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Carmel's Palladium: A failure of imagination 

Somebody has to say it, so it might as well be me: Carmel's new Palladium concert hall is the architectural equivalent of a boy soprano whose voice changes at the very moment he reaches for a high note.

This is not to take away from Carmel mayor Jim Brainard's determination to make the arts and design the fulcrum for his strategy to turn what was once a poky town center into a legitimate metro destination. Those of us who understand how the arts contribute to a community's character and identity cheer Brainard for taking the arts seriously. Brainard has gone beyond the recitation of talking points and actually used his political leverage for the creation of a significant new cultural resource.

The result, whether Indianapolis is ready for it or not, will in all likelihood expand our sense of what the metropolitan area includes. That this is both an opportunity and a challenge for those of us who want to see Indianapolis grow into a more fully developed urban center is something we should be happy to come to grips with.

I also have no quibble with The Palladium's highly touted acoustics. From what little I was able to gather during a Community Day visit, the place sounds pretty good. Indeed, as an enthusiastic greeter confided – and I was able to confirm to my own satisfaction – the best sound in the building may be at the top level where, it's worth noting, the cheapest seats are found. I liked the view up there as well.

My problem with The Palladium is with the way it looks.

According to reports, The Palladium cost $126 million. That's a respectable sum for a project of this kind. It might have inspired an international competition, generating creative ideas from talented architects around the world. The goal here, as it has been with many other recent cultural building projects, from Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to Zaha Hadid's Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, could have been to make architectural news.

Although those of us who live in these parts might be excused for not knowing it, contemporary architecture actually is news. Innovative new buildings make for headlines and cover stories. Tourists undertake pilgrimages to see the latest designs. The only thing many people know about Columbus, Indiana, is that you can find a lot of buildings by big name architects there. And every year, visitors show up at the Indianapolis Art Center because Michael Graves designed it.

Bold contemporary architecture makes news not only because the buildings themselves command our attention. Their presence in a community sends a message about that place's ambition and readiness to entertain new ideas.

So the fact that Carmel built a concert hall that looks as if it were concocted by somebody's Victorian Aunt Hattie represents, at best, the squandering of a major opportunity. Sadly, it might also indicate just how shallow Mayor Brainard's cultural aspirations really are.

The intention behind The Palladium's faux approach to architecture is apparently to evoke the mood or aura of great buildings from other times and places. We're told its dome is inspired by Palladio, a Renaissance architect.

But the outcome turns out to be something that seems like a crisis of confidence in the community's willingness to actually respond to a building that reflects its time and place, let alone the artistry supposed to be presented there.

The great halls in Europe were authentic expressions of aspiration and accomplishment. They didn't just honor fading traditions, they built upon and extended them while, at the same time, unabashedly celebrating the prosperity that makes many expressions of public culture possible.

The Palladium, on the other hand, places the arts, and the great traditions on which they stand, in a kind of over-sized dollhouse, where decorum trumps creativity. The effort here has not gone into imagining a place where the shape-shifting character and quality of contemporary performing arts might be expressed and experienced, but into a project seemingly intended to appeal to the nostalgia of an otherwise apathetic public.

The overheated emphasis on The Palladium's acoustics reveals the project's failure to comprehend the way architecture informs and affects peoples' experiences. Superb, quality sound in a concert hall should be a given. But when they started thinking about what came next, the collective imagination of Mayor Brainard and his team defaulted in favor of a grandiose cliché.

In its Epcot-like approach to hygienically replicating a bygone cultural totem, The Palladium is, however, at one with the rest of what passes for design in the new Carmel. While the place's emphasis on pedestrian friendliness and mixed use should be applauded, it seems most new buildings have had all the real architecture systematically squeezed out them. It's hard to imagine anything of importance being created there.

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