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.

Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Indianapolis

7 Responses to “Review: Indianapolis Library Expansion – Part Three: The Interior”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I am gald you finally found something to like about the new library. Taken as a whole I think the libraty is a yet another solid hit for Indy.

  2. CorrND says:

    The sixth floor view is really amazing. One nit picky thing I don’t like, though, is that you can’t get a dead-center photo down the mall because the escalator occupies the center-front of the 6th floor. Oh well, a small detail in the grand scheme of things.

  3. thundermutt says:

    for anon 4:54, most of us will spend far more time looking at the fugly outside of the building than the inside. From that perspective, I disagree with your assertion that it’s a hit overall.

    Access, activity, and permeability help create streetlife in any city. Here is a missed opportunity: the cafe space is fenced off from the street. There is no doubt that this is a great public indoor space and a great library space. But it fails as a “great public place”. (For far more on place-making, see the Project for Public Spaces website at

    Tear down the fence and that gawdawful dock stair. Create a tiered deck with some covered outdoor dining (perhaps extending a lower glass roof outward) and table service to generate some serious concession revenue for the Library. Hire The Urbanophile (or a professor from SPEA) to run a public forum series there on cities and urban issues. Bring in chamber-music, jazz, acoustic folk/rock/soul. Hold poetry readings. Show movies using the remaining limestone backside of the Cret Building as the screen. Have the Library’s wildly successful “garage sale” there a couple of times a year. Art shows, markets, whatever.

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    How about this, thunder? SPEA should hire me as a professor, then I could do this lecture series for free. :)

  5. Anonymous says:

    The “egg chairs” in the youth section of the libary are great — I do wish these were found on other floors as well. I’m not 14 anymore, but I’d still love to curl up with a good book in one of these.
    Regarding the floor tiles in the old building: I believe these might be original to the structure. You’ll notice virtually no sound of heels clicking the floor, perhaps that that was the intended purpose of the flooring?

  6. thundermutt says:

    anon: That looks (and sounds) as if it’s cork or linoleum flooring, which are both back in vogue because each is made from a renewable resource.

    Urbanophile: I’m sure you’d have plenty of good references from your readers, including me.

  7. Anonymous says:

    oh I forgot it is a library not a cafe

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