Behind the design: Architecture symposium draws almost 500

If the former Bartholomew County Hospital had received a diagnosis for layout and design in the late 1980s from one of the nation’s leading architects, it would have been that of failing health.

New York City designer Robert A.M. Stern, who later became dean of the Yale School of Architecture, remembers looking at the hodgepodge of connected wings and sections done through the years by different, disconnected builders.

“It was a complete nightmare,” said Stern, who spearheaded a $40 million expansion completed in 1992. “If you weren’t very sick when you got there …”

His voice trailed off. And an audience of about 500 people Friday at The Commons in downtown Columbus laughed at Stern’s good-natured humor.

It was all part of a lively and down-to-earth panel discussion “Architecture for Everyday Life” that served as the free, two-hour-plus keynote session of the inaugural Exhibit Columbus symposium on art, architecture and design. Attendees included community leaders, business owners, arts officials, students, retirees, residents and visitors.

The architectural focus is significant especially in a city that the American Institute of Architects has ranked as the sixth-most architecturally significant community in the nation. That badge of honor remains a magnet to attract people from all over the country to the small, Midwestern mecca.

Richard McCoy, the director of the nonprofit Landmark Columbus — which cares for the city’s artistic and architecturally significant sites — who came up with the idea of Exhibit Columbus, proclaimed the keynote session a resounding success.

It featured behind-the-scenes detail, construction headaches, shadowing doubts and plenty of design pride regarding three local projects of the 1990s: the Columbus Regional Hospital expansion finished in 1992, the Mill Race Park extensive facelift in 1993 and the Hope Branch Library creation in 1998.

Columbus native Will Miller, a fan of architecture since his younger years and one who has worked with architects on Columbus projects off and on since the 1980s, moderated the discussion with a light but deft touch. Beth Booth Poor, who served as associate director of the Bartholomew County Public Library when its Hope branch was being designed, recalled one planning session especially.

The memory triggered audience laughter.

New York City architect Deborah Berke, then something of a rising design star in the mid-1990s, shared some of her roof designs for the small, 6,000-square-foot facility with Miller back then. He was straightforward about one particular sloping idea that he disliked.

“I’m afraid that one looks like a chicken coop,” Miller told the designer.

As the crowd laughed, Berke, now the new dean of the Yale School of Architecture, acknowledged a moment later that she went home to redesign with her figurative “tail between my legs.”

Berke also mentioned that she wanted to design a structure that blended with surroundings on the historic Hope Town Square yet offered its own distinctive statement and appeal.

Though nationally noted landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh’s plane flight to Columbus was canceled, he sent his regrets in a note that Miller read to the audience.

“The entire town (of Columbus) helped me be a better architect,” Van Valkenburgh wrote.

Chuck Wilt, former Columbus Parks and Recreation Department director now living in The Villages, Florida, near Orlando, reminisced about the Mill Race project during the discussion.

“Ideally, we wanted it (the park) to become as (former Mayor) Robert Stewart called it, ‘everyone’s playground,'” Wilt said.

That meant finding a low-maintenance makeover amid the property’s flood-prone existence, Wilt said.

Van Valkenburgh added Round Lake, an earthen amphitheater, a children’s playground, picnic areas, a basketball court, a clock tower and other features to boost the park’s flexibility and range of use. A segment of the People Trail walking, running and cycling paths also is part of the park today.

The presentations were a hit, with local residents chatting afterward. Some audience members recorded video segments on their cellphones.

But even specialized personnel such as Adam Buente, who operates a design and fabrication studio in Muncie, found that the event touched on practical levels.

“It was great to be able to hear the different sides (of plans) from both clients and architects,” Buente said.

He said the mix of perspectives will help him do a better job working with a variety of professionals.

Organizer McCoy said he was glad to see the human elements of the design process in the spotlight to show the practical challenges of design for everyday residents.

“That’s who we are,” McCoy said with a laugh of his Exhibit Columbus team. “You have to remember that I am not an architect. Oh, we like architects. But, overall, this is a powerful program about community.”

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“This is a powerful program about community.”

— Richard McCoy, Landmark Columbus director, about Exhibit Columbus