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Follow This, Speakers, TEDxColumbus

[by Kendra Hovey]

At TEDxColumbus, Michael Bongiorno led us down to the subway, up to the train tracks, across the bridge and inside the cloverleaf so we could see what we usually don’t: the residual and overlooked spaces of urban life. He not only got us to look, but also to re-imagine:

What could this be that it isn’t today?

Ask this question and an abandoned mill can be a concert hall and a BMX track, a silo a scuba tank, and a city can be more than “good enough,” it can be great—healthy, vibrant, exemplary. Columbus, says the architect, principal at the DesignGroup and all-around civic enthusiast, is positioned to be that city. From his campaign to have Columbus designated a UNESCO City of Design to his contributions to the cityscape—the Grange Insurance Audubon Center is just one example—Bongiorno’s been busy turning potential into reality.

In the months following his TEDxTalk, the idea of the “Overlooked” has picked up some steam; it will be the theme of Design Weeks 2013, the city festival, part of idUS, promoting and celebrating local design (the “s” added to reflect what is now a month, rather than week, long event). Also, in late January, the Columbus Museum of Art unveiled plans for the final phase of its renovation project. The expansion and added wing is the work of the DesignGroup, with Bongiorno as Lead Designer and, when necessary, Lead Duck. (…more on that below.)

Eager to get a closer look at the Museum project and also to find out more about the infusion of energy around the overlooked, we recently interviewed Michael Bongiorno. He is originally from Brooklyn—“not the Brooklyn of hipsters and irony,” as we know from his talk, “but the Brooklyn of The Warriors”—so, first, we asked him about his connection to Columbus…

“I have lived in Columbus for about 21 years and I’m not leaving anytime soon. I love it here. I came here because of work and because it was a growing university town.”


“Overlooked,” the theme of your TEDx Talk, is also the theme of Design Weeks 2013 (which you co-founded). Can you tell us how that decision came about?  
Actually, I can’t take credit for making that connection. My wife and Design Week co-founder, Sarah [Bongiorno] and one of my Design Week co-planners, Stephanie Hayward, both came up with the idea at the same time. Our core planning just started running with it…well, maybe jogging. The important thing to note is that Sarah and Stephanie both saw my TEDxTalk, were inspired by it, it ignited an idea in their minds, and they wanted to build upon it…which meant it truly embodied the notion of an “idea worth spreading.”

What will it mean, in terms of events, speakers, location, etc., to have “overlooked” as a theme?  First, without letting the cat entirely out of the bag, we are planning a Design Weeks signature program (similar to the Ideabook project) and asking participants to find overlooked spaces in Columbus and imagine possibilities for them.

In addition, we will be inviting collaborators to host their own events, posing the question: What does “overlooked” mean to you and how can you create an event or program that explores this idea? It could be the physical environments that I was describing in my TEDx talk or it could be about a topic important to a specific collaborator. Our definition of design is broader than just the physical environment: it could be about dealing with the lack of creative thinking in education, it could be about the public transportation void, it could be overlooked opportunities in food systems, etc. The goal is to create a dialogue that will lead to some change in what we feel is overlooked, neglected or wasted in our city, and by extension, all cities and communities.


And, now that it seems people will be looking at the overlooked, what does it mean to you, personally?  
Well, I hope that our citizens, and not just designers, will develop a critical eye toward their surroundings and not just take for granted that the man-made physical world they see around them has been thought through. I would like people to ask tougher questions, expect better than a passing grade, and teach themselves to see. I believe that once we achieve a level of collective awareness about what constitutes a quality environment we will actually achieve some sense of “culture,” in a civic sense. I know that sounds heady, but all great cities are self-aware. All it takes is higher expectations and asking the right question. Just good enough is never good enough for great places.


Can you give us an example of architecture within the city of Columbus that is better than “good enough?”  
I love the new Main Street bridge. It is innovative, exemplifies a boldness of gesture and simplicity of form, it makes circulation understandable and fun, and it provides dynamic vistas while crossing it and viewing it from afar. Simply put, the bridge is not just a way to get from point A to point B; it is an experience.

The Mayor caught a lot of flak for how much the bridge cost, but his unwavering support of this project, to me (as it should be for all of us), was a sign of an enlightened decision maker. Cities have always had and always will have other pressing budgetary constraints and priorities to contend with. But I would argue that great cities, cities we love to visit, have really strong self-identities, a sense of civic pride, a sense of place and know that investments must also be made in the quality of their physical environments – their people places. Great civic, business, and cultural leaders who know the difference between an investment in quality over mediocrity, and have the conviction to make it happen, are what makes memorable cities. Great design does not start with great designers; it starts with great clients.


Speaking of clients, tell us about the Museum project. First off, what is your role and were you involved in Phase I and II, as well?  
I am the lead designer and also a principal in the firm. I would be remiss if I did not mention that I lead a fantastic and talented team that I could brag about all day long. Our firm was not involved with Phase 1 and 2, as those were pure restoration projects done by a firm that specializes in preservation. Although we were well aware of those projects as they were happening given our close relationship with the museum.


Does the idea of the overlooked play out in any way in this project?
Great question. I think the museum is overlooked, in a sense, physically and culturally. While it is a beautiful building, the historic structure is rather small and understated in comparison to museums in similar sized cities. It is also seemingly impenetrable. Therefore they struggle with physical presence: “We could be a library, we could be a mausoleum…”

Physically, they are practically hidden behind the looming mass of the State Auto insurance Company building when approaching from the east. You drive past it before you even know it’s there, which is a problem when you consider the volume of visitor traffic that exits I-71 at Broad heading into Downtown. As part of the expansion project, they wanted to announce themselves to Broad Street, hence the siting of the building in relation to Broad and our creation of “cinematic facades” to engage the public realm on both Broad and Gay.

Culturally, the museum struggles, as many cultural institutions do, with maintaining their audience and remaining relevant to them. It was CMA’s stated desire to create a place where people from all walks of life could come and just “hang out.” Hence, a lot of semi-public outdoor space. The store and café are in prominent locations relative to the entry and surrounding neighborhood. The building design, then, is a reflection of the museum’s ambition to be more visible, relevant, and connected to the community as a meeting point between art, the public and the physical city. In doing so, they are capturing an audience that may be overlooked and that may have overlooked the museum in the past.


Can you share what thrills you the most about this project?
I have both personal feelings about it and a broader appreciation for the cultural implications of a project like this. I felt the burden of responsibility to create something dynamic and of its time, while being sensitive to the nuances of the particularities of the local context. I will say, with a fair amount of confidence, that it will be a really cool addition to the city!

I believe its design is international in sensibility and quality and will serve as a high watermark for great locally produced design. Raising the credibility of local design talent in the eyes of our largest institutions is something a number of designers have been toiling at, maddening and thanklessly, for a long time; I hope this project pushes us that much further along our journey and that our client base will stop reaching for the coasts to get what they can get right here in Columbus.


Are there elements to the design you are especially proud of?  
I think it will start a lot of debate, in fact, it already has and I believe all good architecture should create dialogue. That is the point of living in a dynamic city, and not in a sensory deprivation tank lined with brick wallpaper.

There are so many fun and interesting things about the design that it is hard to name a favorite. Materially, the pre-patinated copper skin on the upper gallery of the building is going to be sublimely beautiful and something Columbus has never seen before. While copper is a durable and traditional material we employed it in a novel way. We have created a unique feature we are calling “cinematic facades” that connect the galleries and special events spaces to the garden and surrounding neighborhood, engaging the public realm in a way the museum has never been able to before. I believe the new entry court and the sculpture garden designed by MKSK is going to be a community jewel. The museum’s new café will open out onto the terrace via a large glass wall that can open fully in good weather.


And what about challenges?
Just how far out to Broad Street the addition should encroach was the single most polarizing conversation on the project. A good number of stakeholders were mortified that we would extend anywhere past the original historic structure. In order to allay everyone’s fears, Museum director Nannette Maciejunes asked us to help articulate the rationale. We created sightline studies that showed how the State Auto Insurance building would block the view of the addition before the addition blocked the view of the central and most important part of the original museum building. That wasn’t enough proof, so one hot summer day we gathered everyone on Broad Street. I asked them to line up behind me and, like a family of ducks, we walked single file while I narrated the approach: “Okay, right about now you are seeing the upper gallery cantilever, and next you are seeing, etc.” It must have made for a strange scene. The good news is that most came away convinced of the location, others went away still unconvinced; but this is a valuable lesson for any architect: you can’t make everyone happy and you will go insane trying.

 

A video introduction to the Museum project can be seen here.  To read Bongiorno’s case for Columbus as a UNESCO city of design, check out his columbusunderground article. And to learn more about the two major organizations behind Design Week visit The Center for Architecture and Design and AIA Columbus.

CMA images care of DesignGroup, Ideabook image care of DesignWeek

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com


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