Up to this point I have generally shied away from design criticism, largely because I think the blogosphere is filled with far more well-versed, better qualified voices (or keyboards) than mine, but also largely because opinions on successful design remains rooted to individual preferences. No matter the erudition or rhetorical gifts of an architecture critic, he or she generally contextualizes personal taste culture to shroud those opinions behind the veneer of objectivity. So in this posting, even as I essentially deconstruct a building, I will fixate most on its effectiveness as an edifice at engaging with its surroundings far more than its aesthetics. I know urban design hardly embraces a different critical ethos than architecture criticism (or film or music criticism), so I concede now that my opinion of this building, regardless of the historical or spatial context that I provide, remains quite simply my opinion. But, like the most capable critics of any discipline, the skill of argumentation coupled with an advanced knowledge of the subject might very well infuse the opinion with a perceived objectivity: in short, that the critic convinces its audience of his or her case so effectively that his or her highly opinionated artistic judgment takes on the tenor of a unquestioned fact. In all likelihood, I am far from achieving the airtight argument that endows this critique with an air of objective authority—feel free to challenge my assertions here. But be warned: as in all my blog posts, at least I come armed with photos.
For those who are unaware, the
Implementation was a failure. Nine miles linking the remote
Only in the mid-1980s did plans really begin to percolate for the revitalization of a portion of the canal downtown. The $10-million process of draining the canal, lowering the waterway 10 to 12 feet (well below street level), reinforcing it with improved culverts, sidewalks, fountains, landscaping, and pedestrian paths reached the end of its major phase in 1987, from a base south of Ohio Street up to St. Clair Street. The 1990s saw extensions and improvements on the north end (up to 11th Street) and south end (to meet with the
Not surprisingly, the Canal Walk stimulated plenty of development along its banks. But have this development enhanced the success of generally well-appreciated water feature?
The structures featured in this photo series, a Marriott Courtyard and Residence Inn, were among the first major developments to break ground on the canal after the first phase of improvements. At this point, they have been standing in the area for about 20 years and apparently remain quite successful; I believe Marriott has owned and operated them continuously. However, one can see the design standards that Marriott applied from the first photo. (My apologies that some of these photos, taken from a cell phone originally, suffer in graphic quality; I have tried to replace the most critical shots with better ones.)
Both hotels share a block in which the western side of the block directly abuts the canal. The Residence Inn streetwall directly parallels the canal, whereas the Courtyard is built on the easternmost side of the block, away from the canal. Therefore, half of the Residence Inn’s views (in its traditional double-loaded corridor style) overlook the canal, while none of the Courtyard’s views do. This in itself seems like a foolish oversight on the part of the developers. Even if they were operating under height restrictions due to zoning (and my research on the zoning code at the time suggests that they were not), one would think they might have sought a variance or some special approval, so that the farther of the two hotels (the Courtyard) could capitalize on the views through a greater height beyond what is blocked by the closer hotel (the Residence Inn). I suppose the Courtyard may see its excellent views of the downtown skyline (across three full blocks of surface level parking) as an asset. Or it could be that hotel developers don’t particularly care about views, since they are typically catering to a transient population with very little loyalty to the place in which they are spending the night—interior amenities are far more important. However, it most likely did occur to the Marriott developers to give the direct canal overlook to the Residence Inn, an extended stay hotel for more long-term guests who might actually look out their window.
Height is ultimately a minor complaint. Beyond the height, why build along the canal exactly? Everything else about this hotel complex indicates a determined effort to shut itself off from the surrounding area. Witness the entry point on New York Street, taken from a point standing directly on the right side of the prior photo:
The interior space between the two buildings—the middle third of the block—is devoted to surface level parking, and the primary entrances to the two buildings overlook this interior parking lot. You see the Courtyard in the above photo, the one farther from the canal. Here is a photo of the Residence Inn’s entrance:
Having cropped any of the peripheral streetscape, this could easily exist anywhere else in the country. To add insult to injury, they gated the New York Street entrance. Cars must flash their room cards to raise the lift arm gate, then walk across a parking lot to either hotel lobby. And here’s what pedestrians get for an entrance:
The three-foot wide aperture and its sidewalk may be attractively landscaped, but it hardly encouraged passers-by to pop in and look at rates. Far more critical, however, is what the canal perspective offers. Here’s a view looking down at the Residence Inn from the street level:
From a distance, it might not seem too bad: the designer provided some embellishments resembling arcades, and the central one, though under shadow in the above picture, at least offers broader windows to take in the views, as a gallery for viewing and relaxation atop one of the arcades. But here’s what this hotel frontage looks like at the canal level:
And walking alongside it:
The view inside is of a game room with a pool table, but those people indoors only have one nondescript exit:
In the interest of fire safety codes, the designer was solicitous enough to add exits at the foot of the stairwells, but they predictably offer even less dialogue with the Canal Walk:
Thus, we have no storefronts, no retail, no restaurants, and minimum engagement between the building and its waterfront setting. It could just as easily have been looking at a parking lot. Which brings us to the other building, the Marriott Courtyard; its frontage along Senate Avenue undoubtedly has less to offer (after all, much of what it overlooks actually is a parking lot). But the view is abysmal:
Completely impenetrable—a brick wall to for pedestrians to walk along, and the obvious butt-side of the building.
If anything, the only thing that distinguishes these two structures from their equivalents in the suburbs—or at interstate highway exits in rural America—is that the developers took additional pains to sequester the hotels’ activities from their environs. To be fair, one must evaluate these hotels in the context of the time in which they were built. As some of the earliest development after the completion of the canal, the developers no doubt perceived the Canal Walk as risky. At that point, the area was largely windswept and blighted, most of downtown closed down after , and no one was certain that the canal would become a major attraction, or that it would even be maintained. These structures date from around 1990, give or take a year, and the second (away from the canal) was built only after the assured success of the first. But the canal, and the area, no longer carries any stigma of high crime, the condos along it command a high price, and pedestrian traffic can be quite high on a good summer day.
The failure here is partly a by-product of an unimaginative, conservative hotel development team, but also reflects city leadership that lacked either a long-term vision or a backbone. The original dream of the canal was praiseworthy; the execution of the redevelopment was accomplished; the follow-through was a disaster. Though the Canal Walk is often listed as a principal cultural district downtown, I can find no evidence of a zoning overlay district that subjects developments in the area to greater design scrutiny. In the absence of an overlay district (which may come closest to real heart of the problem here), the city could have at least made recommendations or requirements that developers provide better activities to animate the pedestrian space along the canal. But they didn’t, possibly out of fear that draconian design standards would deter any developments. And now that the canal has little remaining vacant space, it provides an amenity that is largely akin to a suburban corporate park: jogging trails, pond graced with willow trees and
Here’s the pedestrian view from across the canal, at the other side of Residence Inn:
Lots of windows to offices filled with cubicles, though the Venetian blinds are almost always drawn. Few doors to the outside. It is a back entrance to these offices, clearly occupied by businesses that have no use for the frontage along the canal, but it provides a pleasant amenity to their workers during a lunch break—the same offering as those duck ponds in the suburban corporate parks.
Even the State of Indiana got it wrong with its own development! Part of the government center fronts the canal, a particularly lushly landscaped area in the summer that offers a great deal of opportunity for recreation and people watching. Here’s the frontage:
Here are some close-ups of the frontage along the canal. Along the northwest face, pedestrians get part of an attractive waterfall (to the far left) but most of it comprises a blank concrete wall used to support the unloading area above it, at the street level.
Further along the canal, at the west side of the complex, is a recessed arcade that looks into a cafeteria for city workers, with two—yes, two—picnic tables outside.
The building offers no other means of opening the windows in warm weather, no table service to the outside, and passers-by are most likely unsure whether it is even a public eating area. It is, but think of the additional revenue the City might have made if it had leased that space to an enterprising restaurateur.
Because I don’t know the exact chronology of developments along the canal, I can only point to the Marriott and the government center because they are among the oldest, and have tacitly set the standards. The luxury condos have followed them hook line and sinker. Some at least provide patios that overlook the canal, but further north of the Marriott are some particularly egregious examples:
An ivy covered wall fronts the canal, because this lowest level was ostensibly used to give the condo residents covered parking. And across the canal are the ones that win the “Most Suburban” award:
While these offer slightly better canal frontage than the condos in the previous photo, these are still the back side of buildings whose frontage includes two-car garages behind an elaborate gate system. Deplorable from an urban design standpoint.
Fortunately, other developments offer glimmers of hope. A few of the museums along the southern portion of the Canal Walk have cafés that overlook the river, though two of them still suffer considerable weaknesses. Here is the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art:
And here is the Indiana State Museum:
In both cases, the museum cafés are on elevated terraces up a flight of stairs , but still offer blank walls to passers-by along the canal. At their current locations, they are far less likely to attract random passers-by and must depend more heavily on museum patronize to support the eateries. At the very least, these two institutions provide cafeteria-style dining clearly targeting the general public, which is a far more generous provision than virtually any other structure along the Canal Walk.
A new apartment development, Cosmopolitan on the Canal, is taking one of the last unoccupied parcels and will feature retail at both the canal level as well at the respective street corner when it is complete. It will hopefully compensate for the significant oversights among the two aforementioned museums. And this one lonesome tenant below opens itself up to the canal while all its neighbors turn their back:
The Center for Inquiry (
Modeled after San Antonio’s River Walk (Paseo del Rio), Indianapolis wisely does not attempt a carbon copy of the appearance of what may still be the most aesthetic waterfront in the country. But it also falls far short of the cultural offerings of the River Walk. While
The Central Canal of Indiana was a failure upon its first implementation in the 1830s, and, by many standards, success continues to elude its second implementation as well. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic about the Indianapolis Canal Walk over the ensuing years. Buggs’