The new airport and MSA are dudsDavid Hoppe

History has a way of sneaking up on us. Sure, you think you're paying attention to what's going on. You try to keep up with the news. But one day usually seems pretty much like the next. Before you know it a month has gone by - and then a year. It's disheartening, to say the least, to discover that the city appears to be showing so little vision when it comes to the two architectural projects that could really put it on the map.

Meanwhile, decisions are being made. Actions are being taken. One day you turn around and realize that some part of your world has changed.

History, in case you haven't noticed, has been sneaking up on Indianapolis lately. During the past few months, we have been informed about plans that are going to affect the identity of this city for a long time to come.

I'm talking about two projects in particular - the airport expansion and the redevelopment of the Market Square Arena site. These are both once-in-a-lifetime undertakings. One of them, the airport, will act as a singular gateway to our city for travelers from around the world. The MSA site, on the other hand, represents a major chance to reimagine and reinvigorate the eastern quadrant of our downtown. One local developer has called this one of the most extraordinary downtown redevelopment opportunities in the country - second only, at the moment, to the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan.

These projects have blossomed in the midst of Mayor Bart Peterson's administration. During his four-plus years in office, this mayor has had a great deal to say about the importance of the role that the arts and culture must play in sharpening Indianapolis' competitive edge. This mayor has made cultural tourism a priority, acknowledged the importance of public art and promoted an image of this city as a hip and creative place.

So it's disheartening, to say the least, to discover that the city appears to be showing so little vision when it comes to the two architectural projects that could really put it on the map.

In the first place, it must be said that when it comes to making a civic statement capable of being heard around the world, nothing works quite like bold architecture. Last year, Cincinnati made headlines and was celebrated repeatedly in magazines like Time and Newsweek when it opened its new contemporary art center on a narrow corner lot in the heart of its downtown.

There was reason for the hoopla. The building was designed by a world-renowned, if risky, architect, London-based Zaha Hadid - and the building is brilliant, a model that will set a standard for its class. The same thing happened in Milwaukee with Calatrava's winged expansion to the art museum there.

Bold architectural statements get the world's attention. They are a symbolic shot across the bow that proclaims a place venturesome and ready for business. But the airport and MSA developments, while generically spiffy - the architectural equivalents of a well-dressed TV anchorman - cling to the Indiana belief that good enough is good enough. In the press release sent out by the city announcing the selection of the MSA redevelopment team and plan, the architectural component is the last piece mentioned. Even worse is the shorthand way in which it's described: "Contemporary and regionally appropriate architecture."

What "regionally appropriate" means in this, of all cities, is anybody's guess, but it's not encouraging, particularly in light of what's being proposed at the airport. Designed by the St. Louis firm of Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, the new terminal is described as "a civic plaza, a central gathering point whose circular shape recalls the shape of the City's central public space, Monument Circle." As if, in these days of draconian airport security, anybody's planning a jaunt to the airport for a good time.

Be that as it may, the terminal, which is said to be "shaped to work with the wind and sun," looks like a big, glass footprint. The inside resembles an enormous hangar with plenty of daylight and a lot of exposed scaffolding.

At a recent meeting of the Indianapolis chapter of the Association of Indiana Architects, Mark Spitzer, an architect with 38 years of experience working with large projects like the subway system in Seattle, as well as several airports, talked about best practices involving architects and artists. He emphasized the importance of establishing a real sense of trust and collaboration between these two types of professionals at the very outset of any given project. Then he showed some gorgeous slides of work he's done to prove his point. The subway stations he worked on in Seattle not only move thousands of people each day, they are beautifully memorable destinations.

Indianapolis, unfortunately, still needs to learn how to think about big architectural projects. This will be difficult so long as we persist in top-down, closed-door policy making that calls for public and creative input for show rather than substance, and that fails to understand architecture as an artform, as well as a means to a public end. Until that time, history will continue sneaking up on us - and we continue scratching our heads, wondering how things got to be the way they are.


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