The March/April 2023 issue of The Architect’s Newspaper is out today. In addition to architecture news and reviews from across North America, the issue includes features about spaces of play and recreation and a Focus section on wellness. The following Editor’s Note from AN’s Editor in Chief Aaron Seward introduces the issue with a reflection on his recent visit to Columbus, Indiana.
A few trailers, a church, an abandoned school— All that’s left of this freed-slave community.
—Matthew Graham, “Lyles Station, Indiana”
I was in Columbus, Indiana, at the end of February to see the public presentations hosted by Exhibit Columbus when I remembered that for a time when I was a child, I became convinced that my house was trying to talk to me. It wasn’t just my house; it was all houses, all buildings. I never understood what exactly they were trying to say, but they all spoke in a muffled voice that rambled on, just barely audible behind the hum and hiss of the air conditioning. I mentioned it to my parents at dinner one night when we had company, and they took it seriously enough to speculate about what the house might be saying. They were hippies. Later, my dad’s friend Paul pulled me aside and told me that it probably wasn’t the house talking. It was a ghost, or ghosts.
This memory came back to me in Columbus for a few reasons. The first was that if buildings could talk, Columbus would be a good place to go for a group conversation. The sheer quantity of monuments designed by some of the greatest 20th-century architects is astonishing. More remarkable is that they’re almost all public and institutional buildings: churches, schools, fire stations, the post office, the Cummins HQ, the newspaper building, etc. One local resident compared Columbus to Palm Springs, except in reverse: In Palm Springs the architectural sites are all private houses, while in Columbus it’s for everyone. Of course, J. Irwin Miller, the Cummins director who commissioned most of this work, had a nice house in town designed by Eliel Saarinen. It’s one of the nicest modernist residential renditions of an ancient Greek temple that I’ve ever seen, aided in no small part by Alexander Girard’s interior decor. It’s now a museum, though, so it landed as public after all.
The second reason was because of Deborah Garcia’s presentation. A University Design Research Fellow chosen to create an installation for this cycle of Exhibit Columbus, Garcia is a Belluschi Fellow at MIT in whose work, as she says, “the tools of architecture are put to the task of creating interfaces for listening and, sometimes, speaking.” Her project for Columbus, titled Recordar, is a collection of mysterious, murmuring black towers that will stand in the sunken courtyard of the I. M. Pei–designed public library. What will they say? Garcia was still trying to puzzle this out herself, but she had some inkling: The selections will vary “from the intimate sounds of our own voices to the haunting echoes of modernism to the grinding of tectonic plates.”
That sounded right to me, as though Garcia were tuning in to the same building-talk I’d heard as a child. Something else stood out to me about her installation. Most of the invited designers’ projects attempted to make architecture and the urban landscape more accessible, turning something object-oriented and hard into lounge or play space with brightly colored furniture or playground equipment. I see this as a larger current in contemporary architecture, which I call “tenderizing modernism.” (For a good example, read about the recent renovation of Boston City Hall Plaza.) Garcia’s project, however, sails against this current. It takes a high-modernist sunken courtyard and makes it more mysterious and harder to understand, but, as such, all the more alluring.
The third reason was the result of even more mysterious building-talk in Columbus. After the presentations, we toured the dilapidated Crump Theatre, which is undergoing a slow and steady restoration. Originally constructed in 1889, it was renovated many times over the years, most recently in 1941. In peeling back the layers, the volunteer restoration team has un- covered quite a bit of history, not all of it so tender, including a stash of old movie promotional material mostly from slasher and porno flicks. The theater is also notoriously haunted. Many of the restorers have heard old music playing from uncertain quarters of the building, or boot-shod feet clomping across the stage or balcony. The legend of the haunting is promising enough that it has attracted paranormal activity researchers who trekked here to film their investigation of the space. In their night at the Crump they didn’t encounter much activity until they entered the segregated room, up a flight of stairs above the balcony. This is where Black people used to have to sit in the days before the civil rights movement, separated from the whites who occupied the choice seats below. In this room, the researchers’ spirit box recorded voices, those of a child and an older man. They were not friendly but also not menacing. They had a clear message for this curious gang of ghost hunters: “Go home.”