Soft Civic enhances this civic space as a destination for play, performance, and participation. City Hall offers open public spaces for ceremonies, rallies, and performances in its plaza and along its front steps. This project responds to the remarkable architecture of the building and to the existing activity on the site to make it a more visible destination for civic gathering throughout different times of day and through the changing seasons. Seating structures and platforms create multifunctional structures enabling multiple scales of activity to happen simultaneously. The project is created with custom-fabricated steel structures, which are woven with colorful rope or parachute cord.
Bryony Roberts Studio is an architectural design practice that creates projects in response to complex cultural histories and urban conditions. Founder and principal Bryony Roberts argues for greater exchanges between the fields of architecture, art, and preservation in order to develop new modes of creativity in relation to historical sites. She uses design to bring attention to overlooked social histories and to make intangible heritage vivid and accessible to contemporary audiences. This work involves close collaboration with communities who are seeking to preserve and sustain their own histories, as in the exhibition and performance project “Marching On,” with Mabel Wilson and the Marching Cobras, commissioned by Storefront for Art and Architecture with Performa 17. Roberts’ work has earned numerous awards, including a Rome Prize in Historic Preservation in 2015-2016 at the American Academy in Rome and the Architectural League Prize of 2018.
Image Credits: "We Know How to Order," Bryony Roberts and the South Shore Drill Team; photo by Andrew Bruah. "Marching On," Bryony Roberts and Mabel O Wilson; photo by Miguel de Guzman.
Like the all-important corner of Fifth and Washington Street, the central square in downtown Columbus has always been a vital part of the city's development. This is demonstrated, for example, by Isaac Hodgson's Bartholomew County Courthouse and by Myron Goldsmith's Republic Newspaper Building—the first, a project that was necessary to the creation of an administrative center for the city at its inception; the second, a project that came about partly because of the establishment of the Columbus Redevelopment Commission in 1966. Previous sections have touched briefly on the Commission's decision to invite Skidmore Owings & Merrill to propose an expansive masterplan, a decision that not only resulted in the construction of Goldsmith's Republic Newspaper Building, but that also involved another building that would play a pivotal role in the reimagining of the city: Charles Edward Bassett's Columbus City Hall.
The building occupies a site that always been part of the original 1821 plat. Comprised of lots 9, 8, 7, and 6, the site can be thought of as a square whose northwestern corner touches the southeastern point of the central square in downtown Columbus. Maps and atlases all show that this was an area of slowly-developing residential and commercial activity throughout the decades from the early 1800s until the 1980s. During the 1880s, for example, Lot 9 of the 1821 plat was comprised mostly of houses, apartments, carriage maintenance facilities, and stables. The most prominent building was A.W. Herod's livery, on the southwest corner of First and Washington Streets. Some of the structures from this era remained even though other projects, such as First Christian Church, the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, Lincoln Elementary School, and the redevelopment of Washington Street between First and Seventh Street, transformed the cityscape in profound ways.
To understand the development of this site, it is important to understand the extent to which Columbus is not just a city with important modernist buildings, but a designed city. There are instances from the history of art and architecture where entire city streets are planned in accordance with aesthetic ideals. Both Indianapolis and Columbus are designed. Alexander Ralston’s Plan of Indianapolis features a combination of grids and diagonal arterials incorporating public areas and parks dedicated for monuments—ideas derived from Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 plan of Washington D.C., which in turn has its roots in Henry IV’s Plan of Paris from 1599. In Columbus, urban design and planning took on more aesthetic concerns during the early 1960s.
This is not to say, however, that earlier projects never took aesthetic considerations into account. For example, James Knox Taylor’s Columbus Post Office and Federal Building, on the corner of Washington and Seventh Streets, is not just a neoclassical building, but also a city block reconfigured and landscaped to call attention to the architecture. Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Conference Center, on the all-important corner of Washington and Fifth Streets, featured shaded glass planes that would reflect images of surrounding buildings to people walking on the street. Until the 1960s, however, these projects were exception to the rule. Until that time, this parts of the city, part of the city became somewhat atrophic.
As mentioned above, the Columbus Redevelopment Commission wanted to rethink the spaces around the central square in aesthetic terms. The desire to transform engagement begins in the late 1960s, with Skidmore Owings & Merrill's first masterplan, and continued throughout the 1970s. At that time, SOM's urban design proposals focused almost extensively on the blocks containing the Bartholomew County Courthouse and City Hall, designed by Charles Sparrell in 1895. These were areas that underwent a lot of changes since 1821, often resulting in a motley urban fabric that lacked any kind of programmatic or aesthetic unity. Banks were built next to stables, which were built across the street from mortuaries or tanneries—and all of these could appear in a single block. SOM's masterplans for the downtown area aimed for functional clarity while respecting the existing fabric. The areas just south of the courthouse and old city hall were marked for new civic buildings that would be identifiable as such, while keeping true to the architectural legacy of Columbus. Another factor that led to the redevelopment of this area was the fact that Columbus was home to both city and county services. In short, the city needed a new administrative center that maintained a physical connection to county facilities such as the courthouse and old city hall.
As SOM's managing partner, Charles Edward Bassett was in charge of the redevelopment of this site as well as the design and construction of a new City Hall. Like Myron Goldsmith and Kevin Roche, Bassett also worked for Eero Saarinen and Associates. Bassett's City Hall remains one of the most recognizable in Columbus because of the distinct broken lintel that frames its entrance. In all, the building is a bold, formal masterstroke born of geometric determinism. Bassett settled on a building shaped like an isosceles right triangle in plan that occupied half of a square-shaped plinth. The building’s hypotenuse forms the main facade, an elongated segment that establishes a visual corridor linking City Hall with Goldsmith’s Republic Newspaper Building to the West and with the old Lincoln School (1877) to the East—in effect creating a new civic “zone” that joined government, education, and the press. Bassett sited City Hall as part of a comprehensive urban design and landscape scheme, one where the triangular motif would migrate over to the adjacent blocks. And indeed, were one to bisect the hypotenuse-like facade of City Hall with a line that would continue in a northwest direction at a 45º angle, the result would be not unlike the one found in Bassett’s original presentation drawings. As is clear from these, the block with the new City Hall and the one containing the old courthouse and police station read as two squares rotated 45º and joined at a corner. And as for the line extending perpendicularly from City Hall’s facade, this would bisect the courthouse block and create two other isosceles right triangles. The first of these framed the courthouse, the second, the police station, a building that Bassett believed was “ugly” and should would be “hidden” inside a triangular grove composed of French poplars spaced 50 feet apart from each other.
Bassett remarked in a 1982 televised interview that civic buildings should ennoble the spirit by playing a prominent role in public life. Bassett gave notable examples, such as Eliel and Loja Saarinen’s Sermon on The Mount hanging inside the First Christian Church, Henry Moore’s Large Arch (1971) framed by I. M. Pei’s Bartholomew County Public Library, and Jean Tinguely’s Chaos I (1974) mounted inside Cesar Pelli’s Columbus Commons (1971) as instances where the boundaries between art and architecture seemed momentarily elided. These buildings were distinguishable while being distinguished. They were brilliant formal gestures whose cultural significance seemed to be amplified by their very relationship with the commissioned works of art inside. Bassett’s own City Hall was to follow in this tradition. In 1980, shortly before the building’s completion, Columbus Mayor Nancy L. Brown invited Chase Manhattan Bank’s director of art (and Columbus native) Jack L. Boulton to help in selecting art that could be displayed inside City Hall for public viewing. This was originally to be part of the new Art in Public Places project, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and supervised by Columbus City Council member Carolyn Lickerman, along with Donna Ari, assistant director at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and J. Irwin and Xenia Miller. Boulton suggested commissioning work by artists with Indiana roots, a roster including David Smith, William T. Wiley, Bruce Nauman, John Chamberlain, George Rickey, Don Gummer, and Terence LaNoue. And though Boulton considered adding Isamu Noguchi to this list, the desire to commission Robert Indiana to design a new seal for the City of Columbus had always been on the table. Once the NEA funding was secured, and with an additional $100,000 raised during the “Hard Hat Ball” after the building’s opening in 1981, and with additional funding from the Indiana Arts Commission, this became reality.
To this day, Bassett's City Hall remains one of the Columbus' most iconic buildings. Why is this? Why is the form of Columbus’ City Hall so recognizable in Robert Indiana’s C? The triangular shape is unlike any other, yet Columbus is a city whose signature buildings are all marked by audacious formal gestures. Eero Saarinen’s First Christian Church, for instance, has always been identified as modern because its assemblage of abstracted rectangular forms was unlike any used in religious buildings up to that time. When viewed in plan, the alternating concentric squares and circles that form Gunnar Birkerts’ Lincoln Elementary School (1967) are reminiscent of City Hall, and it is not unlikely that Bassett had this in mind when designing his building. Bassett worked for Saarinen from 1950 to 1955, an experience he claimed as being the most significant of his life before moving on to SOM. A visitor to City Hall may detect a bit of early Saarinen in Bassett’s design. The oversized cornices and white cupolas of Irwin Union Trust Bank (1954) show Saarinen breaking away from the geometric brio of Mies van der Rohe’s designs, and yet City Hall finds Bassett leaving such expressive formalism in favor of something much more iconic. This iconicity is noticeable when considering how City Hall is a building that continues to live outside its site because of its recognizable form. And whether incorporated into the masthead of Columbus’ Republic newspaper or made into a sponge cake for the Hard Hat Ball, Bassett’s triangles, squares, and circles remain unmistakable.
Site History written by Enrique Ramirez