The beginning is in sight
There’s been finger-pointing, red faces and lawsuits, probably some ulcers, too. I’ll bet there are people who probably wondered if the finish line for the massive Central Library expansion project would ever be in sight. The road taken to get here has been a well-documented mess; the legal and financial accounting, not to mention hard feelings, could take years to straighten out. But my guess is that when it opens this November, one thing will be clear: The new Central Library is the most impressive architectural statement made in this city in a generation.
One damned thing after another pretty much sums up the Central Library expansion story. From the discovery that the old Ambassador apartment building, sitting cheek-by-jowl with the library on the corner of Ninth and Pennsylvania, wouldn’t be torn down, through concrete fissures in the underground garage, accusations about conflicts of interest in the awarding of contracts and a tragic falling out with the expansion’s architect, Evans Woolen, this has been a cautionary tale. A project originally budgeted at just over $100 million will probably cost close to $60 million more than that.
But now that the building is close to achieving its final form, a number of things are coming clear. For one thing, the presence of the old Ambassador turns out to be a kind of backhanded compliment. Like a garrulous relative, it prevents the library from assuming an air of splendid isolation. As you approach the library on foot from the east, the library’s wall of steel and glass emerges magically over older rooftops. This juxtaposition of old and new reinforces the urban context and offers a glimpse of something people in Indy have too often shied away from: density. In this case, density means texture and surprise. We could use more of it.
Some people will doubtless complain that the expansion is out of scale, not just in relation to buildings like the Ambassador but, more importantly, to Paul Cret’s classically inspired, and rightly beloved, original edifice. Evans Woolen has done a visionary job of preserving Cret’s building, turning it into a symbolic portal to what amounts to a three-dimensional metaphor for how we understand knowledge in a digital age. His expansion rises up behind and above the old limestone building like Hiroshige’s great wave. The message is revolutionary and unequivocal. What’s wonderful is that Woolen found a way to honor the past without burying it.
The expansion’s exterior is an elegant curve of stainless steel and glass. It’s a statement with the authority to proclaim that Indy’s downtown now has a new northern margin. For too long, downtown’s practical boundaries have been subliminally defined by the Circle and its immediate environs. The new Central Library building creates the architectural equivalent of a northern anchor and invites us to imagine a host of new and active possibilities in its vicinity.
But the expansion’s real power is only discovered once you venture inside. A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to tour all six floors. While we won’t know how the building actually works until it’s been open awhile, I was able to see enough of what’s been done to be blown away.
A massive atrium connects the old and new buildings. It’s an engineering feat of graceful, stemmed arches that, in their organic geometry, recall the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. Deep wood paneling has been used to warm the transition between Cret’s limestone building, which will now be entirely devoted to the library’s fiction collection, and Woolen’s addition, which will hold everything else, including a 355-seat auditorium and over 70 lending laptops that can be used anywhere on site.
The scale here is grand, as it should be. Better, it’s a grandeur that lifts you. Too often large-scale buildings make pedestrians that step inside feel like ants. Sheer size is nothing more than a power trip designed to remind you that someone else is boss. Here, the scale takes you higher.
On the other hand, the stacks, while enormous in scope, create a sense of human scale. In part this is accomplished by doing without oppressive overhead lighting in favor of table lamps and illuminated units built into the shelving.
But what may be the building’s greatest glory is its monumental windows, affording views of the city that have never been available to most of us before. By day, by night and in all seasons, this will be the place to come to reconnect with one’s visual sense of downtown Indianapolis. To be reminded that this is our city, our place, and what, in spite of all our faults and flaws, we’re capable of. Here’s hoping that, in the future, when we gaze out through these magnificent public lenses, there are more buildings like this one to look at.