Happy Birthday, Eero Saarinen.
Eero Saarinen was born on August 20, 1910, so let's celebrate (albeit a day late) by taking a look at his Irwin Union Bank in Columbus, Indiana.
Located in the heart of Columbus, the Irwin Union Bank is one of Eero Saarinen's most radical designs. Commissioned by J. Irwin Miller, President of Irwin Union Bank and Trust and patron of Columbus' unique modern pedigree, the bank stands as a dramatic departure from the usual neoclassical language of financial architecture. In an effort to reshape the public's concept of banking, Saarinen democratized institutional space by formulating an architectural approach that prized transparency and inclusivity over the traditional images of wealth and power.
Set within a ring of linden trees on raised brick beds, the glass-walled bank is low and unobtrusive as it stands back from the busy corner to create an almost park-like plaza (the landscape was designed by renowned architect Dan Kiley). Best known for its unusual sculptural domed roof and free flowing open spaces, the glass pavilion is thoughtfully woven into the town's existing fabric, a pleasant place to do business. On the interior, Saarinen pushed the boundaries of bank design with his implementation of an open plan emphasized by the daring manipulation of both natural and artificial light. A central suspended stair with floating treads, easily accessible office spaces and teller lines, and the integration of modern furnishings (like George Nelson-designed pedestal desks and Saarinen's own side chairs) completed the architect's meticulous vision for a purely modern space.
In 1973, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo (the successor firm to Eero Saarinen and Associates) designed a substantial addition to the bank. Connected to the original building by a stunning three-story glass arcade, the large office annex is a clear continuation of Saarinen's transparent box. The addition, architecturally significant in its own right, reads as a separate building but still pays homage to the progressive 1954 design.
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. A three-story office building in Columbus, Indiana, by architect Kevin Roche, is an addition to the former Irwin Union Bank designed by Eero Saarinen. Bartholomew County Columbus Indiana United States, 2016. -09-20. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2016631811.
One of my favorite buildings in Columbus, the Irwin Union Bank seems shockingly modern even by today's standards. Just as Eliel Saarinen's First Christian Church in Columbus changed the course of religious architecture, Eero Saarinen's bank design for J. Irwin Miller revolutionized the aesthetic potential of American financial institutions. As part of the city's extraordinary architectural legacy, the Irwin Union Bank remains one of Saarinen's more approachable designs, a skillful blend of the luminescent Miesian box and the welcoming spirit of small town America.
*After an extensive restoration undertaken by Cummins, Inc., the building now functions as a conference/hospitality center.
Image at top:
Eero Saarinen, architect, Balthazar Korab, photographer. Irwin Union Bank & Trust Company, Columbus, Indiana, 1950-57. Exterior. Columbus Indiana, None. [Between 1950 and 1957] Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, krb2008000221.
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