Style Profile: Michael Bongiorno, DesignGroup

Emily Thompson

You've heard the story before: An unsuspecting transplant moves to Columbus for a job, school or a relationship, and ends up falling in love with the city and sticking around. But when Michael Bongiorno moved here from New York City in 1993, Columbus was not the city we know today. There was no Arena District, Columbus Commons or Easton Town Center. There was, however, a strong sense of community and seemingly endless potential. The budding, 20-something architect saw Columbus as a blank slate, and he was ready to make his mark.

Twenty-two years later, Bongiorno is the lead designer on a $37.6 million addition to the Columbus Museum of Art. "It's an institution that's going to be there for a long time," says Bongiorno, principal and partner at DesignGroup, "and helping them into the future, being always able to grow and to do well and to serve their communities-that's really important for those institutions, and it's something I take seriously."

While many architects have a signature style, Bongiorno says he doesn't because each project is different. But he does have a design philosophy: "I love big, bold, simple ideas. If there's one thing that is kind of consistent across [my work], it's how I deal with natural light, the simplest idea of the geometries and the [environmental] sustainability." Much of his work is also informed by his travels. "When I travel, my wife and I, and my kids even, where we go is like a laboratory," he says. (His wife, Sarah, is an urban designer.) "We just study these places. What's interesting to us is the thing that's unique to that place."

And that's what he's aiming to accomplish with the museum addition: to create a space that raises the bar for great design in Columbus. "This project is not like any project that's been designed in Columbus," Bongiorno says. "And I'm not saying that in a bragging way; I'm just saying we stuck our necks out. I'm hoping we'll make it easier for the other architects in town to get their clients to do something a little different."

Opposites Attract

Opening in October, the new Columbus Museum of Art wing-a sleek, light-filled space-will be a stark contrast to the original 1931 building. "There's a group of people who'd say, 'Well you should just try to copy elements of that and build upon it and put arches on it'-that kind of thing," Bongiorno says. "My counterpoint to that is, that's actually an insult to the original building, because you're trying to do something that's kind of like it, but not quite it." Instead, he tied the two buildings together using similar materials in a different way: The new wing, while mostly glass, was constructed using limestone and copper as well-a nod to the limestone building and its bronze details. The idea is to create "positive tension" between the two spaces.