February 5, 2021

Damnatio Memoriae, Designing for Columbus' Conflicted History

Understanding the past and how it persists in the present was foundational to the architecture studio's task of designing a new headquarters for the Columbus Historical Society.

A city is a machine with innumerable parts made by the accumulation of human gestures, a colossal organism forever dying and being born, an ongoing conflict between memory and erasure.

— Rebecca Solnit


How a city manages its often-difficult past was the question asked of undergraduate and graduate students in Professor of Architecture Kay Bea Jones’ advanced design studio, Damnatio Memoriae, or Columbus: Study Abroad. Understanding the past and how it can effectively project into the present was foundational to the students' task of designing a new headquarters for the Columbus Historical Society (CHS).

“It seemed both necessary and opportune to leave Knowlton Hall and experience Columbus as it exists today,” said Jones, who used walking in her studio as a method of urban analysis. “Students’ cumulative and critically-assessed knowledge gathered through walking forged the essence of their thoughts on a concept for the CHS.”

Students began their semester with a series of five strategic walks in Columbus based on three themes: ravines, monuments and icons, and public landscapes. Teams of students then choreographed three additional pedestrian adventures including Audubon and the Brewery District, Downtown cultural centers, and the Short North.

“This interaction is much more personal than researching Columbus as if it were a two-dimensional site for a future project,” said undergraduate architecture student Trey Marshall. “It allows you to feel the presence of the Nationwide Tower as you walk around the Arena District, or the uneven strides you take as you walk across the brick streets in German Village.”

Aubrey Nelson, a third-year graduate architecture student, added: “Walking as an aesthetic practice allows the mind to wander to places it may not typically go. It gave me permission to get lost in my thoughts and break away from the monotony of stationary design.”

With Columbus as a classroom, students documented their thematic walks with mapping practices. Using dual graphic formats, students compiled their observations through drawings and diagrams that tracked their progressions through the city, as well as their analysis of specific city segments. Student maps were reviewed by Knowlton School alumnus and architect, Ben Pacheco, whose maps from his travels to Rome were studied in advance, and Ohio State Department of Art Professor Suzanne Silver who teaches allied courses in documenting the experiential.

“I appreciated seeing everyone's interpretations of the walks in sketchbook-form, where we all took artistic liberty in the way we sketched our experience, some as a collage of various drawings, and others a sequenced map experience,” said Marshall.

Following the Columbus walks, student teams began designing a 16,000 square-foot structure for the new home of the Columbus Historical Society, which was organized in 1990 to preserve the stories and artifacts of the important, multi-cultural history of Columbus and Central Ohio.

Proposed location for the new Columbus Historical Society
The proposed site for the new Columbus Historical Society

Students visited the proposed site along Broad Street located between Engine House #6, built in 1880, and the historic Harrison House, built in 1807. They began working in two-person teams to design both the interior and exterior of the future CHS home, including space for exhibitions, a research library, public meeting space, archives, and offices.

Added to their task of envisioning a new building that would honor the history of the area and retain the integrity of the historic nature of the Franklinton neighborhood, students would need to include in their design a display space for Edoardo Alfieri’s Christopher Columbus statue, a 1955 gift to the City of Columbus from the City of Genoa.

“The studio was challenged with addressing Columbus’ uncertain historic and cultural identity by housing the statue of Christopher Columbus that was removed from outside city hall,” said Nelson. Nelson and her design partner Rafael Armendariz developed a space with multiple mezzanine levels that allows the viewer to craft their own narrative as they move through the building's central gallery that houses the 20-foot statue of Columbus. “The purpose of this is to humanize Columbus, rather than canceling or glorifying him.”

Aubrey Nelson - Rafael Armendariz Interior Design for the new Columbus Historical Society
Aubrey Nelson, Rafael Armendariz; interior design for the new Columbus Historical Society

The seven teams of students presented their design concepts to Mike Frush, President of the CHS Board of Trustees, and Jack C. Benjamin, Exhibits Chair and Secretary of the CHS Board of Trustees. “When the students presented their seven designs, we were totally impressed with their professionalism in how they adapted the exterior design to the surrounding architecture, the efficient use of space and flow of visitor traffic, and even the creative use of exhibits within the space including the display of statuary,” said Frush. “We will be able to use many of their design concepts in our future home.”

The work will be presented as part of an exhibition at the Columbus Historical Society. “We were so impressed by the creativity of their designs that we wanted to work with the students to create an exhibition of their work that could be shared with our members and visitors, to illustrate their excellent work,” said Benjamin.