How to Wake a Sleeping Modernist Architecture Giant

Matt Shaw Matt Shaw

Columbus, Indiana is a living architectural museum where you can see one of the largest collections of high- and late-modernist buildings in the country. There are 7 National Historic Landmarks and counting in a town of roughly 45,000 people. So this context — a town landscaped by Dan Kiley and home to over 100 buildings and sites, by architects and designers including both Saarinens, Robert Venturi, Kevin Roche, and John Johansen among others — is ripe for reinterpretation.

A group of young designers, curators, and other arts advocates are trying to do just that, and have launched the Columbus Design Biennial, with an inaugural installation by Chicago and Columbus-based designer Jonathan Nesci. The project, titled “100 Variations,” was installed in the courtyard of Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church.

Curator Christopher West paired Nesci with the church, in the first of an ongoing series of matches. The church is a rectangular, asymmetrical archetype of Finnish Modernism, transplanted into a small Midwestern town. Nesci studied the plans of this iconic building, and designed 100 unique, mirror-polished aluminum occasional tables. Their design and arrangement in the grass courtyard are based on the building’s composition and Saarinen’s use of the Golden Ratio. The tables were manufactured by Noblitt Fabricating, the same firm that was involved with the production of Jean Tinguely’s work Chaos I – also located in Columbus – in 1974.

The forms of the tables not only reference the Golden Ratio, but also the history of the site. The grass replaced a reflecting pool that filled most of what is now the courtyard. In this sense, it recasts the trusty First Christian building in a new way, literally mirroring the golden ratio of the church, but in a series of mass customizable, digitally produced forms that spark dialogue with the rational, Fordist elements of Saarinen’s 1940s modernism.

The horizontal, gridded field of tables is respectful of the history of the building, nodding to the church’s monumentality while maintaining a strong dialogue with both the site and the city. It integrates — both in its forms and its means of production — with a lineage of Columbus which has held up remarkably well via a strong, progressive arts community.

“I’ve used the Golden Ratio to assist in developing forms for more than five years. It has given me a form that I can use over and over again to experiment with new scales, materials, and processes,” said Nesci. “It’s my hope that the installation will for a moment bring the reflection back, reflecting Eliel Saarinen’s work both physically and in spirit.”

“Jonathan Nesci has developed a parametric grid based on the Golden Ratio and has experimented with new materials and manufacturing processes rigorously pushing forms around this near endless system,” explained West, “The tables in 100 Variations are perfectly proportioned around this grid where each has a unique profile and where every point is reasoned within this 3D system. A very similar thread is present in Eliel Saarinen’s work as he looked to the order in these natural geometric systems,” he continued.

This installation is made possible with generous support of the Haddad Foundation and additional support from the Columbus Museum of Art and Design and the Columbus Area Visitors Center. The installation organizers are grateful to First Christian Church and Noblitt Fabricating for their participation and support; to Rick Valicenti, founder and design director of Thirst/3st, for the installation’s graphic identity; and to Jeffrey Bond Photography for the installation images.