In architecture, it's hard to disentangle aesthetics from the practical. There's often beauty in functional design, in buildings that are built to last. Buildings that are designed with obsolescence in mind aren't particularly beautiful or inspiring — at least not for long. And much architecture that Americans see on a daily basis fall into the latter category.

But Columbus, Ind. is an example of what can go right, if people invested in the community care enough to build it right the first time.

I'd driven through Columbus before, but never actually stopped and taken a look around. It wasn't that I was unaware of the town's unique architecture. Columbus is a mid-century modern mecca for architecture aficionados from all over the world on par, say, with New York or Chicago; it often breaches top lists of design destinations.

But I got interested in making the trek about six months ago, when I heard about Richard McCoy's efforts as director of Landmark Columbus to showcase the town's unique architecture and shepherd it into the future. And he is doing that through a city-wide art installation.

So, in March, when McCoy gave me an opportunity to tour Columbus with him on foot, I jumped at the chance.

That day, we deploy umbrellas, because the rain is steady.

We walk up Fifth Street between First Christian Church and the Bartholomew County Public Library. The church, with its angular simplicity and 166-foot-high bell tower, was built in 1942. The library, built in 1969, was designed by I.M. Pei, one of the world's most renowned architects. And then there's the 20-foot-high Henry Moore sculpture in front of the library, in weathered bronze, that looks like a lost gate to Stonehenge.

But McCoy, 43, isn't just talking to me about the past. He paints a picture of Columbus' future in big, bold strokes. And his canvas, as it were, is a series of events and installations called Exhibit Columbus. This biennial design exhibition will kick off with an inaugural symposium, "Foundations and Futures," in September and with the first exhibitions on display in fall 2017.

"The main purpose of Exhibit Columbus is to make Columbus a better place to live," says McCoy. "To get people to have pride in their community, where they live, work and study. To show that excellent designers are a great way to solve community challenges. And to encourage people to come move to Columbus. So the way we do that is to reinvest in the value of good design. That's a Columbus leadership value that's defined by the foundation."

You might be asking a certain question at this point: What is so special about Columbus, aside from it being a Venus flytrap for architecture geeks?

To that McCoy has a ready response:

"One thing that really separates Columbus is this desire to be excellent," he tells me. "And that in Indiana in particular, this desire to be excellent, is lost in small towns. I think in small towns if you want to reach out and do something that's different, you're told to go back to the middle. People aren't as willing to be challenging and to do things. Where this town is just the opposite; it has this long history of striving for excellence."

McCoy's excitement about Columbus' future is palpable, but I'm a little too stuck in the moment. On the upside, I must admit, Columbus' drop-dead architectural marvels sure look great in the rain. On the downside, my shoes are already soaked, umbrellas be damned. But McCoy is adamant that we go out and walk around, because understanding Exhibit Columbus is contingent on knowing a bit about the town's unique past.

It might also help in understanding Richard McCoy and his passionate connection to the town.

Who is Richard McCoy?

McCoy wasn't born in Columbus, but he is a Hoosier: He grew up in West Lafayette, born into a family of Purdue alums. But he broke with family tradition — his four older brothers went to Purdue, while he did his undergrad in political science and journalism at IU Bloomington. That's where he met his wife, Tracey Gallion.

A stint working at IU's Lilly Library drew his interest towards art and conservation. He wound up going to New York University for a (double) Masters in Art History and Conservation.

At one point, he thought he might work in a rare books library, but his interests soon gravitated toward harder stuff.

"I learned architecture in New York by material," says McCoy. "So, for example, I took a course on stone. It was a course on what is stone; how is it used as a building material and how does it weather over time? And then I took one on metals. So, what's the history of metals being used not usually as a structural element, but more as a decorative element. And so I was able to use the city as a laboratory for those things."

McCoy was hired by the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2003 as Conservator of Objects and Variable Art.

"They basically had me in charge of the care of anything three-dimensional in the museum.  I worked on Oldfields Lilly House," explains McCoy. "I did a lot of work on the Thornton Dial project. I did a lot of work on the restoration of the outdoor sculptures. And so I led the project to repaint Robert Indiana's 'Numbers.' I was involved in the restoration of the LOVE sculpture. I ran a program where we maintained all of the sculptures. I was involved in creating all of the stuff in 100 Acres."

One of the projects was a property that was newly acquired by the IMA during McCoy's stint there: the Miller House and Garden. This is the Modernist-style house that J. Irwin Miller and his wife Xenia Simons Miller built in Columbus in 1957. (You can schedule tours of this house by going to the Columbus Visitors' Center.)

"When that was given to the museum, we helped figure out how to translate that from a personal home into a museum home, developed policies and processes around that," says McCoy.

And through that process, McCoy got to know the shakers and movers of the Columbus scene, something that would become quite useful.

The IMA was in a period of transition. There were four directors during his time there, perhaps most notable among them Max Anderson — who "really put the IMA on the international map in terms of art," according to independent curator Christopher West. Anderson left to become the director of the Dallas Museum of Art in 2012 and was replaced by Charles Venable.

Venable came into his position with a mandate from the IMA Board of Directors to put the IMA on a diet, as it were. Soon after Venable became director, a reduction of staff in the conservation department as well as in general staff began.  

"A number of us were seeing the writing on the wall," says McCoy. "In one of Charles' first talks that he gave in late 2012, he puts this pie chart up, saying, 'We're short five million, right?' And it's this pie chart of the whole budget: It shows that half or two thirds of the budget is staff. ... So if anybody was awake in that meeting, you saw that the layoffs were coming. You had to be blind not to see it. So there were many people who shortly after those meetings were making contingency plans. I was one of them."

An exit south

In April and May of 2013 McCoy started having conversations with those movers and shakers he met in Columbus, including the mayor.

"I moved pretty quickly because I was really excited to come down here and be a part of what Columbus is," says McCoy. "To me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work in Columbus and to be asked, 'Can you help take care of this?'"

He negotiated a work contract with the mayor under the auspices of the Columbus Redevelopment Commission.

"What I came to figure out with the community is that we need an organization that's dedicated to caring for the landmarks," says McCoy. "There's a lot of folks in town who kind of do stuff around it but there's no one just focused on that. That's what Landmark Columbus is doing: It's a voice for the buildings, it's caring for them, telling people about them."

By the time his tenure at the IMA was finished, he had a new job.

"So I started in Columbus, I think the week after my last day at the IMA," he says.

But McCoy hasn't severed his ties to Indianapolis. He lives with his wife and three children in the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood. (His wife Tracey works as an art teacher at the Orchard School on Indy's Northside.) It's a commute on the longish side, but McCoy doesn't mind. Sometimes he'll even take a call on the way down or up.

"To me the drive isn't a big deal," McCoy says. "To me, it reminds me that of any of outer donut circles to Indianapolis, Columbus is the closest."

As for family activities, sometimes the McCoy family goes to Indianapolis Indians baseball games, sometimes they go camping. Occasionally, McCoy takes really, really long runs, one of which he documented in "Run This Town," a personal essay that he wrote recently for the Indianapolis-centric web mag No Mean City. He's written other essays and articles for Art 21 and Pattern, among others, about aspects of art and architecture in Indianapolis, Columbus, and farther afield — including one curatorial trip to Lagos, Nigeria.

You can also see him occasionally as a talking head on Sarah Urist Green's weekly PBS Digital Media production The Art Assignment. Urist Green is McCoy's friend and fellow castaway from the IMA. (Green, contemporary art curator at the IMA until 2013, lives with her husband John Green — author of The Fault in Our Stars and other young adult novels — in Indianapolis.)

Although she is not on the Advisory Board for Landmark Columbus, which includes Indy-based Jeremy Efroymson, McCoy occasionally asks Green's advice on the project, based on her experience with her curating outdoor exhibitions like those at 100 Acres.

"Richard has a deep understanding of his area of expertise," says Green. "He's a conservator, and that takes a tremendous amount of education and years of training. But he's also a populist. A lot of people, the farther along they get in their area of study, the more narrow they become.

What I really admire about Richard is that he's able to simultaneously focus on details and developing something well while also keeping in mind the ultimate goal which is to make not only an interesting visual experience but also a physical experience for people. And to think creatively about an historic place and how to bring that vision from the past, in the case of Columbus, into the future. I think he's the right person."

J. Irwin Miller, Cummins  and Columbus

Back to that wet walk: We stop for a moment at the first landmark, a Victorian red brick house and garden with Pompeian accents, walled off from the street. This is the Irwin House and Garden, which today serves as a bed and breakfast.

"This is the home where J. Irwin Miller was born, who is really the protagonist to today's story of Columbus," McCoy explains.

J. Irwin Miller joined Cummins in 1934 and served as chairman from 1951 until 1977. But Cummins Inc. — with which the history of Columbus is intertwined — was founded earlier in the century.

"The story of Cummins begins in 1919 with the Irwin family chauffeur Clessie Cummins writing to Rudolf Diesel in Germany for the plans for the diesel engine," McCoy tells me. "So they create Cummins Engine Co. named after their chauffeur who has a garage where he's fooling around with diesel engines."

Cummins was essentially the family business for Miller, since his banker uncle William G. Irwin bankrolled it.

"It isn't until the 1930s and '40s that Cummins becomes profitable," says McCoy. "For 17 years, it broke even or lost money. It was really World War II, with the diesel engines that were needed for the war machine, that sort of make it into a viable product."

But, according to McCoy — and this is a crucial point — J. Irwin Miller saw Cummins not just as a diesel-powered vehicle to make money: He saw it as a way to invest in the future of his hometown.

Our next destination is just a little bit farther down the street: Lincoln Elementary School at 750 Fifth Street, built in 1967. We stop just under the awning at the front entrance, just long enough to put our umbrellas down and get out of the rain.

"This is now sort of a magnet school within the city; it's a signature academy," says McCoy.

At first glance, an elementary school — however well-designed it is — might not seem like the most interesting stop on an architecture tour. But there's a very good reason why we are stopping here.

McCoy picks up the thread of Cummins history immediately after World War II: In the years immediately following the war, the town of Columbus was booming, Cummins was booming. The Federal Aid Highway Act was passed in 1956 by Dwight D. Eisenhower and interstate highways were being built everywhere. As a result, Cummins engines were in great demand, as diesel trucks were being employed in transport of goods everywhere in the continental U.S. But, back in Columbus, the town was having some infrastructure problems. One of the first schools that was built post-WWII in town is prefab, costly and outdated almost immediately.

So, in 1957, J. Irwin Miller made the proposal for what eventually became known as the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program.

"They have a standing offer for the entire county which says, if you're a nonprofit, school corporation, city entity, library, nonprofit organization, you can apply to their program and if you need to build a building," says McCoy, "they will pay the architect's fees if you choose one of their architects."

And Lincoln Elementary School is just one of the schools constructed in Columbus under the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program using a roster of their approved architects.

It's at this point in our walk that McCoy tells me about the Otter Creek Golf Course. It was built in 1964 and financed by Cummins, then under the directorship of J. Irwin Miller, to the tune of a million dollars.

Fortunately, the golf course isn't on our walking tour agenda — for that would be an awfully long walk — but it's a crucial part of the story to be told about the relationship between Cummins and Columbus.

McCoy: "Mr. Miller hires Robert Trent Jones, famous golf course designer, to create a golf course on the east side of town. He hires Harry Weese, this well-known architect, to make the clubhouse. He spent a million of Cummins' money to do it and then donated it to the city of Columbus."

The dedication speech that J. Irwin Miller gave for the course gained something of a reputation over time.

"This is the speech that my friend Randy Tucker says is the Gettysburg address of corporate responsibility," continues McCoy. "Mr. Miller frames this in such a remarkable way. In short, this was a response to Milton Friedman, who publishes a book in the '50s that says that a corporation's responsibility is to its shareholders. This is just as much a dedication to the Otter Creek Golf Course as it is a kind of response to that notion of corporate responsibility."

This speech seems just as relevant today, considering the February announcement of Indiana-based Carrier saying they would be relocating at least 1,400 jobs from Central Indiana to Mexico.  

After our stop at Lincoln Elementary, we double back and start walking toward First Christian Church. We are, as it turns out, also doubling back in time on our journey through the history of Columbus architecture. This church, where the cornerstone was laid in 1941, is another crucial spot in our walking tour. Not only is the history of Columbus on view here, but also J. Irwin Miller's vision for the future. It was a vision influenced in no small part by his education at Oxford and Yale, where he took a course in architecture appreciation.

Miller's engagement with contemporary architecture in Columbus began when his great uncle, William G. Irwin, was head of the building committee for the family's church, First Christian, in the 1930s. J. Irwin Miller's proposal to the committee was that this building — which would replace an existing church building no longer big enough to accommodate its growing congregation — be built in a modern style.

"It was originally called the Tabernacle Church of Christ and it was located a block away," McCoy says."It was a smaller sort of gothic revival church."

The architect chosen for the project was Finland-born Eliel Saarinen.

Miller's proposal must have raised a few eyebrows at the time, since the original plan was to replace the Tabernacle Christ Church with another gothic revival building. And as for Eliel Saarinen, who not only taught at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan but designed the sleek Arts & Crafts style buildings it was housed in, well, let's just say that he wasn't a gothic revival type of guy.

"At that time he had declined to do any churches in the U.S. because he thought that Americans were too theatrical in their practice," says McCoy.

But, of course, he made an exception for Columbus.

We walk through the front entrance of the church and make our way to the sanctuary which, like the exterior, is all sleek geometric lines; a rectangular space with a high ceiling, and windows on one side, allowing light to stream in.

Originally, First Christian Church had a reflecting pool but that was removed in the late '50s and in place of it is a large courtyard. In 2014, this courtyard was the setting of a "pop-up" exhibition by Columbus-based designer Jonathan Nesci called 100 Variations. It consisted of 100 distinctly shaped polished aluminum mirrors. The mirrors reflect the ramparts of the First Christian Church, much like the reflecting pool once did. This installation was also, more figuratively, a reflection on the architectural style of Eliel Saarinen and his interest in the Golden Ratio as a design system.

"You have these 100 unique tables that are made with a similar design to that of Eliel Saarinen," says McCoy. "This space parallels the space in the sanctuary. You see the reality of the windows; all of the sudden you have this new design in conversation with the other one. All of the sudden it's doing this new preservation thing, where it allows us to look back to 1942, at the same time allowing us to look to the future."

This exhibition took place in October 2014 and was curated by Indy-based Christopher West, an independent curator. And along the way, it got McCoy — and a close knit group of collaborators in Indianapolis, Columbus and Muncie — thinking about how they could help carry the Columbus legacy into the future.

Through that dialogue Exhibit Columbus was born. It's by far the most ambitious program of Landmark Columbus to date.

Essentially, it will take the ideas embodied by Nesci's pop-up exhibition and expand on them.

At the core of Exhibit Columbus will be a design competition. The installations will be slated for odd years with symposiums occurring in even ones. That is, the symposium gets rolling this year, but the installations, the exhibit portion of Exhibit Columbus, begins next.

Imagining what the winning installations might look like will just be part of the fun of attending the kickoff symposium, "Foundations and Futures," which will bring international leaders in the fields of design, architectural history and education to talk with one another and share their ideas with Columbus this fall. Featured keynote speakers include Deborah Berke, Will Miller, Robert A. M. Stern and Michael Van Valkenburgh. You might, if you're checking out the symposium from Sept. 29 — Oct. 1, also check out the gallery exhibit for the designers participating in the Miller Prize Competition.

"We've invited 10 designers to each compete for the five sites [with two designers dueling it out per site]. They're each going to make a design, and then we're going to give one designer an award per site and the winners will be chosen by a nationally recognized jury and local representatives," says McCoy. "The Miller Prize winners will be given a cash award to design, build and install their temporary work at one of five iconic sites in Columbus."  

The five winning installations will be chosen in January 2017.

All of the winning installations will be site specific — like Nesci's 100 Variations — responding to and/or evoking the sites in which they are located. These sites will be the grounds of First Christian Church, the Irwin Conference Center, the Bartholomew County Public Library, Cummins Corporate Office Building and Mill Race Park.

One of the invited design teams just so happens to be the Ball-Nogues Studio from Los Angeles, Calif. that created "Gravity's Loom" at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This installation hung from the ceiling of the IMA's Efroymson Family Entrance Pavilion in 2010 and attempted to evoke the spaciousness and luminosity of the space with their loom woven with 30 miles' worth of multicolored nylon twine.

The five winning installations might lean towards architecture; some might be more sculptural. But here's the important part: Each installation will necessarily invoke Columbus' largely twentieth century architectural history while employing twenty-first century ideas about art, design and architecture. And out of this creative co-mingling of past and present, some new architecture just might emerge.

That is, the conversations inspired by the Exhibit Columbus symposiums and installations may inspire the next generation of architects to design a building or two for the town where the pace of architectural innovation has slowed somewhat from its heyday in in the '50s, '60s and '70s.

There will be an educational component to the exhibition as well, involving installations by high school students from Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation and installations from five Midwestern universities including Ball State University College of Architecture and Planning.

Making Exhibit Columbus into a catalytic converter of sorts — a catalyst for turning dreams into reality — is McCoy's greatest hope for Exhibit Columbus.

Busytown, U.S.A

From First Christian Church, McCoy and I continue on foot to Washington Street, that artery of commerce that runs through the heart of Downtown Columbus, to check out a series of architectural landmarks.  Following that artery, we walk straight up to Columbus City Hall at 123 Washington Street.

Before we reach the entrance of the building, we walk under an archway of sorts: two brick-covered cantilevered steel beams that leap out from either side of the building but do not touch. We walk through the entrance in the center of a semicircular glass façade, facing the street and revealing a two-story gallery.

"It's interesting; the building is now more than 30 years old but it still feels contemporary," says McCoy. "They were interested in the transparency of government then, right?"

We check out the Robert Indiana painting bearing the logo "C" and "City of Columbus" on the second floor of the two-story building; a reminder that the iconic painter lived in Columbus, a town that contained his last Indiana address before he left for Scotland and then the Art Institute of Chicago.

Accountability and accessibility seems to be a running theme in many of the buildings we visit. There's the Irwin Union Bank, built in 1954, which is now the Cummins Irwin Conference Center.  Employing a glass-walled structure instead of the vault-like edifices common at the time was, in McCoy's words, "a radical idea."

It's not unlike the Republic Newspaper building, built in 1971 and designed by Myron Goldsmith, which gestures toward civic accountability not only with a glass façade, but the direction that it was built facing: toward city hall.

And the Cummins Corporate Office Building at 500 Jackson Street, built in 1984, is likewise accessible to the public. We stop inside the lobby and check out the small museum featuring diesel engines including the remarkable "Exploded Engine" by Rudolph de Harak. It's basically a diesel Big Cam III engine disassembled into its component parts, each part hanging from the ceiling.  (The Corporate Office building grounds are one of the five sites chosen for the Exhibit Columbus exhibitions.)

And of course, we can't miss the historic Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum with its authentic and fully functional full pipe organ, imported from Germany in 1908. Perhaps you might consider this an unnecessary detour, since it predates any of Columbus's modern buildings. It is, in fact, a nod to the notion that preservation of pre-Modern buildings is important for Columbus as well.

Making our way down Washington Street, it's possible just by glancing at the mix of people on the street to see that Columbus is a town of extraordinary diversity.

"Cummins, of course, is a global corporation," continues McCoy. "Only 38 percent of Cummins employees work in the US. So there's a huge population of Indians in this town, there's a huge population of Chinese — comparatively — for the size of the town," he says.

But the last thing McCoy would want to do would be to lay all of the credit for Columbus's exceptionalism at the feet of J.Irwin Miller and Cummins. Columbus is a hotbed of creative collaboration, involving many actors, and it's been that way for a while.

Columbus is also a major center for manufacturing — as well as research and development — for numerous other corporations besides Cummins. Columbus is the home of various facilities for Faurecia, Dorel, Enkay and PMG Indiana. The Indiana University Center for Art and Design is also based in Columbus. And the synergy between all of Columbus' various players creates a big city energy — but with a small town feel.

And, as we're walking down Washington Street, this city feels very much like a small town. Just about every time we pass someone, McCoy stops to chat.

The final building on our journey is the Commons, yet another beneficiary of the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program.

And it's another one of those glass-walled structures designed to invite people in. Inside, there's a kinetic sculpture that looks something like a cross between an oversized Rube Goldberg project and the kind of engine one of James Bond's numerous enemies might have designed to torture him to death.

It's entitled "Chaos I," designed and built by Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely in 1974.

On the fourth Tuesday of every month, at 6:30 p.m., you can see this kinetic sculpture vomit out what look like oversized pinball machine balls onto a track and then swallow them up again.

Columbus residents, and anyone passing by, really, can take the opportunity to sketch "Chaos" with pencils and paper provided free by Ivy Tech's Visual Communication program.

It just so happens that restoring "Chaos" — and getting it ready for public view — is a project that McCoy himself was extensively involved in from 2009 to 2011, while moonlighting from his job at the IMA.

Unfortunately, we're not able to walk into the glass-walled part of the Commons housing "Chaos", as there's some function going on there.

I tell McCoy that I'll have to take my daughter Naomi, age 11, to see it.

But the pièce de résistance for the under-12 set, also housed at the Commons, is "Luckey Climber" — bearing the name of designer Tom Luckey — a jungle gym vaguely resembling a ship at sea with high masts. You can climb your way to the top of the masts on a multiplicity of different-colored, curved wood boards covered in netting, each displaying the Cummins emblem. (This logo was designed by Paul Rand in 1962 for Cummins, but it since has been co-opted by Columbus for their own marketing purposes.)

It's at this point that I realize I've seen Columbus before, illustrated, perhaps in that imaginary place: Busytown, U.S.A. This is the setting for Richard Scarry's best-selling picture book, written in 1968, entitled What Do People Do All Day?  

It's a picture of American life very appealing to a five-year-old, with productive little animals driving apple and banana cars past small shops full of busy beavers. Some part of that storybook idealism seems to be alive and well in Columbus.

Anyway, one of the things people do all day, certainly, is eat lunch. And McCoy and I have a good one at Puccini's at the Commons.

Over lunch we talk of his trip to Lagos, Nigeria under the auspices of the IMA. We talk of the difficult world of freelance writing. We talk of the cultural life in New York City, a city which profoundly influenced his world view. And after lunch is over, he's on his way to some appointment.

That's the way it is in Columbus, because Columbus is a busy town, and McCoy is a busy man.

The Case for Columbus

And thus, my day in Columbus with Richard McCoy ended. But I know that I'll be back. In no other city in the country can you see notions of corporate and civic responsibility so tightly intertwined with artistic endeavor. Great architecture is, after all, great art.

But maybe the civic-mindedness of the Columbus citizens who advocated for such architecture is also an art of sorts. Try dismissing this sentiment after taking a walk through First Christian Church or under Henry Moore's "Large Arch."

If you're still on the fence after reading this, about checking out Columbus whether or not you are interested in experiencing the Exhibit Columbus symposium, you just might want to hear Sarah Urist Green make the case.

"There's no small town in America like Columbus," says Green. "I'm not an aficionado of small town America. I've seen slices of it. But, whenever I have anyone visit here and come to town, I take them to Columbus and they're never disappointed."

Managing Editor

Having lived and worked in Indy on and off since 1977, and currently living in Carmel, I've seen the city change a great deal. I love covering the arts in all its forms, and the places where the arts and broader cultural issues intersect.