Saturday, January 6th, 2007
The Indy Gateways group looking at creating new gateway structures at strategic locations in the city has selected the Circle Truss design as the preferred option for their first project, a gateway at West St. and I-65 downtown. This would be a 280 foot circular steel structure costing $10 million, all from private sources. It would straddle the expressway ramps, would have the Clarian people mover passing lengthwise through its base, and is a potential catalyst for an extension of the Canal north to 16th St. The structure would include LED lighting that would allow it to be illuminated in different colors at night.
A set of more detailed renderings, including the potential Canal extension, are available on the Indy Gateways website.
The IBJ story linked above was titled, “In Indianapolis will Circle Truss become our Arch?” Is the Circle Truss likely to be a true icon of Indianapolis? In a word, No, at least not in the positive context that the group promoting it hopes. While the Circle Truss isn’t a bad design, it’s not a particularly good one either. Something so large, and in such a prominent site, has to be not just adequate, it needs to be top notch, otherwise it ends up detracting not adding to the built environment. I’m afraid that if built as currently proposed, this will end up joining the lengthy list of local projects where large amounts of money were spent to finance an undistinguished project. And this one is far more visible.
Gateways are one of the fashion items of the moment in urban design. Everybody has to have one. So the Indy Gateways needs to be seen in the context of following a trend, not setting one. Even so, their plan is pretty ambitious. There is a long list of key locations and corridors that they have identified for potential new gateway locations. These for the most part are highly visible areas of the city which today have significant aesthetic deficiencies. Sprucing these up would do wonders to improve the appearance of Indianapolis. Plus I was very pleased to see that the gateways group did not focus solely on downtown, but includes key neighborhood corridors around the city such as West Washington St. and South Meridian St.
So what went wrong with this one? The gateways group failed, as most of these other bland projects failed, by insisting on hiring a local designer regardless of whether the result was any good. Cities across the world are building signature buildings and structures that are truly world class. I mentioned the Museum Plaza project in Louisville as an example in a previous post. Minneapolis is being totally remade with several cutting edge designs in the works. Pretty much any significant public structure in an aspiring city today had its design selected either as a result of an international competition or in partnership with an internationally renowned architect. Heck, even mass merchants like Target are partnering with the likes of Michael Graves to create low-priced but high-quality design housewares. This trend has almost completely bypassed Indianapolis. There seems to be a nearly 100% committment to hiring local firms, a fact that is often touted by the organization sponsoring the project. Again, it’s laudable to do this if you are getting value for the money. But Indy clearly has not. With rare exceptions, these local firms and designers have churned out one undistinguished design after another. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are actively bad, but it does mean designs that are neither world class nor inspiring.
The Indy Gateway partnership is firmly anchored in this trend. Their RFQ for the project specified a local firm. No out of towners need reply. Spared even the possibility of competiting against anyone other than the usual suspects, all five of the submitted designs were weak and uninspiring.
Indianapolis didn’t used to be like this. Once upon a time, city leaders wanted to build a highly visible gateway as an icon for the city. Rather than putting out a local-only RFP, they invited ten of Americas top architectural firms, including both local and out-of-town firms, to bid. They also placed advertisements in newspapers in places like England, France, Germany, and Italy soliciting designs. In the end, the city picked an architect from Germany named Bruno Schmitz, one who had never had anything built in the US before. The result, as you probably already guessed, was the stupendous Soldiers and Sailors Monument that is now the symbol of the city.
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument is a true world-class icon, one that passes my “Paris test”. That is, if you teleported this to Paris, would it still be considered a great and tourist-worthy attraction? The answer here is clearly Yes.
Much closer to our present day, the original plan for White River State Park had as its centerpiece the 750-foot Indiana Tower, designed by renowed architect Cesar Pelli.
While the Indiana Tower is not my favorite structure, it was far, far above the Circle Truss. It’s too bad that the Indy Gateways group never looked at dusting off Pelli’s plans, because that building would still be an asset to Indianapolis today. Now the Indiana Tower was not a conflict free structure itself. Many people argued about it, saying it looked like a corn cobb. (No doubt many of those same people have gone to Chicago and oohed and ahhed over the explicitly corn cobb shaped Marina City). But good architecture does get people arguing. Of course, I guess that’s what I’m doing here by arguing against the Circle Truss. History could show me to be like one of those who criticized the music of Beethoven, but I’m willing to lay may wager on the table of fate.
The Circle Truss also has all the hallmarks of a “design by committee” approach. It may not have actually been designed by a committee, but it seems to have been designed to impress them. The circle motif echoes Indianapolis, for example, which is a good thing, but I think is a bit facile this case. It seems designed more to tick off checkboxes on an eval form than to inspire. Of course, that’s almost what the Indy Gateway group asked for. The phrase “world class” did not appear in the RFP. What was most pandering in the design was the inclusion of Rotary iconography. Rotary International is sponsoring the Indy Gateways initiative, and it never hurts to flatter the vanity of the people running the show. I am a big believer in Rotary’s mission, but the inclusion of branding architecture into the design is unconscionable and needs to be removed in the final product. To be clear, this was put in by the submitter, not Rotary.
One critical failure of this design was not linking the design of this gateway to the black community in Indianapolis. This is the area where West St. becomes Martin Luther King St. It’s also home to many of the key historical landmarks of black Indianapolis, including Indiana Avenue, the Walker Theater, and Crispus Attucks high school. This gateway and associated park expansion has nothing at all to do with black Indianapolis and in fact its scale will tend to overwhelm the existing black historic character of the district. For that reason if no other the city should consider rejecting this proposal. (Just the thought of that giant Rotary International-esque roundabout design at 12th and MLK right next to Crispus Attucks gives me the shivers).
Several members of the local black community recently suggested extending the name Martin Luther King St. all the way to the Boone County Line. Now I object to this because it would wipe out the historic Michigan Road name. But I am in agreement with the idea that MLK St. today does not do proper honor to King. It’s a depressing roadway, going through seedy industrial districts and distressed neighborhoods. This gateway project is a possible way to address that. I’ve long thought that Indianapolis should attempt to redevelop MLK St. as the city’s premier black oriented throughfare, celebrating the black heritage of the city and state. I plan to develop this idea in more detail in a subsequent posting, but suffice it to say that many of the elements are already in place, such as the MLK name, the institutions I mentioned earlier, the fact that it passes through a largely black residential district, and the availability of land for redevelopment. Adding a major gateway to one end of this corridor could really serve to anchor and announce it. Thus I believe a gateway for this location should be both world-class and firmly anchored in the city’s black heritage.
I consider the Circle Truss proper an unsalvageable design. What the Indy Gateways group was trying to accomplish was a good thing. I truly believe there were the highest motives involved. But the execution here was lacking.
Still, not all is bad. While the Truss itself is weak, the site plan is actually very nice. This includes a signifcantly improved interchange, roundabouts on MLK at 12th and 16th, a Canal extension north to 16th St., and significant new landscaping. This plan could easily be modified to include the black heritage design I suggested, and could be coupled with the development of a high density, mixed use, urban in character commercial and residential district along the west side of MLK. A better link to Crispus Attucks High and raising the profile of the museum there should be included as well. Campusification of the area should be avoided. The site plan aspect of the Circle Truss proposal is a very good one that should be retained.
On a more fundamental level, it’s worth asking why it is we need gateways in the first place. The Indy Gateways site defines a gateway as “landmark, streetscape or other area that a visitor or resident first sees when entering the city, a neighborhood, a cultural district, downtown or other attractions or destinations”. They go on to say, “the concept or theme of the gateway is critically important. The gateway concept should draw on the assets of the area being ‘announced’ by the gateway”. In other words, a gateway is used to mark a boundary, to let people know you are entering an area, and it should somehow speak to the sense of place of what it marks.
Now ask yourself, if I really have a special place with its own identity, why does it take a gateway to let me know I’ve arrived there? That’s the question that’s all too often not even asked, much less answered. Iconic architecture is great and should be encouraged. But this is no substitute for real place making.
Think about it, is there anything different when you cross the boundary line between Fishers and Noblesville? Can you even tell where that dividing line is? Drive along County Line Road and see if you can really tell the difference between Indianapolis on the north and Greenwood on the south. All too often our cities and towns look all too much alike, a phenomenon christened “Generica”. In that regard a gateway is treating the symptom, not the disease. I believe that gateways ought to be the icing on the cake, not the main meal. The Indy Gateways group is stepping up to provide that, but now the city needs to follow through and make sure there’s substance underneath.
If you haven’t done it lately, go up to Hamilton County and drive south from Westfield into Carmel on Oak Ridge, Spring Mill, or Ditch Rd. The minute you hit the Carmel city limits, the character of the street changes radically. You’ve got the residential parkway, the recognizable new style street signs, and the Carmel signature design roundabouts. You know you’ve just entered Carmel and don’t need those “Carmel Welcomes You” signs to tell you that. Similarly if you drive into Chicago from Park Ridge along Northwest Highway, from Evergreen Park along 95th, or from Evanston on Western Ave/Asbury St, there is no Welcome to Chicago sign, but you feel the transition like a bucket of cold water in the face. The Evanston transition may be the best because both sides of the border have their own unique feel.
That’s the real sense of place the city needs to be striving to achieve. And I believe it is doable.