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.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

12 Responses to “Review: Indianapolis Library Expansion – Part Two: Artwork”

  1. Anonymous says:

    While as individual pieces of art I do like these, but I think you are right they have no business at the Lib. Maybe Mass Ave., WR State Park. But I do like the addition to the Library.

  2. SpeedBlue47 says:

    This is why I hate the concept of “public property” so much. If this were private property, I would just look at these sculptures and say “How Silly”, but I can’t. These things are being commissioned using money taken from Indianapolis residents and installed on a piece of property paid for by Indianapolis residents.

    Art is a subject that enacts strong emotions, especially when that art is not being paid for voluntarily. People can create as many “scribble dot line” abstract paintings they want, as long as someone gives them the money voluntary for doing such. Their money, their business. But someone like me, who likes art that actually represents beauty in the real world, does not want to see money coming out of his paycheck, or added to the price of his purchases, so that these sort of things can come into existence.

    So, it is with reluctance that I agree with you here. The only thing that one can do is say, “Who likes it?” in the form of a public hearing. But the problem is this: Public Hearings are usually attended by busybodies who have a stake in the project, and does not represent even a cross-section of the populace that is footing the bill. That’s why I say that if we feel the need for public projects such as this, enact legislation saying that all such projects must be announced and all details released for three months and then followed with a general referendum before the project can get the OK. It’s sad that we choose to enact rigid systems of ownership and improvement for civic spaces, because it necessitates that we move closer to a direct democracy (the kind that lead to the fall of Athens and that our founding fathers warned us away from).

  3. Peter says:

    I have to agree with your post and 12:51’s comment – these sculptures are simply not appropriate for the Classic facade of the Cret building. I don’t particularly dislike the art, and I can think of a lot of places where they would work well – along the Monon, for example, or on Mass Ave or College-near-BR. Actually, the more I think of it, the cooler I think those locations would be.

    But here they just don’t work with their surroundings and end up detracting from the library…and the library also detracts from appreciating the sculptures themselves.

    I am a moderate fan of the new library (except for the silver sides…). But, like it or not, the new design did attempt to respect the Cret building and the mall by framing the Cret building and carrying on the library’s role in bookending (as it were) the north side of the mall. And while reasonable people can disagree as to how successful the attempt was, it is clear that the architects made an attempt to do so.

    The sculptures, on the other hand, are completely context free. As U. pointed out, the coat-hangar (actually, it looks to me like rebar that is being placed there for the construction of the actual sculpture) is out of proportion with the building, while the donut doesn’t match the coat hangar at all.

  4. & DAGGER says:

    I like the sculptures.

    I think both the building and sculptures are energized when contrasted with each other’s stylistic differences. I applaud the library’s courage in selecting such polarizing art.

    It’s great that this area is becoming a nice little hotbed of opposing aesthetic values. This adds visual interest and spurs conversations about the merits of each.

    As a side-note, they will be along the Cultural Trail which passes in front of the library.

  5. Mordant says:

    While I usually enjoy or at least take some interest in modern sculpture, I agree that these particular works are grossly out of place and generally constitute a stick in the eye of the public. Doubtless this makes the artist feel very good. I’m still waiting for an artist to show up overhead in a fire-fighting airplane, spray hog urine over the city, and then berate us for being philistines because we don’t appreciate the deep meaning of the performance.

    At least these latest excretions weren’t paid for with tax money; as the entry notes, “These $750,000 sculptures are being paid for by private donors”. So there’s that at least to be thankful for.

  6. Anonymous says:

    First and foremost neither of these pieces is pleasing to the eye given where they have been placed.
    They provide as symmetry as an empty quart bottle of Colt 45 sitting on one side of the steps and an car battery on the other.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I think your right the “coat hangar” woould be great down towar FoSQ area…great idea!

  8. Anonymous says:

    The coat hanger and donut look hideous. I thought that picture was a joke when I saw it.

    However, I do like the lights and shards of glass artwork in the elevator lobby of the parking garage. It’s really cool. Does anyone know who the artist is?

    (If you aren’t sure which piece I’m talking about, you can see some snapshots of it here: )

  9. The Urbanophile says:

    I don’t know who the artist was on that – sorry. If anyone else knows, feel free to post. You could also ask someone at the library – I’m sure they could tell you.

  10. Anonymous says:

    These “sculptures” are hideous. It looks like a junkyard threw up.

  11. Chris Hodapp says:

    Vandalism masquerading as art, and an abomination to the building. It doesn’t get much more inappropriate than this junk.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I saw this sculpture first from a distance and was drawn to it like a magnet. I love it. It looks fantastic next to the library and adds some lightness and caprice – an odd smile to an otherwise austere and somber setting. The Giacometti/Salvador Dali-like slimman seems lost (likely because he has no head), wandering the city in search of truth (or a head!), and we below are helpless to assist because he is a menacing giant. And the donutbird reminds me of Billy Collins's poems, all of them, where little birds are always tangential to the plot (like Madmen).

    What did ya'll want, a bunch of kids reading books? How about a monument to Thoreau or Emerson because, you know, they wrote books and this is, well . . . a library. Or how about Portlandia ? I like Portlandia, but partly because it is juxtaposed against the postmodern Grave's building and isn't just another neo-classical element in a predictable and symmetrical neo-classical scene.

    Public input ruins so many projects. The WWII memorial in DC is a fine example. Besides, your view is inundated by acres of economically efficient, garbage aesthetics that you had no say in defining. Even around the War Memorial. I, for one, am happy and smile when someone interrupts my view and drags me a couple blocks just so I can gaze on it a little longer and ponder (I'm just surprised it was Peter Shelton, whose aesthetics usually don't excite me). Albert Paley did that to me in the Houston Grand Opera, Alexander Calder did it in DC, and Monument Circle did it my first visit to Indy. I'm glad Indy now has more awesome art.

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