Wednesday, February 17, 2010
The recent battle between preservationists and a bill sponsored by Indiana State Senator Pat Miller creates an opportunity for pondering. What I'm pondering is this: how does a city keep important historic buildings and districts while also maintaining a sense of vibrancy? And, how might Indianapolis enhance its unimpressive collection of contemporary architecture with new buildings that are architecturally significant, while also maintaining its dwindling collection of historic buildings that are architecturally significant?
This is a ponderance that requires much long and thoughtful attention. And probably more than one blog. But for now, I'm going to think just a bit about it. I think I know the questions to ask but am still struggling internally with the answers to them.
In addition to being a preservationist, I also happen to be a modern design freak. Talk about your cognitive dissonance! It would be much easier for me to be one of those preservationist-types who looks at the City/County Building and feels nothing but remorse for the lost Marion County Courthouse. But I'm not. I thought the Second Empire Courthouse was fabulous and wish we still had it. But I also think the Bauhaus-inspired City/County building is great and I worry that since so few others love it, it is in danger of going the way of the courthouse that was demolished to make room for it.
At the same time, if I could make a wish for my city it would be that we begin to demand amazing architecture in new buildings that are constructed downtown. For I believe that until we start showing some muscle with great, hopefully even controversial, architecture, we will never deserve the title of the "world-class" city that all of our paid marketing boosters claim for us.
So, how's a preservationist/modernist junkie to resolve these conflicting notions: keep the old, and build new and fabulous? Over the course of the next few posts I'm going to offer my ideas of how to solve some of these dilemmas and why some just can't be solved.
The first rule has to be: if it's downtown and architecturally significant and it can be saved, then developers must be required to make the effort to do that. And if they say that's not possible, let's charge a demolition fine for destroying a building that's been deemed significant. This fine would be on top of whatever regular fees are required and it could be dispersed in grants to owners of the other downtown historic buildings to appropriately rehabilitate and maintain them.
Significance can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder. So let's establish some rules about determining it. First, let's just say that, when it comes to considering demolition, any building more than a century old is significant. No discussion. We must stop knocking down our heritage. If it's more than 100 years old, then you need to come up with some sound reasons to tear it down, and you need to pay up to the city for the loss you are causing to our cityscape and our cultural understanding of our history. If you simply cannot save one of our pieces of architectural heritage then pay up so that your fees will help other building owners save theirs.
Would this stop redevelopment downtown? It would deincentivize destruction certainly. But it incentivizes reuse. And makes wholesale demolishers pay up so that other significant buildings get more protection.
Rule 2. If you decide to build new within the MileSquare, then you have to bring it with the design. No more 3-story suburban housing developments. Yes, good design may also be in the eye of the beholder but no one in his/her right mind is looking at the development at Alabama and Ohio and thinking, Wow! that's fabulous! No more, blah architecture downtown.
My first rules to making a better city.
I know that we can't stop building in the city. This isn't a museum. If it were, we wouldn't have much of a collection. Not every old building is worthy of a fight to save it. Just as the pediatrician told us about raising children: save your "nos" for the most important stuff. Preservationists need to save their ballyhooing for the important buildings. Do I feel sad that the Jaws building is no longer a landmark downtown? Yeah, sort of, I guess. Even though that was a building that didn't fit---too small in scale, and probably would never have been considered significant, the redone building (now called the Broadbent building) is much worse. If we're going to give up an interesting old building, then a new one has to be better. Better in terms of design and in terms of landuse. (See Rule 2 above).
Stay tuned, more's coming. And I welcome your response to these first steps.
[black and white images from "Indianapolis Architecture"]