Sunday, March 16th, 2008
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.