"Circle Gateway could be breakthrough

Last fall my wife and I were in Chicago for the wedding of a nephew of ours. We had an afternoon to ourselves and so we walked over to Millennium Park to pay a visit to The Bean. The Bean is the nickname people have given “Cloud Gate,” the gleaming steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor that sits atop a manmade promontory near the corner of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue.

The Bean is a wondrous thing. It’s shaped like a kidney bean — hence the nickname — and its surface is polished so that it reflects its surroundings like a funhouse mirror. As you approach it, you’re dazzled by hyper-vivid reflections of city and sky. And people. The closer you get, the more in-focus the images of your fellow gawkers become. Before long, you even see yourself.

One of the most striking things about The Bean is that most of the people you see milling around it seem to be smiling. I think that’s because, like all truly great public art, The Bean is an occasion. It has the ability, if only for a moment, to lift us up, to make us feel like we’ve arrived.

Inspiring a sense of arrival is clearly what’s driving a proposal, backed by the Rotary Club, to build a 280-foot-high circular gateway straddling West and 11th streets. Called the Circle Gateway Truss, the monumental structure would be composed of three stainless steel circles bound together with steel trusses. It would be illuminated at night and stand about as tall as the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. The structure would be a major addition to the city’s skyline, being plainly visible from downtown as well as from Interstates 65 and 70. From a distance, many people might at first mistake it for an enormous Ferris wheel.

This is a project with tremendous potential. For one thing, the Circle Gateway’s impressive scale is a breakthrough to be applauded. Although this city has been warming up to the idea of public art in recent years, it has shied away from dreaming big dreams, settling instead for incidental street-level works and temporary installations. The Circle Gateway, designed by local firm Kevin K. Parsons & Associates, with an assist from artist Greg Hull, is nothing short of a proclamation to the effect that Indianapolis is a city ready and able to be bold. Kudos to the Rotary Club for showing the initiative necessary to get this idea off the ground.

According to an article in last week’s Indianapolis Business Journal, a 15-member panel chose the Parsons & Associates design. While some critics are bound to complain that the circular scheme is too clichéd for comfort, the motif has certain virtues. It’s graceful, it’s geometrically iconic and it has the capacity to carry the requisite amount of civic symbolism — this is the Circle City, after all — without getting bogged down.

The design, planners say, is open for “tweaking.” If this means making revisions in order to deflect what appear to be the design’s amusement park echoes, so much the better. But, as the process evolves, planners should resist suggestions aimed at making this piece send messages more appropriate for mission statements. People won’t be reading this work, they’ll be looking at it. The integrity of the design will say everything that needs to be said about the people and the place where it resides.

There are other reasons to be excited about this project. The Circle Gateway’s proposed site at West and 11th will not only lead to the creation of pedestrian amenities like park space and infrastructure enhancements in the immediate neighborhood, it also promises to expand our notion of downtown. Like the new Central Library building, the Circle Gateway could help stretch downtown’s boundaries, creating new opportunities for business and residential development. Thanks to its monumental size, the Gateway will also be a welcome addition to the city’s vertical profile. Indianapolis needs to think more about building upward, not outward. Adding a significant new shape to our skyline can only help.

Naturally, the Circle Gateway will have to overcome a few obstacles before it can be realized. It is estimated that the project will cost $10 million. That may sound like quite a chunk of change, but it’s a reasonable amount for a structure of this size and scope. Chicago’s Bean cost more than twice as much — and it didn’t require rerouting traffic. Fortunately, this will be a privately-funded project. That means a certain amount of red tape may be cut when it comes to raising money and soliciting necessary public buy-in. But these processes still take time — and that could be a problem.

Carole Darst, chairwoman of the Rotary Gateways Partnership, says she expects construction can start no sooner than the end of this year. That’s reasonable. But it is also reasonable to hope the project will find champions to move it rapidly after that. The longer this project takes, the less likely will be its chances for success. The problems encountered in rebuilding the World Trade Center site in New York City amount to a cautionary tale about the trouble that can ensue when process overtakes vision. Five years … and nothing has been built. If private money is available in the community to build the Circle Gateway, the city should do everything in its power to make it happen.