Beyond the normal functional requirements of a community library, Cleo Rogers created the first civic space in downtown Columbus. Wishing to create a sophisticated urban environment that would attract top talent to his company, Irwin J. Miller, chairman of Cummins Engine Company, the world’s largest diesel manufacturer, agreed to pay prominent architects to design schools and other civic buildings; Miller hoped to also encourage local residents to engage quality design on their own. I.M. Pei was the first architect commissioned outside of Miller’s program. He transformed Columbus from a scattered collection of wonderful buildings into a cohesive city by creating a physical center of town that did not previously exist.
Well beyond the library’s program, Pei convinced local authorities to close a city street. He thereby drew together two important buildings: the historic red brick Irwin House on the east and Eliel Saarinen’s early modernist First Christian Church on the south. With the library on the north and a new city hall envisioned across the street, all of these buildings combined to form a major public space at the center of community life. Focusing the whole, like the conductor of an orchestra, is the 20-foot-high Great Arch sculpture by Henry Moore, which Pei commissioned and convinced Irwin Miller to fund. It was the second of Pei’s four major collaborations with Henry Moore.
Native brick was used to harmonize with its neighbors. The library drops in scale to respect the low-rise Irwin House on one side, and steps up on the other side with a raised entrance level in response to the more monumental church. The open interior was designed to offer lots of welcoming reading nooks. Strategically placed windows frame important views, while planted light courts and outdoor courtyards bring nature inside. The building, excavated into a sloped site, has separate entrances at different levels to permit independent use of the library’s multiple functions by people of all ages.
Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Partner; Kenneth D.B. Carruthers, Design Architect
I.M. Pei & Associates