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.

Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Indianapolis

21 Responses to “Review: Indianapolis Library Expansion – Part One: The Exterior”

  1. Crocodileguy says:

    Thanks for the very interesting write-up. One question, though: do you have a photo of a head-on of the Cret frontal facade with the new glass behind it? The reason I ask is that the “front” view you provided is at a sharp angle, and the two structures look mis-matched…but I’m wondering if a more head-on view shows the glass structure framing or highlighting the original? I generally like the addition, and certainly think it’s one of the best designs they could have done as a new neoclassical addition would also surely look out of place behind the obviously older structure.

  2. Crocodileguy says:

    Found one…and IMO it looks MUCH better from this angle:

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    I actually found it difficult to find a head on shot. As you can see from the low quality photography, I took all the pictures myself with a point and shoot. I was also a little rushed for time and couldn’t seek out the best spot. Without a zoom lens, it’s difficult to get the shot you want think because you need to be beyond the sunken garden.

  4. thundermutt says:

    Very nice writeup. I concur with your major points.

    The oblong pod still U/C on the north side is the new auditorium.

    The sculpture over the rear entrance is a returned exile. The whole story was told at some point in a newspaper story, but I think the sculpture graced a former entrance to either the Cret building or the first (now-demolished) expansion of it.

    Crocodileguy inadvertently raises my major objection to this building. There is exactly one good viewing angle, being front dead center on the Mall. Every other view looks “off”.

  5. CorrND says:

    Yeah, I think I remember hearing something about that sculpture on the entrance. It’s VERY old and I think it was in “storage” at Crown Hill or something like that.

  6. CorrND says:

    Yeah, here we go. Designed in 1892 (wow, I didn’t realize it was THAT old) for the original library (1892-1967). Then is was moved to Crown Hill (1967-1981) where it was vandalized. It was moved, unrepaired, to the lawn of the Cret Building in 1981. They apparently had it repaired and placed on top of the entrance as part of the renovation.

  7. Jason266 says:

    Couldn’t disagree with you more. I’ll let me review from December cover most of my thoughts, but a couple of quick things.

    There is, historically, really only one viewing angle. When Walker and Weeks created the design for the American Legion Mall and War Memorial, they very purposely put a very heavy emphasis on the central axis. In fact, if you visit the War Memorial museum, you will see the original model that has a special viewing port to let you know that there is only one intended way to view this majestic site, and that is by looking north and south from dead center.

    The Secretary for the Interior creates guidelines that architects are supposed to use when designing renovations or additions to historical structures. In creating an addition to an existing building, the new structure is suppose to compliment the building but still be a part of the timeperiod from which it was built. I believe this project to be successful in that point.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I viewed the entire area today for a couple of hours and the meld of old and new extremely disproportionate. The expansion simply dwarfs the Cret building from all sides.
    It’s as if the cut a Deusenberg in half and attached the back end of a huge chrome plated Hummer SUV to it.
    Personally, the modernist addition hitched to the old was not pleasing to my eyes. I can appreciate the old and the new for what they are as stand alones but when combined it just looks……..well, it looks goofy.

  9. The Urbanophile says:

    thundermutt, you stole my thunder on that comment. This is yet another building designed to look at its best when seen only from one particular angle. However, even from there the dwarfing of the Cret structure is clearly evident.

    I was unaware the statue is old. That is good to know. Having said that, I still find it a bit cheesy over that entrance, though that clears up the rationale for including it.

    Jason, I respect your views, but disagree with them. Classicism is a timeless style and while I would certainly not advocate overly conservative architecture (I’m indeed a big fan of a lot of modern structures), something that blended in would have been ten thousand times more appropriate here.

    If I hit the lottery, I’d be tempted to spend money buying up modern masterpieces and will retaliate building by building for every desecration like this by some equivalent sloppy addition to a modern structure. Imagine the howls of outrage if someone tacked a Colonial porch onto the Farnsworth House. That’s exactly the equivalent of what happened here.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Can someone do a photoshop showing what the Farnsworth house would look like with a Colonial style porch in it?
    I would like to see it.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I like the views provided on the south side of the building overlooking the mall. But it would have been nice if they added more spectacular views to the east and west rather then a windowless metal exterior wall. And the north views look straight into the windows of the Ambassador Apartments building. In my opinion the shadow of the Ambassador building gives the north rooms of the library a rather dark and dreary atmosphere. This is very notable on the first floor in the children section. And I agree that the atrium is the building’s highlight.

  12. thundermutt says:

    I forgot to mention my favorite “cheesy” part of the exterior. On the west side, there is a preserved old stone doorway standing out in space. It is really dwarfed by the “side-yard” space along Meridian.

    Properly enhanced (i.e. new side bolstering elements), it might have been a more fitting and visible setting for the old sculpture…perhaps even the focal point of a sculpture garden in a space that should be a public plaza.

  13. thundermutt says:

    More cheese, visible in Urbanophile’s photos: the painted-steel decks and stairways at the east and west emergency exits from the Atrium. They look like something from the back of a tilt-up warehouse in Park 100. They definitely should not be on Meridian or Penn.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Here is an article that shows a dead on front view. Scroll down about 1/4 down.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Columbus and Indianapolis, AGAIN!!

    Columbus added on to its Downtown library in 1991. CML’s Main library also started out as a Carnegie Library (seen in the front), and now includes an underground parking garage.

    However, Indy can be commended for including a lot of windows in its addition. This wasn’t the trend when Columbus built its add-on.

    Ohio State’s current Thompson library renovation will have a mostly glass Atrium/alternate entrance on its back end. It replaces an ugly Modernist concrete block which didn’t serve as an entrance to the library.

    I see this as a welcome development– more natural light to read by, but, I suppose, higher maintenance costs in cleaning the windows.

  16. Anonymous says:

    This might be the money shot everyone’s talking about in Columbus’s case… but not really…

  17. Anonymous says:

    I actually like the additon to the Library.

  18. Mark says:

    The library addition is just another example of Indianapolis’ inability to “inspire” good architecture, or to at least push the architectural envelope further.
    As an area architect working at one of the more well-known firms in the state, I’m tired of what I see in this city. The new stadium design: conservative. JW Mariott: conservative. Convention center: HIGHLY conservative. New library addition: highly conservative.
    What exactly does the new library addition add to the overall character of the city? From the exterior, is DOMINATES the city axis, and with what? An entire curtain wall facade will little architectural “flair”.
    I hate to say it, but the only building built in Indy in the last several years that even begins to push the envelope is the Simon building, and I HATE that building because of what it does to the Capitol building.
    I don’t want the city to push for Ghery or similar styles, but if we’re going to spend 200+ million on one of our most important civic buildings, lets at least make it attractive and a visual civic magnet.

  19. Anonymous says:

    understand exactly what you are saying here, but I think the dynamic of this entire thing my change with the new “skin” of the old INB tower is finished….from the renderings I’ve seen it will have the addition to the library feel to it…and after all that building and Chase Tower of the south towering bookends to that area. Will be interesting to see and what kind of feel it has. Never be to short sighted on these things. This could all begin to look very nice and cosmpolitan.

  20. Carla says:

    Okay, go into the Cret main area, look up at the windows and tell me those 1980s mall arches don’t look like some overscaled movie creature peeking in.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Eyesore ! Being a recent transplant from Detroit (where you hardly ever go downtown) we found ourselves going downtown in Indy all the time. HOWEVER, I cringe every time we drive by the library. What utter disrespect ! I’m sure its functional and beautiful inside but couldn’t they have respected the history of the area. What is here in downtown Indy is truly special and hard to find in other metro cities. It was spat on with that eyesore of an addition. Someone got paid off…..seriously how else can you explain something like that getting approved.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures