Talk at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio

April 28, 2009 at 12:34 am

As a lover of modern architecture, the dosage of exposure to wonderfully landscaped and designed modern spaces was a feature that defined my recent visit to Columbus, Ohio, as a really enjoyable trip. Led by a stereotypically dismissive pre-set attitude to the Midwest, I had not set my expectations very high, so I was in for a nice surprise. The hotel on the edge of campus, Blackwell Inn, was completely emancipated from the American kitsch that you would normally see at any other hotel in mid-America. The geometry of the pathways and landscaped grass rectangles that I was seeing through my room window was incredibly stylish, and so were the shapes of the new dark brick buildings that framed it. Most of all, I was truly thrilled to realise that the talk which I had come to give, was to take place in the main auditorium of the Wexner Centre for the Arts (pictured), an award-winning modern design achievement by architect and philosopher Peter Eisenman, the man who created the unevenly-leveled blocks of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. It was a great experience in architectural discovery, as I did not know what to expect, so I was truly pleasantly surprised. It reminded me to an experience more than a decade ago when a visit for a talk to Minneapolis took me to the modern art museum there, on the Mississippi river, and provided my first encounter with the architectural style of Frank Gehry. This was at a time when Gehry was not as widely known as he is today, even before the unveiling of his museum in Bilbao (and many other structures that he did later on). It was some sort of design revelation for me. Same with the Wexner.

I had spent the previous day at the Easton open air mall, engaged in the ultimate American experience — shopping. At the large Barnes and Noble store here, I came across a nicely priced and richly illustrated book entitled Masterpieces of Modern Architecture (Wonders of the World). It would have made for a good gift for my son, who is quite interested in these matters (and who has been to many of the places pictured in the book). Still, I was wondering if I could carry such a bulky and heavy item across continents. While pondering over this, I kept browsing through the pictures in the book, mostly showing buildings in Asia, the Arab world, and Europe. America did not seem to feature very prominently. Yet, as I flipped through the pages toward the end, the book opened somehow ‘spontaneously’ on a spread that revealed a panoramic picture of — guess what — the Wexner Center! Looking at the table of contents, I realized that this photograph of the Wexner was one of a total of only five examples that the authors of the book had considered worthy of inclusion here from across North America. Quite a prominent sign! And I was looking at this photograph while standing here, on the ground in Columbus. Of course, it was a clear sight what I should do. I bought the volume; it is now in my home in Scotland, prominently placed alongside the other nicely illustrated albums in George’s collection.

This second photograph shows the interior of the museum, where the reception after the talk took place. To the left is the entrance to the large room which is used for talks and screenings (that night they also screened Andrzej Wajda’s deeply personal Katyn). My talk was entitled ‘History for Losers: Cultural Historiography and Popular Culture in the ‘New’ Europe’. It was given as an opening keynote for the Slavic conference that the Centre for Slavic and East European Studies here organised. Unfortunately, I could not stay on for the conference that was to follow, as I was headed back already the next sunny morning, after a nice walk around the campus. The flight to Newark was great, as the cloudless sky allowed for incredibly clear views over the Great Lakes and then, descending into New Jersey, toward the Manhattan skyline as well as the Statue of Liberty (which one cannot see as easily, normally). In spite the suppressed irritation I was harboring on entry to the US, after having had to fill out scores of forms that no one seemed to have checked as they were asking me all over again for the same details, in addition to taking my fingerprints, I was leaving in a good mood. And yes, to be honest, passing the US immigration took less than ten minutes now (in comparison, two-three years ago it was more like an hour).

Dina Iordanova
28 April 2009