Alternative Instruments attempts to respond to Columbus as a site, place, a history but also a fiction. It recognizes the achievements of mid-twentieth-century history of Columbus, driven by J. Irwin Miller’s belief in the ability of architecture and design to improve the life of its citizens. His ambition recalled both the earlier European Modernist project and the utopian impulse of early European settlements in America.
Yet Utopia itself is bound up with European expansionism and colonialism. The novel Thomas More published in 1516— that coined the term “utopia”—was itself styled as a travelogue. His story of a fictitious New World island was modeled on the accounts of European voyages. More’s imaginary “good place” and the visionary ideas of communitarian life it expresses are intertwined up with the history of colonialism.
The design proposals for Washington Street respond to this dual history. They add a new layer of civic design to the city. These are formed by combining multiple references: The original maps from More’s book, as well as the Utopian alphabet that it also contained. It takes references from typical Americana roadside signs as well as more ancient communication devices like weathervanes. Its symbols include the measuring chains used by the British to claim territory. Quilts (recalling the vernacular traditions of the US) with phrases taken from Utopia (and written in Utopian) will be hung along the street. Familiar, optimistic yet also explicitly alienating. Symbolism from sailing ships combines with Venturi and Scott Brown’s study of Las Vegas. Neon and gold leaf are used together, bridging multiple civic design languages. Robert Indiana is translated into Utopian, Henry Moore is remade as a backlit sign.
The project aims to make present how histories of place are interconnected. It aims to acknowledge how central narratives are to the ways in which (and for who) we design. It uses design to excavate and propose new narratives that can help shape how we imagine the future.
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.