Cummins Inc.’s corporate office building covers three downtown city blocks and holds close to 800 employees, including the top-level executives of the multibillion-dollar global enterprise. However, in contrast to the typical corporate citadels — think Eli Lilly and Co. in Indianapolis or General Motors Co. in Detroit — which project power through size and intimidation — Cummins’ base of power blends into its surroundings.
The white concrete pillars at the trellised entrance are covered by ivy. Its modernist glass facade beckons visitors inside. Its height, capped at two stories, fits in with the rest of the cityscape. A few yards from the headquarters’ main entrance, a quasi public park beckons with benches, trees, a pond and fountains.
Cummins’ growth in the late 1970s prompted its leaders, including the late J. Irwin Miller, to pursue construction of a new corporate office in downtown Columbus.
The office needed to be big enough to hold 800 employees, but Miller and architect Kevin Roche, inspired by the needs of the post-industrial workforce, wanted to move away from the traditional large structures that projected power through height and the thickness of walls.
So instead of building a weighty high-rise, Roche decided to cap the structure at two floors to make sure it blended in with the other buildings in the city’s center.
“The one thing I wanted to achieve (was) that it wouldn’t stand out,” Roche, 91, said last week. “I felt that it should be a low-key building.”
Roche said that both he and Miller felt that the new building should not give Cummins an even more dominant presence in downtown Columbus than it already had.
“I really wanted to cool that down for a little bit,” Roche said.
In essence, Miller and Roche looked at a new office building as a continuation of the city itself, said Alex White, an architect and Cummins’ director of architecture and workplace planning.
Roche and Miller knew that in the post-industrial era, Cummins needed knowledge workers to think about areas such as finance, marketing and engineering and wanted to design a building that would accommodate this new batch of employees in a comfortable and supportive environment, White said.
But capping the structure’s height required spreading the design lengthwise, over three city blocks on an old rail yard. It took some effort to convince people that the building should occupy the entire site, Roche said.
Rail wagons had serviced the Cerealine building, a red brick structure dating to the late 19th century, the location of which proved an additional challenge for Roche.
Cummins officials wanted to preserve the building, because it had played a significant role in the company’s history, so Roche designed the new corporate office building around the Cerealine building, essentially hollowing out the new building’s eastern midsection.
“I was very pleased we could save the Cerealine building,” Roche said.
But rather than surrounding the Cerealine building in straight lines, Roche created a rather unusual shape. The building’s western exterior wall is essentially a straight line north to south, but the building’s eastern wall initially moves west at a right angle and then zigzags north and west again at right angles before sections with even sharper angles jut out toward the east like the teeth of a saw.
The angles allowed Roche to maximize the area of the glass exterior, which provided employees with natural light and views of the central courtyard.
On the first floor, Roche designed meeting rooms along the exterior walls, while the wide-open central area is dominated by concrete columns that reach all the way to the building’s roof. The second floor is but a mezzanine with executive offices along the exterior walls and only walkways crisscrossing above the central workspace area.
The building today also has many cubicles on the second floor, but White said that’s less by design and more a function of a company suffering through space constraints brought on by significant growth.
Roche said that at the time he designed the building commercial versions of workspaces were not available, and he designed several desks and desk arrangements himself and produced full-size mock desks to present to the company’s leaders.
Roche said he and Cummins leaders had a great interest in figuring out how to house a lot of people in close proximity while at the same time providing them with enough privacy to do their work.
The mezzanine, meanwhile, serves as an elevated highway to move quickly through the building, while at the same time offering opportunities for chance encounters and spontaneous interaction.
The ground floor of the Cerealine building now functions as the kitchen. The old building’s windows have been removed on this floor only, providing a more direct access to the modern cafeteria that encloses the “sentimental heart of Cummins,” as White called it.
Roche and Miller had known each other from prior projects. For example, Roche had helped Eero Saarinen design Miller’s home in the 1950s. Just south of the Cummins corporate office, he also had designed the Columbus Post Office in 1969, for which he had taken a different approach, in that he wanted its thick walls to convey the power of the federal government.
Despite the stark contrast to the Cummins office building, the post office arcade walkway, supported by columns, shows a connection to the entrance of the Cummins building, whose ivy-covered columns continue along the park area on the east side.
At the building’s southeastern end, the arcade leads directly into the main entrance, beyond which the wood block floor in the lobby mimics manufacturing floors, White said. That floor evokes the company’s history and heritage and provides a fitting backdrop to display for guests and customers the company’s products, including mounted engines, old vehicles and the museum centerpiece: the exploded diesel engine sculpture of Rudolph de Harak.
The sculpture shows an engine block suspended by wires in midair, with all the engine parts also held up by wires, but arranged detached from and around the central block, as if someone had stopped time just after the engine “exploded.”
Roche is one of four Pritzker Prize-winning architects who have designed buildings in Columbus. The prize honors “a living architect/s whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.” Roche won his prize in 1982.