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June 23, 2011

As I was skimming twitter this morning (seems like one of a million social media sites I somehow belong to…ah, to be Gen Y), I happened upon the tweet below, which made me think if I could even count on one hand architecturally significant sites in Indianapolis.  My immediate reaction was to let ArchDaily know that Columbus, Indiana is located just 45 min south of Indianapolis and holds much more interesting modernist buildings.  You can even skip over to Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio and find Zaha, Eisenman, Gehry, Morphosis, or stop at IKEA for your consumer-fix (Indy doesn’t even have an IKEA, imagine that!). However, I couldn’t stop thinking about Indianapolis.

Indianapolis is my hometown and post-graduation-interim-location.  After high school, my mindset was to move away for new experiences, more opportunities, and better architecture.  I found myself far away in Syracuse, NYC, and Europe for 5 years.  My attitude about my hometown didn’t change much; in fact I grew more critical as I became increasingly New York-centric.  However, I realize that not all cities can be or should be a booming metropolis like New York.  The issue is that Indianapolis has potential to be a mid-sized urban center.  It is, after all, the 12th largest city in the US, ahead of Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco.  It is the second largest city in the Midwest, and growing, behind Chicago, which equates to tax dollars.  It has faired much better economically than other nearby cities like Detroit and Cleveland.  There has always been something frustrating and puzzling about the potential and disappointing lack of urban/architectural follow-through.  In an effort to understand the Indianapolis condition, I have tried to pinpoint some of the issues which curb architectural progression:

1) Indianapolis plays it safe – Decisions are made with a conservative and safe attitude.  To the general population, architects just design houses.  Architecture is not what you see on HGTV; yes, but that is only a small part of our capacity as designers.  The city seems to value architecture at face value, rather than a medium to improve public spaces or help alleviate infrastructural, food, or social crises.  Major architectural commissions (world-class opportunity) go to local firms who produce functional and pleasant enough -yet safe projects, which do not put Indy on the map.  For instance, the newly built downtown Marriot was intended to be one of the city’s finest hotels.  The initial design proposal received harsh criticism because it was too boring; it was a tall rectangle.  While everyone was yawning, the architects decided to bend the rectangle into a slight curve.  Cue the sarcasm -the building was now exciting and the Marriot was built.  I am not necessarily endorsing someone of “starchitecture” stature, however there are plenty of exceptional firms around the country, and specifically the Midwest, doing just as important built and paper work: Studio Gang (Chicago), UrbanLab (Chicago), LA DALLMAN (Milwaukee), Blostein/Overly Architects (Columbus, OH).

J.W. Marriot curved wonder

2) Alternative Transportation – The city lacks sufficient public transportation.  The bus system was nearly shut down due to financial problems last year.  While public bus transit is the cheapest option, certain stigmas are attached to bus use.   Not only should public transit provide an option for those without any other means, it can also become an alternative mode for suburbanites commuting into the city and a connection to major areas of the city such as the airport.  Indianapolis has a fairly small downtown while the rest of the city is a radius of sprawl.  Due to that urban layout, public transit can be justified and is necessary.  If I am shopping downtown at Circle Center mall and want to go to the Indianapolis Art Museum, I have to hop in my car since it is on the outskirts of the downtown nucleus.  There has been a major attempt to add bike and pedestrian paths as seen in the Monon Trail, but cars dominate downtown.

3) Sports rule, not the arts – Although Indianapolis has a fantastic symphony and art museum, sporting events are what populate the city the most.  Typically, cultural institutions champion progressive ideas that are manifested physically in its structure.  When most tax dollars are being spent on sporting arenas, there isn’t much left for cultural institutions.  Unless you are building the Allianz Arena or Bird’s Nest, there is not much room for architectural expression.  Eli Lilly and Company and Simon Property Group are two local companies who have the weight and money to support the shaping of the city.  If they want to invest in the city and have their companies known as progressive corporations, they can turn to good design.

Lucas Oil Stadium home of the Colts

4) How is academia helping? – Look at architectural theses and you’ll find a myriad of ways architecture can attempt to not only improve the built environment but address various crises.  Architecture school is one of the best educations one could get.  It forms a way of thinking and problem solving.  The world isn’t black and white.  You are trained to see the potential in environments and become opportunistic.  The nearest school of architecture is one hour away at Ball State.  The school needs to become more radical in its involvement in city planning and take advantage of Indianapolis as a laboratory.  If the administration doesn’t, the students need to jumpstart an initiative.  Academia should help to generate more “outside of the box” ideas that bring about needed change.  Its nearest city should be a test bed for their design proposals.

5) Brain Drain – Where is the young, educated, and energetic population?  I am an example of that group who move out of Indiana.  Many move to nearby Chicago.  If you look at Portland and Austin, what partially sets them apart is the productivity and creativity of the young educated population.  They cultivate a culture where young people want to stick around.  Young entrepreneurs need a climate where they can start a business or non-profit and be taken seriously.  Why not start a music festival (SXSW) or regularly scheduled street fairs?  Young creatives have the ability to draw attention to possibilities because we are less jaded and more open to new ways of thinking.  Who cares if it is naïve, it is that necessary optimism which can inject ideas into a litany of woes.


On the flip side there are several positive organizations and factors starting to contribute to a significant movement:

1) Indianapolis Museum of Art – CEO Maxwell Anderson is used to world-class cities, leaving the Whitney Museum (and its Koolhaas expansion) in NYC for the IMA.  I could make a blog post alone listing what Anderson has done to transform the IMA and the art and design dialogue in Indianapolis.  His promotion of design started as soon as he arrived in Indy.  He started a serious conversation by initiating the design branch of the museum including its first exhibit European Design Since 1985.  Since that initial exhibit, the IMA has projected itself as a leader in contemporary art and design as demonstrated in the acquisition of Eero Saarinen’s Miller House, 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park, this year’s U.S. Venice Biennale entry, and a design lecture series featuring Greg Lynn among many others.

100 Acres Visitor's Center at the IMA

2) People for Urban Progress – PUP are a “do”-tank non-profit organization that “promotes and advances public transit, environmental awareness, and urban design.”  It started when they used the demolished RCA Dome canvas top to create bags, wallets, and public shade structures as a way to generate money to fund their projects.  They are an action-based group, hence the coin “do”-tank, who understand the general unawareness of the power of design for neighborhoods and cities.  Their goal is to call attention to urban issues and act.

3) Monorail – Indianapolis does have the beginnings of a monorail system.  While it only connects the downtown hospitals, there is potential for it to become a convenient connector for the city and surrounding areas.  It is safer than light rail and does not interrupt vehicular traffic.

"People Mover" monorail

4) Airport – The newly built Indianapolis International Airport is a great welcome into the city.  The layout and parking arrangement is convenient.  The collective lobby/food court is light and airy.  There is even a significant public art deployment throughout the airport and parking garage.  Imagine if you were also met with a monorail that would deliver you directly downtown to your hotel.  That would be icing on the cake.

5) Event City – The city is in fact home to many international events, mainly sports related (Super Bowl, Final Four, and Indianapolis 500).  The convention center also holds many events drawing people from around the country.  With the world-stage and national-stage within grasp, Indy should dazzle.

Looking past all of my criticisms, Indianapolis is a great city brimming with possibilities that need to be tapped into.  To an architect, that is the most exciting scenario.

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