Serenity in Steel
Part of Columbus, Indiana’s rich architectural endowment, a peaceful pavilion built on Native American principles—with a nod to High Modernism—is a “wigwam” covered in translucent steel, designed for meditating, that responds to a Saarinen church.
Chris Cornelius designed Wiikiaami not just for a specific place, but also for a specific moment: the autumnal equinox of 2017.
The temporary structure, inspired, as its name indicates, by the lodges (“wigwams”) of Indiana’s indigenous Myaamia people, points upward through a grove of trees toward the heavens. The oculus at its top was aimed directly at the place in the sky where the sun would be at the moment of the equinox.
As for the place where Wiikiaami was sited for three months, it was Columbus, Indiana, a small city that has become a showplace for A-list architecture. More specifically, the pavilion was located near a walkway leading to the very first of the iconic Columbus buildings: Eero and Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church (1942), with its geometrical profile and lofty campanile.
Aiming upward at the equinox, Cornelius was also paying homage to the soaring Saarinen tower—but in most other respects, the architect (an enrolled member of the Oneida nation in Wisconsin and a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee) was honoring the culture and the building traditions of the Myaamia (the “Miami”). For their lodges, they built a framework of bent saplings and covered this skeleton with bark sections. Only Cornelius used industrial rebar and perforated, weathered metal “leaves” welded in place. And he called on the skills of regional artists and industrial craftsmen to realize his design.
The structure provided a peaceful place to rest, linger, and meditate on the leafy green space in which it was installed.
AN ARCHITECTURAL INHERITENCE
Exhibit Columbus is the annual architectural festival that created the Miller Prize, the competitive commission that Cornelius and four other entrants won in 2017. The festival debuted in 2016 as a culmination of 70 years of architectural excellence in this town of 46,000 people. It mixes symposia on architecture with interactive installations downtown—but the central focus is on the five Miller Prize winners.
The town’s remarkable wealth of major architecture began with the Saarinen church, commissioned by a group of prominent local citizens—with the emphatic advice of one of their young relatives, J. Irwin Miller, who had taken an architecture course at Yale. Modernism, not neo-Gothic, was the way to go, he insisted.
Years later, Miller had become head of Columbus’s dominant corporation, the Cummins Engine Company, but was still passionate about architecture. The industrialist created a foundation to subsidize public buildings in Columbus, with the stipulation that the architects be chosen from a short list of major ones provided by the foundation. The results were works by the Saarinens, I. M. Pei, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, and many others—and in 1991 a ranking by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as the sixth most significant architectural city in America, just behind Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.
“MAYBE THE MOON HAD TO PASS IN FRONT OF THE SUN FOR THIS PIECE TO BE THERE.”
A CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS CORNELIUS
Public Art Review’s Jon Spayde talks with the artist.
Chris, where did the idea for Wiikiaami come from?
My background is Native American, and in my business, studio:indigenous, I mostly work with Native clients. So I wanted to address the people who were indigenous to that area and their traditional dwellings—and have the work reflect that.
What did you see in the Myaamia structures that was most interesting for you?
Well, when we make a structure out of wood, we usually cut up a bunch of trees into pieces and put all of the pieces together. But the Myaamia simply cut down saplings that could be bent, and bent them over and connected them to make this dome structure. This instead of putting together a bunch of columns and beams. They reduced the number of connections, and that interested me.
You used rebar and steel, though.
Right. What I didn’t want to do was make any kind of replica. I think to advance our awareness of Native culture, we need to make contemporary statements about it.
I chose rebar, which reinforces concrete, because it’s kind of everywhere, and it’s still part of a tradition of handwork—iron workers still tie the bars together by hand. There’s a connection there for me with how the wigwam was made. And as for having the panels made of metal—I wanted them to weather and change throughout, to rust. Normally we don’t want buildings to rust, but since this was going to remain on-site for just three months, I let nature take its course.
A group of really great craftsmen in Indianapolis called Ignition Arts fabricated the panels for me after my initial panel contractor completely let me down. And people from Faurecia, a Columbus manufacturer of auto seats, volunteered 600 hours to the project. They’re expert welders and they contributed so much.
How did you hope the structure would be used, and how was it actually used?
I didn’t want it to have a prescribed use. There were various events programmed for it, including a dance piece by an Indianapolis company. But I mainly wanted it to have a mysterious quality that would change how you saw the land. When you’re outside it and there’s a lot of light striking it from outside, it looks opaque. When you see it from an angle at which the sun is shining through it, it looks almost transparent. I mostly wanted it to be a sort of device for seeing nature, for people to look at the trees and at the church, while feeling protected within the space.
Any big problems to overcome?
Oh, yes. Here’s one of many. The steel didn’t actually get delivered till August 21, a Monday, and it needed to be done for the press preview on Thursday. We finished it an hour after the press preview started! Working almost night and day.
And, you know, the 21st was the day of the total solar eclipse. I think of coincidences like that as part of how nature works; as I said in my speech accepting the award, maybe the moon had to pass in front of the sun in order for this piece to be there.
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