When Modernism Fails

I tend to agree with Philip Nobel’s columns, especially when he is waging war against architectural obfuscation and theoretical bullshit. His ode to Columbus was fascinating, but what about that last paragraph? The ‘thinking problem’ he postulates is simplistic and naive, as if urban planning would have made a difference.

This is more a story about demographics, globalization, and business management—not design. Perhaps it is about education as well. Currently Cummins Engine Company is under pressure as it competes against lower wage industrial companies. As an industrial producer of engines, think of Columbus as Detroit writ small. The failure, or degradation, of Columbus is all about money and very little about design. Perhaps an investment in the best possible education and training of its citizens might have yielded greater benefits.

But I would bet that even if forty years of brilliant planning had happened, we would be viewing the exact same situation as currently exists, alas.

Alan Hill
Alan Hill Design
New York, NY


I regret that Mr. Nobel found his visit to Columbus to be a negative experience however I am left with the feeling that he lacked the proper context to be as overtly critical of Mr. Miller’s philanthropic efforts and the current state of the community of Columbus as a whole. I must admit that my prospective of the community is favorably skewed as the items, which Mr. Nobel chose to criticize, are among the reasons I chose to make Columbus the place to live, work and raise my family.

Yes, Columbus is facing and addressing the same challenges being faced by virtually every small town in America. The mere suggestion that “a concerted program of creative urban planning the best minds focused on the creation of the best space, achieved through the invisible, unsexy means of zoning and finance and codes” would have laid a more firm foundation for the future shows a lack of historical prospective of life in Southern Indiana in 1942 when Mr. Miller’s vision began to develop.

Mr. Nobel’s opinion will soon be a distant memory. From my prospective, Columbus is moving forward, building on the legacy that Mr. Miller established through his vision and generosity.

Scott Ballard
Columbus, IN


Having visited Columbus many times in the past, I knew the changes mentioned in your article were destined to happen. Our culture no longer identifies itself with our built environments, no matter how beautiful the creations. Witnessed in our throw away philosophy, our extensions of economic growth to businesses that really don’t care how much of our natural environment they destroy, and our rush to build concrete masonry “big boxes” that have no lasting architectural integrity.

I can only hope the citizens of cities like Columbus come to their senses and take the necessary steps to prevent the awaiting catastrophe that lies before them like the catastrophe that hit Detroit, Michigan. Our present culture is more interested in destroying than it is in creating and maintaining.

Randy Hickey


The next Columbus to the east—Columbus, Ohio, my place of birth and youth—is in fine condition and recently became the largest city in Ohio with many good areas to work and live. The Columbus I remember had good architecture but not one of Miller’s ethics. The Columbus of now is vibrant with activity and things in which residents of all incomes and education levels may participate with joy and satisfaction.

Jim Teske
Tampa, FL


Columbus was a great place to grow up, not because it miraculously managed to avoid sprawl, drug use, and the thousand other shocks that are heir to Midwestern cities. Among other things, Columbus is a great town because people like J.I. Miller had the vision and audacity to believe that a small town need not imply small mindedness. However, Columbus has been the beneficiary and victim of modernist urban planning as much as it has been of modernist architecture. Where are the examples of the success of “the invisible, unsexy means of zoning and finance and codes?”

Timothy Fleck
Woollen, Molzan and Partners, Architects


It wouldn’t have made any difference if Miller had chosen urban planning over modernist architecture, neither one has much effect on the success of a city. Instead try jobs, stable families, friends, community, faith in God, education, and giving to others. Architecture? Space planning? They are just buildings—not life.

Jeffrey Meyer

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