Not Your Average Mall

Remembering César Pelli’s lost mark on the Midwest

An image of César Pelli's The Commons before its demolition in 2008. (Balthazar Korab, courtesy Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives, Bartholomew County Public Library)

César Pelli, the world-renowned architect who passed away in July, will likely be remembered for his largest and most recognizable commissions: the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, the National Museum of Art in Osaka, and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, among others. But unlike many buildings designed by “starchitects” these days, some of Pelli’s most compelling and controversial work has fallen by the wayside of mainstream industry discourse.

In 1968, municipal leaders in the architectural Mecca of Columbus, Indiana commissioned Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to devise a masterplan that would reverse the deterioration of the city’s downtown area. Among other recommendations, SOM highlighted the need for a new shopping complex in the central part of the city—a project that would help to enliven streets and reduce consumers’ reliance on less centralized malls in the suburbs and exurbs. The city set aside two square blocks for the project, along with three additional blocks for parking, and waited for investors to take on the venture.

A plan drawing of César Pelli's The Commons in Columbus, Indiana.

A plan of The Commons and the adjoining shopping center, featuring notes on the programming of various spaces. (Courtesy Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives, Bartholomew County Public Library)

No bites came. After waiting in vain for property developers to take over the project, the Irwin Management Company, controlled by local businessman and head of the Columbus-based Cummins Engine Company, J. Irwin Miller, bought the lot. In order to build a state-of-the-art shopping center, Miller hired an architect still in the incipient stages of his career, a young Argentine-born man with six completed projects under his belt. César Pelli soon arrived in Indiana and made several suggestions regarding the composition of the center, including that a significant portion of the site be designed as a community gathering space.

Between 1972 and 1973, Pelli built a complex consisting of two main buildings. The first building, the Courthouse Center, named for its proximity to the historic Columbus Courthouse, housed conventional shopping mall. The other building, called “The Commons,” was connected to the first by a single glass envelope and housed a 63,000-square-foot, multi-level public space. Under 38-foot-tall ceilings, Pelli designed a 2-acre park that he compared to Italian piazzas, complete with benches, planters, and playgrounds for children. The bronze-tinted glass reflected enough light to prevent passive heat gain but also allowed for sweeping views of the street from inside. The atrial space became a popular venue for public events, with enormous structural elements and sloping roofs that towered above visitors. As locals increasingly frequented The Commons, the adjacent mall assumed “The Commons Mall” as a colloquial nickname.

A perspective drawing of the interior atrium of César Pelli's The Commons in Columbus, Indiana.

A drawing of the interior atrium of The Commons. (Courtesy Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives, Bartholomew County Public Library)

The Commons represented Pelli’s first contribution to Columbus’ built landscape. The building stood alongside great modernist masterpieces by the likes of I.M. Pei, Harry Weese, and Robert Venturi—all of whom were commissioned through an altruistic program established by Miller’s foundation. The industrialist persuaded city officials to hire architects from a list of five blue-chip designers that he had assembled, agreeing to pay their top-dollar fees himself. Miller believed that high-quality buildings would help attract investment and talented engineers to the town, both of which would bolster the Cummins Engine Company’s business prospects.

An interior image of Jean Tinguely's sculpture in the atrium of César Pelli's The Commons in Columbus, Indiana.

Interior view of The Commons in Columbus, Indiana before its demolition, featuring Chaos 1 by Jean Tinguely in the center (Ricky Berkey, courtesy 52weeks)

César Pelli, in fact, had first visited Columbus in 1956 to tour the Eero Saarinen-designed Miller House, which was still under construction. Completed at a time when much of his portfolio consisted of buildings in coastal states, The Commons was also Pelli’s first project in the Midwest. He would go on to accept several commissions in the region during the following decades, primarily for institutional or corporate projects in urban centers and college towns. The Commons was the architect’s only built structure in the state of Indiana until 2011, when he finished the Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence, also in Columbus.

People gathered inside of a mall for a crafts fair

An image of the central atrium in The Commons being used for an Arts and Crafts Bazaar before its demolition in 2008. (Courtesy Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives, Bartholomew County Public Library)

With its bulky, monolithic facades and expansive glass curtain walls, The Commons was viewed by some as a precursor to Pelli’s Pacific Design Center, which he finished in Los Angeles in 1975. The latter achieved far greater renown than the former, but their shared design cues are unmistakable. As Pelli’s career advanced and he reached the upper tiers of architectural prominence, his affinity for seamless glass designs gave way to a material approach that often included both glass and stonework—a stylistic choice more characteristic of the postmodern era. Many of his 21st-century commissions signaled a return to the glass curtain wall, a medium that has achieved greater flexibility and versatility since the 1970s. The architectural significance of The Commons weathered many of these fluctuations, so much so that it played host to the Pritzker Prize ceremony in 1994.

César Pelli's The Commons being torn down

The Commons during its demolition in 2008. (Ricky Berkey, courtesy 52weeks)

Eventually, in the first years of the 21st century, it became clear that The Commons and its adjacent mall were facing an upward battle against deteriorating physical conditions and increasing maintenance costs. The Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation bought the property in 2005 and began to mull over strategies for redevelopment, ultimately concluding that the retail space would have to be torn down. As part of the plan, The Commons was also almost entirely demolished in 2008, leaving only its steel skeleton and Chaos 1, a site-specific kinetic installation by sculptor Jean Tinguely. The building that replaced it, still called The Commons, was designed by the Boston-based firm Koetter Kim.

In a city where architectural heritage is both a huge point of pride for residents and the lifeblood of a burgeoning local tourist economy, Pelli’s building is one of few major structures ever to be dismantled. Much like César Pelli himself, it lives on today not only through photographs, drawings, and individual memories, but through an architectural legacy that extends well beyond walls.

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