Alternative Instruments responds to Columbus as a site, place, a history, but also a fiction. Suggesting how places and ideas are interconnected, the Washington Street installations draw parallels between Columbus’ midcentury architecture, European Modernism, and utopian impulses of early American Settlements.

Thomas More coined the term “utopia” in his 1516 novel. A story of a New World island modeled on accounts of European voyages, More’s imaginary “good place” is intertwined with expansionism and colonialism.

Alternative Instruments uses civic design to create new narratives that point towards the future—referencing Americana roadside signs, weathervanes, and measuring chains used by the British to claim territory. Quilts recall vernacular craft, with phrases from Utopia and written in More’s fictional language.

Click to download the Utopian alphabet to transcribe Altnerative Instrument's messages.


Sam Jacob

Production and Fabrication

Brose Partington Studio
Forster Electric

Washington Street

Columbus was first planned in 1821 and platted in a standard grid layout of the city streets. However, it is worthwhile to consider Washington Street between First and Seventh Streets as a site unto itself. In other words, these six blocks constitute a singular designed object. In Columbus, urban design and planning became a more aesthetic consideration during the early 1960s. In 1961, designer Alexander Girard was asked to develop a beautification scheme for the storefronts along Washington Street. Girard, who had already designed interiors and textiles for Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Conference Center and Miller House, proposed a 26-color palette and the removal of excessive signs. Other comprehensive plans were proposed for the area, including SOM’s Central Area Plan implemented in 1983. The latest redevelopment project since the 1983 Central Area Master Plan is called Vision 20/20.

Sam Jacob is principal of Sam Jacob Studio for architecture and design, a practice whose work spans scales and disciplines from urban design through architecture, design, art and curatorial projects. He has worked internationally on award winning projects and has exhibited at major museums such as the V&A, MAK, and the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as cultural events including the Venice Architecture Biennale. He is Professor of Architecture at University of Illinois, Chicago, and columnist for Art Review. Previously he was a founding director of FAT Architecture.

Archinect Next Up: Sam Jacob Studio

Listen now! In partnership with Archinect, the podcast series, Next Up, features exclusive short interviews with co-curators and each of the 2020–21 J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize Recipients.

Watch this ten-minute video by Sam Jacob Studio (SJS), who presents and describes the design concept for their installation, Alternative Instruments. SJS is a J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize Recipient, a participant in the 2021 Exhibit Columbus Exhibition New Middles. This is a previously recorded and archived event, view more on our YouTube channel.

"The question of Utopia is more complex than we often imagine. For example, in order for a Utopia to exist, does it have to erase what has come before?"

— Sam Jacob Studio
2021 Design Presentations