Indiana University design professor T. Kelly Wilson backpedals down an alleyway alongside the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library building on Fifth Street, with 14 architecture students in tow.
He grabs the shoulders of an Auburn University designer to ease him forward along the same narrow path, leading around the corner of the library toward the massive “Large Arch” sculpture a few yards ahead.
“Two steps forward, and now you’re in the library plaza. Two steps back, and now you’re not,” said Wilson, who teaches the intricacies of architectural design with equal parts humor, intensity and an artist’s keen eye for shapes.
Wilson is a tenured associate professor in the IU Department of Apparel Merchandising + Interior Design, which has established a teaching outpost in offices in the 300 block of Jackson Street in downtown Columbus.
The idea behind his guided tour of the main building at the Bartholomew County Public Library and other key sites was to play off the modern architectural wonders that dot Columbus’ streets and to bring university students from throughout the U.S. to bask in their glories.
Last week, the concept was never more in evidence for the 1-year-old center, known as the Indiana University Center for Art and Design. Roughly 50 architectural students from Auburn and the University of Arkansas spent three days in town and took part in programs arranged by the IUCA+D-Columbus, which Wilson runs.
The students took tours, heard lectures and began work on what could end up being an exhibit of their drawings and reactions to Columbus’ modernistic design wonders at the Jackson Street center later this year.
Cierra Heard, a fourth-year architecture student from Auburn, said the three-day trip to Columbus was food for thought and easily the equal of past trips her design classmates took to New York City, Detroit and Boston.
She said the modern designs the students saw seemed to blend seamlessly into their Columbus neighborhoods.
“The designs were subtle. They said, ‘I’m here,’ but they didn’t shout, ‘I have arrived,’” she said.
Heard said she respects how Columbus has absorbed the smartly designed buildings by such modern architectural greats, including I.M. Pei and Eliel Saarinen, without the gems jarring passersby as oddities that somehow don’t mesh with the notion of small-town Indiana.
Instead, the buildings enhance the low-rise Columbus cityscape, she said, and they seem part of a unified whole, elevating the community’s image.
Heard said she intends to finish her Auburn architecture degree during the next year by working in a rural studio the school has set up in Newbern, Ala., south of Tuscaloosa, to work on low-cost housing projects.
Christian Dagg, the Auburn architecture professor who led his school’s tour group, said out-of-town trips such as these show students how elegant designs can blend into their surroundings and make useful buildings that work.
“We like them to get out to see stuff, not just stay shackled to the computer,” said Dagg, who earned his master of architecture degree at Harvard University after getting a bachelor’s degree at Northeastern University, also in Boston.
“There’s no substitute for being able to stand in front of a project and see all the elements, accidents and aspects of it come to life,” said Dagg, who is a former student of Indiana’s professor Wilson.
Most of the students spent their time criss-crossing downtown, sketchbooks in hand and taking in such modern architectural marvels as the I.M. Pei-designed Cleo Rogers Memorial Library building and the Saarinen-designed First Christian Church, which sit across Fifth Street from each other.
Dagg said some students likely will return to Columbus this spring to do more sketch work and share their insights about the city’s modern designs with the newly created IUCA+D-Columbus program.
The center, which started operating last school year, offers upper-level courses for degree-seeking students in fields such as graphic design, interior design and fashion design.
Wilson said architecture — and the ability to see how shapes and materials relate to each other and the larger community — remains closely related to the other disciplines.
“Quality design is poetry, not just architects vaguely mucking about,” Wilson told the students. “Quality design also comes down to exactness. Six inches matter.”
Wilson pointed to the cut corners and irregular facade of the library building as elements that may seem disjointed at first but relate so well to the First Christian Church building across the street, built 27 years before the library went up.
Finally, Wilson led his pack of students into the street to gaze back from a full city block’s distance at the library’s facade. What once seemed like a meaningless expanse of bricks with no doors or windows was now revealed for what it truly was to an expert’s eye.
The “Large Arch” sculpture fits dead-center in that blank space when viewed from a block away. The bricks seem to take shape as a painter’s canvas, giving the 5.5-ton bronze piece by sculptor Henry Moore a perfect setting.
Wilson said one goal for the IUCA+D-Columbus center is to turn it into a magnet for all sorts of design students who’ll be able to use Columbus as a backdrop for their studies. So far, the concept seems to be a natural fit.
Other student groups that have made trips to town this year include 50 visitors from Ohio State University’s Knowlton School of Architecture and a similar number of Southern Illinois University who visited in January.