needs to be promoted. It's already being heard in Columbus, where civic pride is reinforced every time you walk downtown. Even in our budget-conscious world, it's a small investment - one that deserves to find its way into a number of cities.

A Monday column

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