You've seen it in Columbus. But does it live up to the hype? #4 on my Columbus countdown- the Irwin Union Bank.
Constructed in 2006, the Irwin Union Bank (now First Financial) may be a bit of a surprising pick coming from a historian. And initially, I did feel a twinge of disappointment as I plodded through a nondescript commercial strip to reach the bank's front entrance. After a day filled with several Saarinens, a Pei, and a few Weeses, the small beige box did seem a bit underwhelming. But as I walked around the corner, it all made sense. Here, the modest suburban bank transformed into something really sublime, a stunning sculptural object rising above the banality of its sprawling surroundings.
Located on a stretch of road outside of Columbus' downtown core (and away from its most recognizable landmarks), the Irwin Union Bank might just be Deborah Berke's (founder of New York-based Deborah Berke Partners and the Dean of the Yale School of Architecture) most recognizable project. Utilizing minimal forms, precise proportions, and maybe the best signage you've ever seen, the building is just one in a string of innovative designs commissioned for the now-defunct regional bank (think Eero Saarinen's Irwin Union Bank). With a rather unlikely location (next to a Walmart) and a limited budget, the simple bank building offers proof that even the smallest project can make an ambitious statement. It is both practical and provocative, a design driven by the desire to be visible.
The bank is composed of two rectangular volumes set perpendicular to each other in a composition that shifts depending on one's approach. Perched above a subdued brick base, a translucent box made of structural channel glass faces the road to define the bank's form, its daring signage easily readable. Functioning as a canopy for the drive-through during the day and a glowing beacon at night, the hovering bridge keeps the small structure from getting lost in the shuffle of suburban sprawl. In a defiant display of roadside commerce, the bank's glass box acts as both sign and sculpture.
In her design for the Irwin Union Bank, Deborah Berke elevates the everyday into something rather extraordinary. Her design exhibits a restrained (and compelling) modernism that seems striking in its context and remarkable in its pragmatism. In a place full of fascinating buildings, the quiet bank is a transformative masterpiece and a worthy successor to the town's earlier generation of landmarks. It is also evidence that a distinctively humane modernism can exist. Even next to a Walmart Superstore.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.