Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Census Bureau Releases 2007 County and Metro Area Population Estimates

The Census Bureau recently released its 2007 county-level population estimates as well as its metro area population estimates. These intra-Census estimates have become increasingly controversial as cities who are showing declines increasingly challenge the estimates produced. We’ll see what happens this year. The Census Bureau seems to have mostly gone along with challenges. I can’t really blame them. Why take heat when these estimates are low-stakes anyway? 2010 is coming soon, and if the Census shows that the original estimates were right, the Census Bureau can start taking a harder stand.

The United States as a whole gained 1% last year. Raleigh, NC was the fastest growing metro area last year, with a pace of 4.7%. Looking at Midwest large metro growth, we see the same pattern continuing as last year. Here are the one million plus metros ranked by annual population percentage growth, with their national ranking among all metros with more than one million people as well.

  1. Indianapolis – 1.5% (#19 tie)
  2. Kansas City – 1.2% (#24)
  3. Minneapolis – 1.1% (#25 tie)
  4. Columbus – 1.1% (#25 tie)
  5. Louisville – 1.1% (#25 tie)
  6. Chicago – 0.7% (#32 tie)
  7. Cincinnati – 0.6% (#35)
  8. St. Louis – 0.4% (#36 tie)
  9. Milwaukee – 0.3% (#38 tie)
  10. Cleveland – (0.4%) (#49)
  11. Detroit – (0.5%) (#51)

Note that there are 51 metros over one million in population.

Indianapolis, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Columbus remain as growth champs, exceeding the national average and registering healthy if not stellar growth. Louisville joins them, which is an uptick in its trend. There’s a noticeable drop off after this group. And of course Cleveland and Detroit continue to struggle.

Interestingly, Indianapolis grew faster than some surprising cities, including Seattle, Tampa, San Francisco, San Diego, and Miami. It wasn’t even that far off from vaunted Portland (1.9%). But none of the Midwest cities matched up to the likes of Charlotte (4.2%), Phoenix (3.3%), Atlanta (2.9%), or Nashville (2.3%)

Here are the rankings by absolute population change. Note that the top absolute growth metro nationally was Dallas at 162,250.

  1. Chicago – 66,231 (#7)
  2. Minneapolis – 36,200 (#18)
  3. Indianapolis – 24,705 (#26)
  4. Kansas City – 23,745 (#27)
  5. Columbus – 19,774 (#30)
  6. Louisville – 13,311 (#35)
  7. Cincinnati – 12,550 (#36)
  8. St. Louis – 9,987 (#37)
  9. Milwaukee – 3,873 (#42)
  10. Cleveland – (8,848) (#50)
  11. Detroit – (27,314) (#51)

Another interesting view is by component of population change. There are two components: natural increase or decrease (births minus deaths) and net migration (people moving in minus people moving out). Migration can be domestic or international. Positive overall population growth can sometimes mask the fact that people are actually moving away faster than they are moving in. Here are the same metros by net migration, ranked by total absolute net migration with international and domestic migration in parentheses respectively. (Sorry, I am too lazy today to HTML-ize this as a table).

  1. Indianapolis – 11,350 (2,758; 8,592)
  2. Kansas City – 8,808 (3,852; 4,956)
  3. Louisville – 8,052 (1,554; 6,493)
  4. Minneapolis – 7,493 (9,689; -2,196)
  5. Columbus – 6,458 (4,035; 2,450)
  6. Cincinnati – 511 (2,316; -1,805)
  7. Milwaukee – (5,094) (3,107; -8,201)
  8. St. Louis (2,998) (3,560; -6,558)
  9. Chicago – (6,028) (51,257; -57,285)
  10. Cleveland – (13,597) (3,324; -16,903)
  11. Detroit – (45,848) (12,169; -58,017)

Only four cities in the Midwest have positive domestic in-migration. Again, Louisville makes a strong showing. I was really shocked to see Minneapolis has domestic net outmigration. Given that it has been high growth and viewed as one of the most successful Midwest cities, it is surprising to me to see that. Also, note that while Chicago had extremely large absolute growth, it had domestic outmigration comparable to Detroit and only strong international migration kept it from having an even worse total showing.

When it comes to changes in population, the following cities did better than last year, adding more people or losing fewer people:

  • Columbus
  • Louisville
  • Minneapolis
  • Kansas City
  • Cleveland
  • Chicago

Of course that means the following did worse than last year:

  • Indianapolis
  • Cincinnati
  • Milwaukee
  • Detroit
  • St. Louis

Failing to keep up with the previous year’s pace was one troubling sign for Indy. Cleveland put in a much better showing, despite continuing to lose people.

And finally, here are the metros ranked by July 1, 2007 population:

  1. Chicago – 9,524,673 (#3)
  2. Detroit – 4,467,592 (#11)
  3. Minneapolis – 3,208,212 (#16)
  4. St. Louis – 2,803,707 (#18)
  5. Cincinnati – 2,133,678 (#24)
  6. Cleveland – 2,096,471 (#25)
  7. Kansas City – 1,985,429 (#29)
  8. Columbus – 1,754,337 (#32)
  9. Indianapolis – 1,695,037 (#33)
  10. Milwaukee – 1,544,398 (#38)
  11. Louisville – 1,233,735 (#42)

Note that Cincinnati is now bigger than Cleveland from an MSA perspective. However, a large county immediately adjacent to Cuyahoga County (Cleveland’s core county) is considered a separate MSA, which hurts that city’s figures.

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Houston: The Next Great World City?

Joel Kotkin wrote a must read article about Houston at the American, the publication of the politically right American Enterprise Institute. Obviously your opinion on this piece will somewhat depend on your view of Kotkin and the AEI. Nevertheless, I thought this was a great article. It echoes a lot of themes that I talk about in my blog. Most especially, it explicitly rejects the notion that the path to greatness for cities lies in imitating the exemplars of the 19th century urban form, such as San Francisco, Chicago, or Boston. While I love all of those cities, they came of age in a different era and it is simply not feasible to attempt to replicate that model elsewhere in the 21st century. Rather, the way forward is to find your own path, based on what you are, not on what you aren’t.

That’s what Houston did. I’ve got to confess that I worked in Houston for some time and, for the most part, thought the city was awful. It’s a mix of too much humidity outside, and too much air conditioning inside. Conspicuous consumption, likely a legacy of boom-bust cycles in the energy business, is rampant. I saw more Ferrari’s in Houston than anywhere I’ve ever been. The average car in some neighborhoods is an SL 500. Large number of women appear to have indulged in artificial enhancement. Houston famously has no zoning, though it looks similar to most other Southern cities, that is to say, pretty bad. They’ve got great roads, I’ll give them that. They really know how to build interstates in Texas. And the Houston Grand Opera is pretty good. But for the most part this city was my personal definition of hell. Ok to work in on assignment, but not the kind of place that would be my first choice of places to live. The article makes this point way better than I do.

Despite an impressive growth record and positive signs for the future, Houston is hardly regarded by most journalists, academics, and urbanists as anything close to a model for a successful city. Many seem to share the impression expressed by journalist John Gunther in Inside U.S.A. in 1947 when he described Houston as a place ‘where few people think about anything but money.’ Its other negative attributes included being ‘the nosiest city’ in the country, Gunther said, ‘with a residential section mostly ugly and barren—a city without a single good restaurant.’

Opinions do not seem to have changed much even as Houston has developed a high-tech infrastructure and a spectacular skyline. The New Urbanist guru Andres Duany, whose city planning emphasizes cozy, walkable neighborhoods, seems horrified that Houstonians—driving SUVs across the sprawling distances of the city and its suburbs—appear to regard the galleria shopping center as Houston’s social center. Lauding Houston to urban planners is not much different than extolling red meat at a convention of vegans.

In other words, not the type of place that typically appeals to the urban intelligentsia. But that is and always has been a tiny minority of people. Obviously something about Houston appealed to the millions who’ve moved there in the last decades. Continuing:

Ultimately, it’s a question of defining what makes a city great. Many city planners today focus largely on aesthetics, the arts, and the perception of being ‘cool.’ Academics and many economic-development experts link urban success to cities’ appeal to the ‘creative class’ of college-educated young people. In this calculus, the traditional practice of gauging a city’s success by studying patterns of population or employment growth, or noting the opportunities available for working-class or middle-class families to flourish, rarely registers as important. One prominent academic, Rutgers University’s Paul Gottlieb, has even offered an elegant formula for what he calls ‘growth without growth’—focusing on increasing per-capita incomes without expanding either population or employment. Indeed, Gottlieb suggests that successful post-industrial cities might well do best if they actually ‘minimize’ the influx of new people and jobs.

Growth without growth is right. I’ll cite again the example of Chicago, which despite a huge skyscraper and condo building boom is flat to declining in population. According to the just released census figures, the Chicago metro area as a whole had net outmigration, including net domestic outmigration of 57,285 – comparable to Detroit. The creative class is flocking, but everyone else is leaving. The city of Big Shoulders is turning into the city of venti lattes. This is great if you’re part of the elite. But for the majority of people trying to build a solid middle class life for their families, it isn’t quite so great. Ultimately cities are about people, and the urban vision of all too many urban planning gurus extends only to a very small number.

So what did Houston do different?

Al Colbert’s emphasis on the importance of seizing opportunity would have warmed the hearts of the city’s founders. In an era when many other cities try to position themselves with trendier distinctions (as ‘smart growth’ exemplars or as magnets for high-income households, for instance), Mayor Bill White, a Democrat, is happy for Houston to be known simply as an ‘opportunity city,’ which is a pretty good description of what the place has been since its inception: a venue where people who work hard can get ahead.


Other cities enjoy better locations for shipping, richer agricultural resources, or similar proximity to oil fields. The answer, I have come to understand as I have worked in Houston as a reporter and consultant, echoes something that the late Soichiro Honda once told me: ‘More important than gold and diamonds are people.’ This critical resource, more than anything, accounts for Houston’s headlong drive toward becoming not only the leading city of Texas and the South, but also a player on the global scene: it is emerging as one of the world’s great cities.

It took a certain type of settler, back in the 1830s, to look at a sun-blasted, humidity-drenched, mosquito-infested flatland far from any major river or port and think: ‘Here is where I’ll make my success.’ That tradition of hopefulness and determination can readily be found in the city to this day. As Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg notes, roughly 80 percent of Houstonians, according to his annual local surveys, consistently agree with the proposition that ‘if they work hard, they can succeed here.’

The city focused on infrastructure as well.

Houston’s patriarchs worked assiduously to create competitive advantages. In the aftermath of the hurricane that devastated Galveston in 1900, for example, Houston’s business elite secured local and federal funds to develop a 50-mile-long ship channel to the Gulf of Mexico. The channel would allow Houston eventually to become the nation’s second-largest port.

In his Rental Car Tours report on Houston, anti-transit, pro-sprawl gadfly consultant Wendell Cox calls Houston the “can do” city, noting:

Few, if any, urban areas have been as successful in controlling their traffic congestion as Houston. Houston is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in North America. By the early 1980s, the area had managed to develop the worst traffic congestion in the United States, even worse than Los Angeles. Businesses were beginning to tell local officials that they were no longer interested in locating in Houston, just as is occurring now in Portland due to the smart-growth generated traffic congestion in that urban area. But, in this ‘can do’ urban area, local officials did not huddle together with their sweaters in Carteresque pessimism and whine about an era of limits’ or ‘our best days are behind us’ or even, as Anthony Downs would have us believe, that we had better start liking traffic congestion. Instead, they set about to solve the problem and in fact built enough new roadway capacity to make things better now than they were in the middle 1980s, and to fall to 14th in traffic congestion in the United States, behind Los Angeles, Portland and other urban areas.

Houston also worked hard to turn its setbacks into opportunities for the future. In addition to the hurricane noted above, note the contrast between how Houston addressed the energy bust of the 1980’s, when the city became famous for its “see through” skyscrapers, and how Rust Belt cities have reacted to the decline of manufacturing. Back to Kotkin:

Houstonians worked desperately to ensure that their city emerged from the early-1980s oil bust as the undisputed center of the energy industry. Many observers saw the oil bust as a harbinger of Houston’s inevitable decline. And indeed office construction nosedived along with rents, housing prices, and the job market. Yet, looking back, it is clear that Houston turned the oil bust to its advantage.

Using the lure of its relatively inexpensive office space and housing stock, as well as its ties to energy executives and leading engineers, the city attracted firms to locate there. In 1960, Houston was the home of hardly any major energy companies, ranking behind New York, Los Angeles, and even Tulsa; today, 16 large companies make their headquarters there, more than all those cities combined.

I’m not going to say that other cities should imitate Houston, though I think ideas like focusing on opportunities for the broad population base, infrastructure investment, and trying to aggressively play the hand you’re dealt have broad applicability. Houston isn’t the future model for America any more than San Francisco is. Houston has built something that works for them, based on their unique circumstances. The challenge for Midwestern and other American metros is how to do the same, to find a unique and personal path to a successful and prosperous future for all their residents. Don’t just follow the crowd but build a truly local and organic version of urban success that is true to the native soil.

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

INDOT Changing to Make Major Moves Happen

You might think it is a nice problem to have, but when your department’s budget gets a dramatic increase, it can be a struggle to handle. Consider the case of INDOT and Major Moves. The Toll Road lease brought in a huge amount of funds. The challenge is how to get that turned into concrete quickly. It isn’t just as simple as posting bids. Designing and implementing major roadway projects is complex. There are numerous environmental, design, and land acquisitions steps that need to be undertaken before construction can begin. What’s more, a lot of these tasks require critical skills. INDOT’s entire organization was sized to support a certain sized budget and certain number of projects. Similarly for the entire ecosystem of contractors, consultants, materials suppliers, etc. Where do you land those 25 extra project managers you need, especially when they have to have specialized skills and knowledge about not just civil engineering generally, but Indiana standards, laws, business practices, etc.? It isn’t easy.

The IBJ ran a very nice piece this week [dead link] talking about the institutional changes INDOT is implementing to turn dollars into concrete faster. For example, there is more parallelization of tasks that used to be done serially. And INDOT is relying more on prime consultants, who then hire and manage the subcontractors, instead of directly hiring all the subs.

The net result is projects getting done faster. Not only is this better for motorists, it is a huge financial windfall to INDOT. With the cost of construction skyrocketing a well above the consumer CPI rate of inflation, and most assuredly faster than Indiana is earning interest on the money it has in the bank, every year that goes by only erodes the value of that money. Building faster is the number one thing INDOT can do to build cheaper, because of the time value of money in a high inflation environment.

Obviously there is a ways to go. You can’t turn an $800 million organization on a dime. But things are definitely moving the right direction and showing positive results where it counts.

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

Review: Indianapolis Library Expansion – Part Three: The Interior

This is the third and probably last in my series of posts reviewing the expansion of the Indianapolis Central Library. Part one covered the exterior and part two the artwork. This installment focuses on the interior spaces.

The architecture critic that the Indy Star brought in from Seattle to review the building talked about the “whoops of joy” he experienced seeing the building. (This was an interesting reaction. Seattle took a different route, building a completely new, avant garde library designed by Rem Koolhaas. I was surprised not to see the reviewer contrast the two structures). While I cannot share this assessment of the exterior, it is clearly merited for the interior.

This is simply the nicest library I’ve ever been in. It’s not that I think it is perfect, but it is extremely good and extremely well thought out. This is clearly an interior space of which Indianapolis can be proud.

This review will be notable for what it leaves out: namely pictures of the interior of the Cret building. I am a lousy photographer with a basic point and shoot camera that takes very poor pictures in large interior spaces. So while I took a bunch, they turned out poorly. Suffice it to say, the interior is even grander than you remember it. This is a jewel of a space, a truly timeless classic. It was transformed into the fiction wing of the library.

So if I couldn’t get good interior pictures of the old library, how could I get pictures of the new? This highlights one of the great things about the new library, namely its transparency. While there are some windows in the Cret library, it is mostly in the old school style of a pure, enclosed box. Today, we’ve got UV blocking glass, allowing us to let the light shine in. And with the new expansion the light streams in like a tide, illuminating the space and engaging the interior of the library with the city around in a way I’ve rarely seen similar buildings do.

So our tour begins with the glass atrium that links the old and new wings. Again, apologies in advance for the low quality of my photos.

You see here the most notable feature of the interior, the white lattice work supporting (or at least we’re intended to believe it is supporting) a sloping glass ceiling. Here’s a floor to ceiling view of the columns, also showing how the library connects to the Cret building.

Note the wooden paneling, similar to that used on the Cret interior I couldn’t get a decent photo of.

And here is now it connects to the new Woollen Molzan wing:

I’ve criticized a mis-matching of architecture styles before, which seldom works despite the supposed celebration of “tension” in the work. That’s too often just an excuse for self-indulgence. So as a someone who’s normally a critic of this, let me say it works beautifully here. No, it doesn’t scream uber-cool, like Koolhaas’ buildings do. But this playful modern take on gothic is simply delightful and likely to stand the test of time better. A lavish European style interior in the Cret building, a modern American interior in the new wing, and a playful mix in the middle. Perfect. What’s more, the entire layout of the two building complex sort of vaguely looks like part of a double transept cathedral layout, making the gothic take even more fitting somehow. The bit of the limestone of the old back wall of the Cret library just adds to it even more.

It’s a great space to just be in. This is where the elevator from the underground garage drops you off, making a grand entrance to space. There are plenty of activity centers about, including a checkout desk and a cafe, but these don’t overwhelm what seems to be an almost plaza like public space. It is notable to contrast this space with the winter garden in the Chicago’s Harold Washington Library, which while an interesting space in its own right, is designed to be almost inaccessible to the public, leaving it as little more than a revenue generating rental hall. In Indianapolis, this is the main public space, and that makes all the difference.

Speaking of the obligatory cafe, I like the modern furniture they provided with it. Here’s a picture:

This shows the engagement with the outside world I was talking about, though not a particularly great view. When summer comes and the outdoor seating area is open, this should be more inviting. I should note here a detail one of my commenters made about the exterior that I had overlooked, namely the cheap metal staircase leading from the cafe to the ground below. I’m not sure if this and the cheap perimeter fence came about as a result of budget cuts, but in any case these details, while very important to a building like this, are easily reparable at a future date.

By the way, you might notice the lack of people in most of my photos. This should not be taken as an indication that the library was empty. Quite the opposite in fact. But I took pains not to photograph people, who might not want to appear on my blog.

Here’s a closeup of that trash can.

An architect once cautioned against super-cool trash cans, saying that drew attention to something that was, after all, just a trash can. I can appreciate that, but too often these are overlooked details, and I think the balance was right here.

Moving into the new wing itself, we find ourselves not on level one, but level two, a bit confusing, but not overly so. This is the children’s department, aptly called “The Learning Curve”. I’m of two minds about children’s sections in general. I attribute my love of reading to my grandfather, who took me to the library frequently as a child, but not to the children’s section. Instead, he dropped me off upstairs, and I found myself devouring adult books at a very early age. So while I appreciate children’s literature, I also think there’s a danger of treating children in too much of an infantile manner. However, if you’re going to have a children’s library – and let’s face it, not including one isn’t a realistic option – it is tough to image one that could possibly be better than this. This is one of the library’s true highlights.

We’ll start with a picture of the shelving.

This is self-evidently good. A nice echoing of the curve of the building and its transparency. There’s also the attractive use of blonde wood and nice lighting, a consistent highlight of the building.

This area also has numerous little “items of interest” that are not only kid friendly, but feature a mature graphic design that will appeal to adults as well. Here’s an example:

Is this functional or an art installation? Take your pick. Taken purely as an objet d’art, I like this better than many of the works of public art proper that have been installed in Indianapolis.

Here’s another.

It’s hard to see how to improve this other than by upgrading the Dell to a Macbook. Note again the curve motif, the transparency, the lighting, and also a very subtle echoing of the gothic columns.

The designers even added interest to the floor.

Again, every theme of the building is hit: curves, transparency, lighting, and metal. Plus the perimeter lettering that is featured on the Learning Curve displays I mentioned is carried through.

Here’s my favorite part of all this:

Paging Dr. Evil. The use of the ball chair is a wonderful touch. It’s again intelligent playfulness. The kids will love it, and so will adults. It also shows that despite the huge budget overruns on the project, the library board wisely decided against going cheap when kitting out the interior. You’ll also notice here a great example of the library engaging with the city through the windows. It makes me want to kick the kids out, and turn this into my private reading space, but I’m selfish that way.

Not everything here is 100% successful. While I noted the nice “time capsule” embedded in the floor, I didn’t show you the rest of it. Here’s a shot of the flooring:

Ugh. This is drab and institutional. I’m ok with the use of carpet tiles. In fact, I have them in my home. But this is uninspired to say the least.

The directory sign is also lacking.

Sorry about the glare from my flash. This just doesn’t cut it. It looks too much like one of those cheap changeable sign boards you see at church, albeit with a better color scheme. This becomes evident when you see the far superior signage above the escalators.

Now this is fairly handsome. I also like the quadrant design and color scheme. Remind you of anything?

The elevators are also office building grade. And the medium tone wood paneling, while perhaps echoing the Cret library, isn’t perfect in the airy, modern wing.

The interior of the elevators continues the “serviceable and functional” theme.

Upstairs you come to the core of the new wing. Here is the shelving.

I really like this. I like how you have an unobstructed view from one side of the building to the other. I love the track lighting at the top to illuminate the spines. The cheap paper signage on the endcap has to go, however.

The highlight of the seating upstairs is the use of an Aeron chair variant.

The rest of it is not nearly as successful, however.

The only thing that I can think of when I see this is “Welcome to the Admirals’ Club, Mr. Urbanophile”. There is definitely more than a whiff of airport lounge about this.

The tables aren’t inspiring either.

This is standard library issue and again doesn’t seem so great to me, or a good fit for the new wing. However, here is one picture from the Cret wing I will post, that might show the thought process behind this.

I immediately noted the strong resemblance between the red square in the center of that table and the floor tiles in the Cret library (one of the least inspiring aspects of that structure, by the way). Much as with the darker wood paneling, this just doesn’t work in the modern wing, though it is hardly offensive.

Another area that was a miss was the restrooms. It is almost mandatory is a hip, modern building to have the restroom be the coolest part of the place. That’s certainly not the case here, where we are treated to purely institutional fixtures, at least in the gents.

I’ll round out the critiques with what is by far the worst element of the place, the cheap, “Welcome to CVS” shopping baskets.

These are really bad, and clearly an afterthought. Basic metal mesh baskets are readily available on the market, and would go much better with this building. This is one of the little details that make or break buildings. When you take the trouble to ensure a stylish, appropriate shopping basket, you are really showing that a lot of thought and care went into the building. We saw that thought and care on display elsewhere, but not here.

I’ll wrap-up on another one of the building’s highlights, the views of the city from the sixth floor. In fact, some have called it the best view in the city. I won’t go that far, but it is certainly nice, as you can see.

Even a gloomy day and a bad photograph can’t detract too much from that view.

I’ve often noted that Indianapolis looks extremely dense and urban if you photograph it from the right angle. And fortunately for library patrons, the view from the sixth floor is just such an angle. Here is one of my favorite views.

This is yet another space to just hang out in and enjoy. Books are almost beside the point.

In short, the interior spaces of the expanded library are wonderful. The atrium, the Learning Curve, and the sixth floor view are clear highlights. Combined, they make this the most successful library interior I’ve been privileged to see. It isn’t perfect, but the nice thing is that the weak points such as the shopping baskets are mostly reparable at low cost. Hopefully we’ll see improvements in these areas over time, as the natural replacement cycle comes up if nothing else. The core of the building, the permanent part, requires no change.

In the recent past, Indianapolis has perhaps been the least architecturally adventurous big city out there. Given that conservatism, and the very special site, something off the wall like the Seattle library would have been a non-starter. While I do not agree with the choice of a modernist box bookending the classical war memorial mall, given the choice that was made, the new Central Library is reasonably successful, and has a clearly above average interior. In the long run, as fashions change, this will clearly be seen as a period piece, but perhaps it is also something that will age more gracefully than the likes of the Seattle library. Whatever the case, from an interior space perspective, this building really ups the architectural ante in Indianapolis.

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

Renzo Piano on Architecture

The FT Weekend carried a great article about the Renzo Piano Central St. Giles development in London. This features a number of highly interesting quotes about architecture generally. Usually I find these international starchitects and artists pretentious in the extreme, but I think Piano makes a whole lot of sense here. Some excerpts:

When you work in a historical city centre, instead of worrying about the lack of freedom you should be grateful for the restrictions. Creativity doesn’t need freedom, it needs rules, then you can enjoy occasionally breaking those rules. I find myself in trouble building in an open space.

In New York, after September 11, there was a temptation to make everything like a fortress, solid and closed. But in fact we found that transparency is safer than opacity, everyone can see what is happening.

The building doesn’t touch the ground. A building in an intense city should not entirely occupy the ground, it’s like defying gravity. Urbanity is in that little bit of magic. An urban space is a ritual space for the city in which people are able to get rid of difference, in the best case even fear itself disappears …

This idea of flying above the site, it’s not decoration, it’s about accelerating the ritual. We are in the centre of the city and people can walk through the site, cross it, now that the building has been lifted, it has become permeable. This is not just a psychological transparency, a shop window, it is physical.

Ok, that last piece is a bit pretentious, but I still like it. Read the rest for yourself.

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Topics: Architecture and Design

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

Updated: A Fashionable Affair at the IMA

The Midwest has acquired a reputation for prudishness, that, let’s face it, is deserving at times. For example, Carmel, Indiana recently debated a “wholesomeness” resolution, sponsored by a woman who wanted to create a G-rated city for her children. Now I’m not going to suggest that all such things are wrong. Communities need moral and other standards in order to function. However, I think the common perception would be that the Midwest errs on the side of caution here, so to speak.

I’ve always thought this reputation was a bit overblown. Every community has its busybodies. But for the most part I’ve seen the Midwest as a pretty live and let live sort of place. As long as you stay out of other people’s business, they’ll stay out of yours. What’s more, Indiana has always harbored a soft spot for offbeat characters who didn’t fit in with the norm. This is, after all, the state that resisted daylight savings time to the bitter end.

Here’s an illustration of what I mean, one that would probably come as quite a surprise to outsiders. And let’s be honest here, to yours truly a bit as well. The Indianapolis Star posted a small notice about an opening celebration [dead link] for a new fashion-related exhibit called “Breaking the Mode” at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Here’s a quote that caught my attention:

“Dowagers and drag queens squeezed into the Pulliam Great Hall for cocktails and canapés while loud techno music filled the air.”

Drag queens? Yes, indeed. In fact, the Star even posted a picture to prove it, which I’ll include here with a rare fair use claim. From left to right we’ve got Dawn Tabler, drag queen Matthew Garger, and Jacqueline Anderson, wife of the IMA director.

How about some props to “Ms.” Garger – that’s not a bad look.

On seeing this someone commented, “Indy is not Chicago, so I’m pleasantly surprised.” Well I’ll tell you that I’ve been to more than my share of swanky receptions in Chicago, and I’ve never seen them hire drag queens to work the floors. (Some of the nightclubs do, however, or at least used to). In this regard, Naptown seems to be outpacing the Windy City.

Admittedly, the article provides little context on the event, so I don’t know the specific circumstances here, but when a major civic institution like the IMA hosts an event like this and it is apparently no big deal to invite the drag queens, I think it shows a city with a more progressive attitude than a lot of people give it credit for.

Update: The IMA has a blog posting about this event. Apparently it featured a full fledged drag show. Also, photos of the very stylish events of the evening are available on their flickr page.

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

Review: Indianapolis Library Expansion – Part Two: Artwork

In part one of my review, I covered the exterior of the building, and had intended for part two to cover the more successful interior. (Now posted as part three). However, this week the library announced it was adding two new pieces of sculpture to the front of the Cret building facing the mall. There were two pedestals flanking the entrance that had originally been intended to hold sculptures when the building was originally built in 1917. This new work fills in those pedestals.

As with the expansion, the library board disregarded the classical formalism of the setting and the Cret building in favor of contemporary art designs, this one from California artist Peter Shelton. It is notable that the library bucked what must have been intense pressure to pick a local artist, and instead went with someone from out of state, though the Star article didn’t say anything about the selection process.

The two sculptures, titled “thinmanlittlebird” are bound to be polarizing. One message board poster summed them up this way, “Great. The entrance to a beautiful neoclassical building will be flanked by a donut and an untwisted coat hanger.” Another more kindly disposed said, “I love the library sculptures, and I love them more everytime I look at the render. I’m shocked that something so progressive is even being considered in Indy. It reminds me of some sculptures I’ve seen in front of old public buildings in Berlin and even the clash of old and new, classic and modern you see at La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.”

Without further ado, here’s that render:

Before we get to the aesthetics, there are two key problems with these sculptures that need to be noted. The first is with the “coat hanger”. Note the gigantic scale of this versus the building. It is totally out of proportion and will again overpower the building to become the focal point over a wide area. The second is the lack of symmetry. There is an incredibly strong axial symmetry along the entire mall from the court house to the library. Heck, even the modern expansion respected this axial symmetry.

Symmetry and proportion are two of the key features of classical formalism, of which, again, the downtown war memorial mall is one of the absolute best examples in the United States if not the world. These sculptures are disrespectful not only to the Cret building, but the war memorials as well.

Note that neither of these problems has anything to do with the contemporary design nature of the art, and indeed would be easily repaired simply by eliminating the coat hanger and replacing it with another donut. Far better to just make this “twodonuts”.

You might be asking yourself how the library could possibly justify paying for sculptures when Indiana is in the midst of a property tax crisis and the expansion was so far over budget. The answer is that they can’t, and they didn’t. These $750,000 sculptures are being paid for by private donors, notably Chris and Ann Sack, who are obviously fans of the sculptor’s works. Whatever one might think of the appropriateness of these sculptures, the generosity of the Sacks and others who paid for this is praiseworthy indeed.

This article hit me like a bolt out of the blue. It makes me wonder. Were there any public hearings on these sculptures prior to this announcement? They might be privately paid for, but this a public space, and no ordinary space to boot. It is literally hallowed ground. The several blocks to the south of the library are dedicated to the memories of the men and women who served and in all too many cases gave their lives in the service of Indiana and their country. These sculptures, notably the coat hanger, will be visible from the American Legion Mall, the war memorial plaza, and probably the World War Memorial as well. Is this what we want those who come to pay tribute to Indiana’s fallen to see? Have the views of the Indiana War Memorial Commission and veterans groups taken into account? Just last year an actual war memorial (the Indiana National Guard Memorial) was rejected for University Park because it was considered architecturally inappropriate to the setting. This seems like a similar situation.

Another concern I have is the potential of the sculptor retaining a copyright in the designs, and thus being in a position to demand royalties or worse yet dictate artistic control over images of the war memorials. I don’t know if he will or not, but it is worth finding out. Imagine if every post card of the new library had to pay a royalty to this guy. Or if he thought all wars were evil and wanted to ban patriotic post cards that included images of his work. This clearly needs to be stipulated as “work for hire” over which the sculptor retains no rights.

Moving on to the aesthetics, I am personally not a fan of either design, but realize that this is to some extent a matter of personal taste. I am actually a big fan of contemporary architecture and design generally, as my cheerleading for Museum Plaza should show. But it has to be done right, and in the right place. Glancing solely at that rendering, I’d have to say this is certainly not the right place. While right now I’m not crazy about the designs generally, they might look better in person.

The commenter above made an interesting comparison about the contrast of classical and new in Europe. I don’t believe we have a similar case in Indianapolis. European cities overflow with good classical design, thus they are in a position to have more fun with it. In Indianapolis, classical design is rarer, and thus more precious. This is particularly true of the war memorial mall, which is a truly spectacular international example of the style. If one is going to go crazy on a modern/classical mix, the best place to do is is the old city hall, which could use the enhancement.

Perhaps there’s a better way. I’m sure these would look way better if they weren’t in front of the classical library. Why not put them along the Cultural Trail instead? These sculptures could end up being a home run someplace like the intersection of South, East, and Virginia. Despite bordering Fletcher Place, this area is pretty desolate today. That means it isn’t as sexy a locale. But that’s precisely the point. A large scale sculpture like the coat hanger would make an excellent gateway piece and mark a transition between the Mile Square and Fletcher Place. It could become a transformative catalyst for the area, and the focus of a major rethinking of that intersection. You could literally re-imagine that part of downtown around these sculptures, making them much more a positive force for the city.

I do have a correction to make to my previous review of the building exterior. I had been puzzled by an odd bronze sculpture on top of the rear entrance:

This sculpture was apparently part of the original, pre-Cret library building and dates to 1892. It was created by Richard Bock. You can read all about it on the library’s web site. Thanks to corrnd for the link.

I will continue this series on the new library in part three, focusing on the very strong interior spaces of the library.

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

Columbus Ranked #1 Up and Coming Tech City

I always take these weekly business magazine lists with a grain of salt, but publicity is always good. Forbes Magazine recently named Columbus, Ohio its number one up and coming tech city. What’s more, this list was produced by a professor at George Mason University, Philip Auerswald. According to the article:

‘The cities on this list aren’t the places you’d expect to be up-and-coming centers for the next generation of technologies,’ said Auerswald, ‘But 30 years ago, few would have imagined Las Vegas as the center of a real estate boom.’

Auerswald surveyed specific pockets of science–including advanced materials, nano-crystals and quantum dots, polymers and plastics, micro-systems and cell microbiology–that most experts consider today’s most promising frontiers of innovation.

Borrowing a method devised by Anthony Breitzman, a researcher at 1790 Analytics, an intellectual-property valuation firm, Auerswald then looked for important relationships among patents within each general technical area. The most important patents are generally referenced by other inventors in the field when they file for their own patents; lesser patents garner fewer citations. The greater the increase in the number of important patents in a given city, the higher it ranked on Auerswald’s list.

So the list appears to be driven off patents in technology that Aueswald believes are likely to be hot in the future. Looking at his list of tech areas, it is hard to argue too much with it. Using this methodology, Columbus came up number one. A key reason was the Battelle Memorial Institute, which oversees several labs for the Department of Energy, managing a $4 billion budget. Again, according to the article, “The institute has become a force in almost every area of emerging technology, especially life sciences and energy research. One of its children, Velocys, is working on a way to cut the cost of capturing the 3 trillion cubic feet of the world’s stranded natural gas by converting it to easily transportable liquid.”

Fellow Midwest metro Milwaukee was number five on the list and Pittsburgh number six. From what I saw of it, it certainly helped to have some official US government sponsored lab in your area.

All is not well in Columbus, however. As a bonus follow-up on a story I previously mentioned about financial troubles at the Columbus Symphony, it now appears that the orchestra may cease trading entirely in April. Here is more coverage. I’ve seen these sagas play out enough times that I’m doubtful the orchestra would go under completely. The corporate base of the town realizes that would be a black eye for the city. It would be tough to be city without an orchestra and tout the quality of life there. But as this is mostly a checkbox item for most people, the actual artistic quality need not be that high. Hence the desire to radically downsize the orchestra. The monkey wrench is the musicians, at least some of whom have said they’d rather see the orchestra go out of business that accept cuts.

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

Cities on the Edge of Chaos

Those who know me know that I’m a huge newspaper reader. I’ve recommended the Financial Times before. Another of my favorites is The Guardian from the UK. The arts and culture coverage there is superb.

Like most British papers, they have a separate Sunday edition known as the Observer, which last week carried a long article by Deyan Sudjic talking about the future of the city. I believe this is a sort of excerpt/summary of the book he wrote with Ricky Burdett called “Endless City”. This article is well worth reading and is highly recommended. Here is an excerpt:

Politicians love cranes; they need solutions within the time frames of elections and cranes deliver them. But there are only a limited number of problems that are susceptible to this kind of time scale. The result is a constant cycle of demolition and reconstruction that is seen as the substitute for thinking about how to address the deeper issues of the city. Visions for cities tend to be the creation of the boosters rather than the theorists or the policy-makers. City builders have always had to be pathological optimists, if not out-and-out fantasists. They belong to a tradition that connects the map-makers who parcel up packages of swamp land to sell to gullible purchasers, and the show-apartment builders who sell off-plan to investors in Shanghai, who are banking on a rising market, making them a paper profit before they have even had to make good on their deposits.

Cities are made by an extraordinary mixture of do-gooders and bloody-minded obsessives, of cynical political operators and speculators. They are shaped by the unintended consequences of the greedy and the self-interested, the dedicated and the occasional visionary. The cities that work best are those that keep their options open, that allow the possibility of change.

The ones that are stuck, overwhelmed by rigid, state-owned social housing, or by economic systems that offer the poor no way out of the slums are in trouble. A successful city is one that makes room for surprises. A city that has been trapped by too much gentrification, or too many shopping malls, will have trouble generating the spark that is essential to making a city that works.

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Topics: Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Urban Culture

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

Review: Indianapolis Library Expansion – Part One: The Exterior

This is the first in a three part series reviewing the architecture of the new addition to the Indianapolis-Marion County Central Library building. (Now posted: part two covering the artwork and part three covering the interior). This project added a major new addition to the existing Central Library building, raising the total square footage from 124,000 to 293,000, plus adding an underground parking garage. This project cost $155 million, incurring over $50 million in cost overruns, spawning numerous lawsuits over alleged design and construction flaws.

The original Central Library building was a neo-classical structure designed by Paul Cret and constructed in 1917. It anchored the north end of the downtown War Memorial mall. This extended seven block mall is one of America’s great urban spaces. It features a series of major civic structures, and much of it is a National Historic Landmark, the highest rating given by the federal government. The south end is anchored by the Federal Court House, followed by University Park, the stupendous and imposing Indiana World War Memorial, Veterans Memorial Plaza, two blocks of the American Legion headquarters, and finally the library.

Again, this is simply one of the finest urban spaces anywhere in the United States. Much like Monument Circle, most cities would kill to have something like this. It is also a magnificent example of classical formalism. Here are some pictures of the original Library.

You’ll see that what we have here is a typical neoclassical structure. Below see the main entrance.

Presumably the Marion County part was added later.

If you click and enlarge the photo above, you’ll see the names of the literary greats of history engraved – Plato, Vergil, Isaiah, and so one – a reminder of a bygone day when people cared about enlightening and uplifting the human spirit instead of entertainment and chicken soup for the soul.

Given this heritage, one would have expected the Library board to show enormous respect to the history and design here. However, the Library decided to go with the architectural firm of Woollen Molzan, one of the few local purveyors of modernist architecture in Indianapolis. This should have immediately sent a signal that a project that respected the design of the mall would not be in the works. Wollen Molzan already showed their disdain for the site once, with their 1976 Minton-Capehart Federal Building. Admittedly, that’s a structure that has grown on me over the years, and would now be something I’d have to put into the category of “so bad it’s good”. Still, the location of that building, overlooking the Veterans Memorial Plaza like some sort of bizarre Ministry of Truth, is far from ideal. But utopian modernist architects have never been known for their sensitivity to the built environment. Other notable local projects include an undistinctive public housing project on Mass Ave called Barton Place, that along with the fire station across the street cuts Mass Ave in half, and Clowes Hall at Butler, a more successful structure though not personally to my taste.

Naturally, the architects elected to construct a modernist structure that denigrates the existing Cret library. Without further ado, here’s a picture.

What immediately pops out from the front view is the way the new addition hulks over and dwarfs the original building. From an aerial perspective, you’d see that the addition is in the shape of an arc which can be seen to be cradling the library and bookending the mall. I don’t think the shape per se is awful. Indeed, it is a subtle echoing of the Circle and has been adopted elsewhere, such as in the design of the new JW Marriott. However, the scaling of the building, and the jarring contrast with the Cret building and the mall vitiate any of its good points.

Let’s be clear and direct. This project was a desecration.

In this regard, it echoes another previous project that happened up the road in Chicago. That was the renovation and expansion of Solider Field. This involved adding a similar modernist glass and steel addition on top of the neoclassical original. The resulting design has been described by many as a flying saucer landing on top of Soldier Field, and it was widely panned by architecture critics. In fact, the defacing of the stadium led to it being stripped of its National Historic Landmark status by the federal government.

Once you get past the architectural poke in the eye that is the entire concept of this design, things start getting better. There are actually some nicer things about the exterior, and the interior is much more successful.

Because the Cret library is in the way, it is difficult to get a sense of the exterior design of the addition, however, as I noted it is a curved, six story structure, with glass on the front and rear facades, and polished metal on the east and west ends. There is also a parking entrance on the eastern side, an access road that leads to a drop area, and a few interesting items in the back we’ll see later. This photo should give you a sense of it, however.

Here you see the banded glass on the front, which taken on its own terms is very nice, with the largely windowless sides in metal, subtly carrying the bands around the building. This is a nice contrast that works well together. In fact, I think what we have here is the making of a first class office building in Carmel. Indeed, it reminds me a bit of what used to be called the HP building, which was a similar arcing, curved building in Carmel just north and west of I-465 and Meridian St., though that building is stylistically different.

A few other things to note here. A plaza off to the side of the Cret library has been kitted out with benches and the like to make a pocket park. This should be nice come summer. Though they have a miss with the rather low design concept iron fence. A fence is ok, but that one looks like it came from some home and garden catalog. Also note the Ambassador Apartments building behind the library. It is actually on the library’s block, and was preserved as part of this structure. Antique street lamps complete the contrast of modern and traditional. I’d suggest a city repairman pay a visit there, however.

Here we see a slightly different vantage point, showing how the Cret library was bridged to the additional through the use of a glass atrium. There is no graceful way to link two structures so different, but I think this is a very admirable job, and the interior of the atrium is one of the building’s highlights.

You gain an additional appreciation for this atrium when you take the identical view of the building, but shift just to the north so that you are looking right into the steel sides of the addition. This is looking directly west from Pennsylvania St.

An oddly oriented vent grate of some sort, flood lamps, and a blank metal wall are not inviting to say the least. You also see how the use of the arc shape, in contrast to the rest of the mall, doesn’t respect the rectangular lot shape, making it appear even more disconnected. Contrast with the view you see if you look at the opposite side of the street.

The Abbey doesn’t have an outdoor cafe, and now that’s probably a good thing. I can’t imagine the view across the street would do much for business. Now I wouldn’t expect a major civic structure to directly engage the street in the way that a storefront would. These buildings demand a greater dignity and separation. However, the library eastern view (and identical western view) show almost a disdain for the street and surroundings. The original Cret building did it much better. Here is the west facade of the Cret library:

A bit further north again and we come to the parking garage entrance. I’ll start with the sign.

Garage signage is one of those overlooked details that is nevertheless highly visible. Those little temporary things you see outside most commercial garages are pathetic. This one, by contrast, appears to have actually had some graphical design thought put into it. I’m not going to pronounce it world class, but it is very solid indeed.

Here is the garage entrance itself.

I applaud underground parking generally. I believe that pre-addition, this area was a surface lot. Of course a garage necessitates an entrance/exit of some sort. I believe this is probably as unobtrusive as it could have possibly been designed.

Here’s a slightly different view from just a bit north. This really goes to highlight the effectiveness of the entrance. In effect, if you aren’t looking direct onto the ramp, you can’t even see it.

You can also see here the sidewalk along the side of Ambassador building, creating a pedestrian linkage across the lot. Nice.

Continuing around the back of the building, you see here a drop off area with curb side book return drop box.

I’m not sure what that unfinished circular projection is at the back of the building, but my guess is that it’s an auditorium of some sort. Here’s a closer look.

Here is the actual rear entrance itself.

The entrance is nice, and so is the bike parking, but what the heck is that sculpture on top? It looks like a very tacky version of something you’d expect to be gracing a classical monument. Not good at all. It’s almost as if the architect included this as a throwaway gesture to the mall. About the only good thing I can say about it is that the Library board bravely allowed the inclusion of classical nudes, something that can only lead to trouble in certainly overly prude segments of our society.

Here is one my favorite shots. Old and new side by side.

This is one place the contrast of traditional and modern really works to create an integrated whole. The horizontal bands on the library match nicely to the horizontal windows on the Ambassador building, while the mechanical grates (or whatever they are) relate to the vertical ones.

Here is one looking south towards the northwest corner of the building from the rear.

The view of the west side of the building is nearly identical to the east, sans parking garage, so I won’t show that. The buildings on the far side of Meridian are not quite as engaging as the Abbey, however.

On the whole, the exterior of the building is pretty nice if viewed as a sort of standalone office building. In fact, most of its flaws would not even be such if we viewed this is being a suburban building. However, given the siting on hallowed ground at the end of the neoclassical mall, the entire concept flawed. No amount of architectural detail could have overcome the damage attaching a hulking, overpowering modernist box to the Cret library.

Fortunately, the interior of the building is far more successful. That will be the subject of a future posting.

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