On Thursday, March 3rd, local architect Bart Overly gave a lecture on the Columbus Museum of Art, at the Columbus Museum of Art. The purpose of the lecture wasn’t exactly about the museum itself, but more about how the museum could be redefined as a focal point for our arts community, both from a development standpoint, as well as a cultural standpoint.
We recently spoke with part to find out more about his presentation, and to find out what sort of thoughts he has on the Creative Campus proposal presented last year as a portion of the 2010 Downtown Development Plan.
Walker Evans: First, can you give us a bit of background on the presentation and tell us a bit about what led up to the presentation itself?
Bart Overly: The lecture at CMA was sponsored by The OSU Institute for Collaborative Research and Public Humanities in conjunction with The Columbus Museum of Art. It was part of a Lecture Series entitled “The Big Picture” that connects people and work going on at Ohio State with current exhibitions at the Museum. In this case, the focus was on the museum project itself; looking at the Museum as it re-opens its historic building of renovated galleries and also to the future with the expansion project, being designed by Michael Bongiorno and Design Group.
The lecture itself was titled “Spin-Off: The City around the Museum” and focused on the opportunities for CMA to, in a way, help curate the efforts of a literally explosive group of arts initiatives that find a home base in Columbus. The Franklinton Arts District, Wonderland, Bureau for Open Culture, The Jefferson Center, Ohio Arts Council, I could go on.
On the renovation in particular, I was really struck by the transformation of the Museum’s Derby Court, where an elevated floor level (giving the Museum more space for an Innovation Lab below as well as better accessibility) joined with a nearly ‘not-there-at-all’ skylight (replacing the heavy coffered skylight ceiling) has the effect of pushing visitors up and into the city again. We know that museums and their particular collections help to define cities, and to me it’s a symbolic moment of the Museum to come, which is more open and connected to the city.
I compared this new presence to Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut, which for him was an extension of his life as a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The Glass House acted as a curator of the landscape and the follies Johnson constructed around the estate; the “very expensive wallpaper” that you experienced from within. It also was the curatorial site of the discussions, collaborations, and products of the people who would visit Johnson there: Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, and on and on. So to collect, curate, and disseminate all of the creative energy in the city, Columbus needs its own idea of The Glass House, and to quote David Byrne, this idea of the creative campus with a glass room in the middle of it “Must be The Place.”
WE: Do you think the focus on this “Creative Campus” idea is important to the redevelopment of Downtown Columbus?
BO: In the lecture I catalogued great museums and their place in the cultural context of their cities. Columbus is one of those interesting cities where an existing affiliation with a respected art school (CCAD) mixed with other nearby institutions (Columbus State and Franklin University, AIA Columbus’ Design Center) helps to strengthen the idea of a ‘creative campus.’ I also think Columbus has a long history of creative business and industry, so the Museum’s place on East Broad Street, in the midst of a ‘business campus’ of insurance companies and other corporations, sets up an interesting collaborative challenge. Many of the nearby businesses are patrons and supporters of CMA, and it is these same businesses and industries that increasingly find themselves needing to become more inventive about what they do (and how they present themselves) as a means of survival.
WE: There certainly is a lot of interesting potential at that junction between the business campus and creative campus, and yet, Downtown has been slow to re-emerge and re-develop. What is currently holding things back?
BO: If anything, I think it is assembling a group of people, made from many arts disciplines and stakeholders to sit down together, in one room (maybe CMA’s new Glass House?) and expand on a general program for the kinds of additions and new amenities the campus would need, and imagine how its boundary would expand over time. MSI did a great job in starting that ball rolling in a visual sense, and I think they got a lot of new input via the public sessions that followed the release of the 2010 Strategic Plan. But we have twelve ideas that came from that plan, and a next step would be getting the right group to focus on one at a time.
WE: Which partners do you think have the biggest roles in the Creative Campus, and what do you think their roles should be?
BO: The Museum, CCAD, and The Design Center as Curator.
Visionary Architects, Landscape Architects, Developers, and Emerging Creatives as Artists.
The Greater Columbus Business Community as Patron and Benefactor.
Columbus Citizens and Visitors as Active Members.
WE: Do you think this portion of Downtown has specific advantages or opportunities that other areas might lack?
BO: For one, it has room to grow and expand. It’s amazing how much land in the downtown core is currently used for surface parking, some right on Broad Street. Parking just should not be an acceptable solitary land use in a city of our size any longer, but in a way it has made a reservation for this new space to be made.
A second major advantage is proximity to people working and increasingly living and entertaining themselves downtown. The Museum’s back door (really, its front door in terms of arrival) is Gay Street, which we know has undergone a significant transformation over the last ten years.
A third advantage might be the infrastructural projects planned or imagined near the site. The transformation of the 70/71 Split, if carried out as planned, will better connect downtown to everything east of 71. The sporadic discussion of re-introducing pedestrian boulevards to Broad Street is another piece of this infrastructural advantage; both concepts could be threaded together, around discussions of a “creative campus,” to make an arts infrastructure better connecting the Museum to the City.
WE: What steps do you think will be necessary in turning these ideas into reality, and how creative will that process have to be?
BO: We did a somewhat tongue-in-cheek conceptual study last year that showed how Chase’s Business Center at Polaris, employing roughly 6,000 people, could be reconfigured into a tower downtown that would be as high as Chicago’s Hancock Tower. That tower could make a lofty perch for a relaunch of The Kahiki, a famed East Broad Street Polynesian Restaurant that was torn down in 2000 to make way for a Walgreen’s.
In some ways, I think that reinventing or reallocating some of the city’s resources to this place will be necessary to concentrate it as an arts destination. I think it would be incredible to wake up in Columbus 2025 and travel (and let’s say, walk) along an arts boulevard from our office in Franklinton, past COSi and the riverfront, and arriving at CMA/CCAD. The concept of “the creative campus” can expand over and help to redefine an entire infrastructural, connective corridor through Columbus.
WE: Do you think there will be problems funding a collaborative public-private-partnership project like what might be proposed for the Creative Campus?
BO: I don’t think it needs to be a problem. Many cities work these negotiations quite well, including our neighbors of Cincinnati and Cleveland. In Columbus, The Scioto Mile is the product of private-public partnerships.
WE: How do you think the Creative Campus would compliment or contrast with other surrounding neighborhoods?
BO: I might say contrast, but instead, I will argue for authenticity. Columbus has great existing neighborhoods; I live in German Village and absolutely love it (though I wish we could bury the overhead utilities!). King Lincoln, Victorian Village, each has its own distinct vibe that gives the landscape of the city its diversity. But in a growing, progressive city, we have to make new authentic responses to how our city and culture is evolving. In particular places like parts of our downtown, or East Franklinton’s imagined “arts district”, we have the opportunity to define fresh responses to that evolution. Columbus has a group of extremely talented and progressive designers, artists, and business leaders and owners that can make that happen. Look at Amsterdam; new ideas live next to historic landmarks, and everyone gets along.
WE: Have there been similar types of undertakings in other cities in recent history?
BO: In the US, Austin has been doing a great job; its downtown has moved from “not much” to “hot” in a relatively short time span. Elsewhere, I always like comparing what we could do here to Barcelona at various points in its history. in 1888, A small group of talented designers (Rogent, Vilaseca, Dominech, Gaudi, Jujol) talked, imagined, and ultimately engineered a style (Modernismo) that reintroduced Barcelona to the world and solidified its place as one of the definitive global arts and design destinations.
Bart Overly is a Partner at Blostein/Overly Architects, located in Franklinton, and a Lecturer at The Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University. More information can be found online at www.blostein-overly.com.