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Sunday, August 10th, 2008

I Have a Dream: Public Sculpture Edition

I had an epiphany while on an invigorating tour of the Meridian St. corridor a couple weeks back. My tour guide noted the plaza that was built around the elevated section of I-65 along the north side of downtown. These contain Octagonal designed surfaces at the corner of Meridian on the north side of I-65. Here’s a picture.


I’ve never been a big fan of octagons and hexagons, which were en vogue in the 1970’s. I think the use of hexagonal pavers is the weakest part of the Cultural Trail design. These things bring back too many memories of bad urban design such as the ill-fated State Street busway/pedestrian mall in Chicago. Still, this isn’t bad. But it does seem underutilized. Another one across Meridian creates a matching set.


This picture gives a bit more of the context of the setting as well.

When I saw this it really hit me: this is the perfect site for a pair of coat hangers!

To refresh your memory, the library is planning to install an artwork by Peter Shelton called “thinmanlittlebird”, consisting of a tall wire figure and a squat torus. These will be mounted on the pedestals flanking the Cret building entrance as shown in the rendering below.


The appearance of these caused one message board poster to dub them the “coat hanger” and the “donut”, which are as good as anything.

While I don’t mind the sculptures pair itself, I am not a fan of the site chosen for them. To refresh your memory, my reasons are:

  • The contemporary designs clash with the classical formalism of the memorial mall. This could work in another neoclassical setting such as the old city hall, which could use a breath of fresh air like this, but does not pass muster in this most special space.
  • It’s unbalanced design destroys the axial symmetry of the memorial blocks. Even the modern library addition respected this.
  • The coat hanger is completely out of scale to the building and the nearby memorials. It will be clearly visible from even the World War Memorial building.
  • Most importantly, these sculptures are thematically and aesthetically at odds with the solemn formality of the memorial mall. These blocks are literally hallowed ground, dedicated to Indiana’s war dead. The sculptures, at that location, show profound disrespect for Hoosiers fallen in battle. I can’t imaging many veterans groups happy with this. Gratuitous gestures of this nature only turn the public at large against contemporary art. These sculptures have already been referred to by those who applaud Mayor Ballard’s proposal to terminate of city art funding (though city funding is not paying for these).

The designs themselves are growing on me, and I think they could work well elsewhere. And I believe the Meridian/I-65 plaza, in the middle of those octagons, is the perfect site. Here’s a picture looking down Meridian right at where they would be:


I would put the coat hanger on the left, where it would be in scale with both the Anthem building and balance the existing tower on the right. The solidity of the donut balances the squat Anthem tower. In effect, the existing framing of downtown is echoed at smaller scale and balanced by thinmanlittlebird.

I will admit to being a pro-symmetry bigot. The human eye is just programmed that way anyway. We like symmetrical things. So I’ll give an alternative. Commission Shelton to make a matched pair. Well, not totally matched. You want symmetry of a sort, with just enough off about it to bring a bit of tension an interest. Two slightly different coat hangers like giant pillars on Meridian would be in perfect scale to the area and make a great gateway to downtown without obscuring the view. They’d even help provide visual relief and a touch of whimsy to passersby on the interstate. Then take the two donuts and put them at the library after all. This would eliminate the biggest problems with the current proposal. If you made the little bird an appropriate species (a dove comes to mind, but this is rather facile – it should be possible to get a better answer), you could even solve the thematic problem. This would combine balance, proportion, contemporary art, theme, and emotional tone in a way that respects the nature of the site.

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

9 Responses to “I Have a Dream: Public Sculpture Edition”

  1. Jefferey says:

    The number of galleries in Louisville indicates there is sufficent disposable income there to permit visual arts patronage. Since people are already spending substantial sums on visual arts, pay events wouldn't be unreasonable. In fact one event, the Good Folk Festival, already charges admission.

    But not gallery openings. Gratis wine & cheese are sort of traditional for gallery openings, no?

    The columnists comments on Actos Theatre seemed a bit odd, that she felt the need to point out Actors as special. I thought Actors was recognized as a top peforming arts organization, on par with the SOB trio, since the 1970s.

  2. SpeedBlue47 says:

    Wow, how sad it is that it’s “bold” to state that artist should ask people to pay to see their work. I’m actually surprised that artist don’t team up with hotels and restaurants and other places frequented by their target demographic and ask for voluntary promotion of the arts from business owners in return for letting the art reside within their establishments. Art that is free or cost-negative to an owner that is eager to add some ambiance to their place of business? Sounds like a winning combination.

    And that way, you don’t need to worry about the wine and cheese.

  3. Josh says:

    I think the sculpture is perfect for that setting. Indy is way too precious about the mall. The space is way to solemn. While we should revere the war dead, I doubt that their great hope was for vast stretches of urban space to be a bland sort of empty, breezy, boring.

    AND…no art is going to heal those terrible hexagons unless it has mass and dynamic color. These clearly do not. I propose a giant Christo piece to cover the blatantly historicist and massive tribute to boredom that is the new stadium.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Why don’t they use those spaces to create a gateway entry. with the base of the sign or “pass-through being stationed in the middle of the hexagons.

  5. Lynn Stevens says:

    A neighbor/artist in my Logan Square community in Chicago raised a related issue in preparation for a neighborhood arts festival last year: the performers (mostly music) were paid to perform, but the artists had to pay to display their work. He made the point that the visual arts are just as much of a (and in this case the primary) draw of these festivals, and can’t artists display as an attraction? If they’re selling, he certainly thinks it fair to give organizers a %age.

    Out in the suburbs, I know of a businessman/building owner who has artists displaying their work on his walls. Win/win: he gets attractive art, the artists get exposure (artists, prices, and how to purchase are noted).

  6. thundermutt says:

    Speedblue, when eating at locally-owned places in Indy, I often see the art of local artists displayed for sale. Also at Bob Evans, of all places.

  7. Lord Peter says:

    I still don’t like those statues. I suggest removing a torus and adding another coat hanger to the library so you have some sort of symmetry and scale. Then make another torus and have both of them flank the entrance to IMPD on Alabama St.

  8. Gary says:

    Wouldn’t those spots serve as a great transfer hub for mass transit…put something with a roof…public resttooms and bench with covering from the elements and use them as a mini type hub.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Now that they are installed, I think the two pieces are nicely balanced. And that is really the critical element, not symmetry. The rest of the mall is not perfectly symetrical either, but it is wonderfully balanced.
    I understand your comment about the sacred nature of the mall, but I agree with another commentor about not being too precious about space. Great urban spaces need to take on layers of meaning in order to be successful. And this mall, like the one in DC is successful because it can accomodate a number of activities through the years, and varies in nature and scale as you proceed through it.
    Besides, as you stand at the obelisk fountain, the trees front the American Legion buildings obscure the sculptures anyway.
    As prominent as the spot at Meridian and 65 may be, it is heardly a nice placesfor a pedestrian to stop and look at whatever may be placed there. Now if you are talking about a more auto-oriented piece of art, fine. But, these do not fit that bill.

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