Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Economizing and downsizing a city’s landmarks.

When navigating through an unfamiliar place, either urban or rural, we tend to seek visual points of reference to aid us in further wayfinding.  It is as instinctual of an action as folding the corner of a book.  Across the countryside, visual cues assume a variety of incarnations: a distinctive geological form, an unusual sign, an anachronism (particularly old-fashioned or unexpectedly contemporary), or an anomalous color or shape.  Rural reference points are frequently large, nearly always tall, but only occasionally are they part of an intentional effort to “stand out” as an explicit reminder of a particular location.

By contrast, urban reference points are nearly always manmade and deliberate, sometimes bordering on the point of ostentation.  In his famous 1960 book, The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch includes landmarks among his five fundamental elements people deploy in order to assimilate visual information that helps them navigate in an urban setting; the other four elements are edges, paths, nodes and districts.  Landmarks may be the least subtle because they are particularly geographically contained—neither linear nor planar and thus essentially uni-dimensional.  Distinctive height and appearance usually endow an edifice with an advantage as a landmark: it could be the tallest feature in a city, or, in a metropolis with numerous skyscrapers, it may simply be a monument of considerable size with a unique appearance.

In most Midwestern towns and smaller cities, the landmark fits both of these characteristics: namely, the architect conspired to give a certain structure both superior height or massing as well as a distinctive look.  It should come as no surprise that these landmarks tend to be county courthouses: in Indiana, Ohio, and just about anywhere else in the former Northwest Territories, the courthouse occupies the town’s central square, surrounded by other commercial buildings on most, if not all, four sides.  (The only exceptions are when the county/community is too small to justify enough commercial buildings to surround the square, or when town leadership has demolished a preponderance of these aging structures.) The clock tower, spire, or cupola typically ensure that the courthouse will be taller than anything else in the community, augmenting the building’s visual prominence and transforming the square into the town’s unquestionable center—the “node” by Lynch’s definition.

Anyone with more than a passing familiarity of Indiana landscapes can envision a county seat with its venerated central courthouse square.  For me, Crown Point, Greensburg, and Noblesville are among the first that come to mind.  However, despite being larger than any of the aforementioned cities, Muncie does not have a courthouse square that embeds itself in the typical visitor’s memory.  For the time being, this image from Google Streetview of the Delaware County Courthouse will have to suffice.  If this structure fails to convey the conventional image of a Midwestern county courthouse, that is quite obviously because it isn’t one.  The 19th century building that housed most Delaware County government functions met the wrecking ball in 1966, replaced shortly thereafter with this structure, now the Delaware County County Court administrative offices.  Here are some recent photos I’ve taken at approximately the same southeast corner, showing that landscape architects have spruced up the grounds since the above Flickr photo was taken, reducing the imperviousness of the plaza by adding rainwater gardens and a prominently located state/national flag.

By most estimates, it’s still not a very inspiring structure.  I’m hardly one to denigrate all of the brutalist architectural influences that this contemporary building evokes—after all, Muncie’s First Merchants Plaza is, in my opinion, a respectable brutalist building--but it’s hard to summon a great deal of love across the web for the new building: a simple Google Images search reveals far more links for the 19th century building that formerly stood at this site.   Quite simply, hardly anybody even cares enough about this building to photograph it.  And the actual courthouse, now called the Delaware County Justice Center and sitting a block north of this concrete structure (which is the actual original site for the historic courthouse), is hardly any better.

It, too, seems heavily fortified and uninviting, though at least it make some sense: this building also hosts the county's jail.

Aside from brutalism’s obvious precipitous fall from grace by the mid 1980s, what else is wrong with the first of these two buildings, which stands at Muncie’s implicit dead center?  Even with the flagpole or landscaping, it doesn’t convey the monumentality needed to make an identifiable landmark: not only is the court admin building the same height or smaller than some of the surrounding structures, the fenestration is fundamentally introverted and uninviting to passers-by.  The massing of the upper floors obscures any first-floor entrance in the shadows, so that the plaza is the only way to discern that this might be the building’s fa├žade.   Not only does this new court lack a prominent apex that could attract the eye from a distance, but its intrinsic reticence nullifies any grandeur that could at least turn the courthouse plaza into a central node.  Here’s a view from the western side of the building:

Nothing more than a blank wall.  No lawn, no sculptures, no flags.  Visitors could walk or drive right by the courthouse without even noticing this building, and as a result, Muncie lacks the perceived core to its downtown that we have come to expect in most Indiana county seats.

The next contender for a central landmark, Muncie City Hall, built in 2005, achieves a certain stature as it looms over the bridge to the White River, directly to its northwest.

But it only functions as a hub by proxy: it is the next best thing, given the absence of the prominent central courthouse that visitors would expect.  Where does this leave a city in search of a landmark?  The Shafer Bell Tower at Ball State University certainly could function as a rallying point within the campus, but this relatively new structure belongs to the university, both de jure and metaphorically. 
It is virtually meaningless to the at least 60% of Muncie residents who have no affiliation with the school.

Not surprisingly, the community itself has attempted to place the crown on what it perceives to be the city’s presiding head, and two of the strongest contenders are particularly ironic.  The first, the Muncie Pole at the intersection of S. Tillotson Avenue and W. Jackson Street, has its own Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and it received media attention from as far away as Texas--all of it due to an engineering mistake during street and sidewalk improvements.  The utility pole actually sat in the right-of-way, with three reflective strips emblazoned along the lower part of the stanchion to keep vehicles from colliding into it.  Sure, Muncie has dozens of other poles to hoist traffic lights, but when locals referenced “The Muncie Pole”, everyone knew which one they were talking about: The Pole had earned its capital letters.  It was a landmark in itself, at least to the locals, and, due to its distinctiveness in a landscape that lacks prominent features, it may very well have stood out enough that visitors unfamiliar with Muncie could use it as a spatial mnemonic device.  The Muncie Pole gets the past tense treatment though; within the last month, city engineers and the public works department corrected their error and the pole was removed, leaving only a conventional traffic light pole, shielded from traffic by a grade separation and curb.  

Another oddly situated traffic light in the city may already qualify as a successor to the Muncie Pole, inheriting the name from its predecessor as it becomes this city’s most effective landmark and reference point.

Seeing a utility pole shellacked with postings is hardly uncommon, but this one doesn’t include want-ads, solicitations, meeting locations, missing pets or miracle weight loss strategies.  It’s devoted almost exclusively to decals reflective of the local “scene”, a region extending out to and including Indianapolis.  Local bands, festivals, breweries and non-profits all feature heavily.  Semantically, the content of this pole is a world apart from what one might expect to see in such a location: these stickers don’t carry precise, distinctive notifications intended to mobilize passers-by; instead, they tout brands which, in aggregate, appropriate far more visual significance than they would in isolation.  The pole is a repository for alternative culture—the touch-and-go pastiche approach is critical to its appeal, even as it might alienate others who merely see this as an act of vandalism.  (Eliciting a polarizing response is nearly always a good thing—fewer people are ambivalent, and the display thus becomes more memorable.)  While the earlier Muncie Pole earned its meme status through a variety of exogenous referential material (Twitter and Facebook, inter alia), this pole is a meme because of what it possesses and displays: that is, hands that have slapped the metal with adhesives have enhanced its role as a cultural signifier.

But why is this specific pole a contender for the NEW Muncie Pole when alternate poles abound?  What makes it so special?  It helps that it’s in a central location, near the heart of downtown Muncie.  But why not another downtown stop light pole?  Yet again, this pole earns its distinction through a probable error in calculating the point of installation, which is manifested by stepping backward several 

Usually a stanchion for a traffic light sits closer to the corner of the block; not at the halfway point of a storefront’s primary window.   Pivoting a bit to the right—
--it doesn’t remotely align with the handicapped ramp that connotes the crosswalk location.  It strangely hugs the building instead of the curb.  My estimate is the more practical location would be directly to the left of the manhole cover that sits closest to the building’s cornerstone.  But it clearly wasn’t meant to be.
The photo above suggests that the complementary pole on the other side integrates much better with the streetscape: it sits on a bulb-out in the sidewalk and enjoys a reasonable setback from the structure at this corner.  In fact, the photo below shows that this pole does not impinge upon either a building view or a pedestrian right-of-way along the sidewalk.
This pole--coincidentally in front of the bland, windowless court administration building--also lacks any of the stickers; it’s just another pole in Muncie, but certainly not the Muncie Pole.

The pole in front of Savage’s Ale House has already achieved enough salience in a small city like Muncie that it functions as a minor downtown meme.  If Ball State University students decide that it is the ideal point of reference downtown (“Let’s meet at the pole and decide where to go from there”), then it has, in the context of Kevin Lynch’s urban semiotics, essentially become a landmark—the substitute for the Delaware County Courthouse demolished decades ago, and ironically standing directly across from the forgettable modern courthouse of today, as the photos indicate.   Here below, is a view looking northward, with the intersection featuring the New Muncie Pole in the background and the modern Delaware County Courthouse in the foreground to the right.
And here's a close-up on the building with the Muncie Pole.  Although on the left in the above photo, in the photo below the three-story building is in the center.

Urban landmarks tend to include at least a little bit of architectural bombast; normally they are very deliberately the most prominent visible element from the built environment.  The architect intended nothing less than a centerpiece.  The Muncie Poles (both the deceased one on Facebook and its slightly more urban successor) owe their existence to what is most likely an unconscious err in calculation, but that is enough to make them an anomaly in a landscape riddled with sameness.  And for Muncie, a previously mundane metal pole has the potential to become the epicenter of pedestrianized student culture…at least until one of those sites of former buildings that are now parking lots becomes gets developed into bigger, better, more visually distinct landmark than a stop light post.  Economy notwithstanding, a hip, stickered pole shouldn’t be tough to outdo.


John M said...

Good post, and it's nice to see you back at it. A couple of minor factual clarifications, although none of them seem to undercut your point in any way. While the brutalist building that you photographed apparently was the original replacement for the 19th century courthouse, Delaware County since has built another new courthouse, the Delaware County Justice Center, which houses criminal and civil courts as well as the sheriff's department and the jail. If you put your Google Street View cursor at the intersection of Walnut and Washington, the justice center is to the northwest, while the building you photographed is to the southwest. I can't find an exact date, but I believe this building opened in the late 1980s, maybe as late as 1990. I think it's a marginally more attractive building that the late 1960s courthouse, but essentially all the points you make about the new/old apply to the new/new/. In other words, while the demolition probably was viewed as a mistake by the mid-1980s, the Justice Center didn't really rectify any of the problems. Also, the Muncie City Hall dates to roughly the same era--I'm thinking 1990 or 1991 (I lived in Delaware County at the time), rather than 2005.

Of course, the landmark function you are discussing has little or nothing to do with whether courts are housed there. Of the three iconic town squares you mentioned--Noblesville, Crown Point, and Greensburg--only Greensburg's still functions as a true "courthouse." The courthouse in Noblesville houses various county offices, but the courts are in a new justice center across the street. The Lake County courthouse in Crown Point is now or was an antique mall with no current government function. The courts are housed in a prison-looking structure in the middle of a field south of town.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for the response, John M. I guess I should have emphasized that county courthouses have become almost metaphoric these days, since so many of them have migrated their original functions to another building, often in a different location. Obviously I wasn't aware of all the examples that you have mentioned, including Muncie/Delaware County. This blog article was particularly difficult for me, and this is just one of the reasons why: I remember struggling with this when I was looking at the assigned names of buildings on Google Maps. Perhaps the original courthouse role has spread across two buildings: the brutalist one I mentioned is court administration and the one to its north that you mentioned is the circuit court? At least that's what Google Maps indicates. I'll try researching it further; my plan was always to "fix" this article once I got some better photos.

It's also interesting what you said about the Lake County courthouse, since it is one of the few I have visited. It was a mini-mall as recently as a decade ago when I last visited Crown Point, and it seemed quite successful with cafes, despite the fact that it received virtually no natural light because everything was in the basement. I presumed at that point that the upper levels still hosted some courthouse functions, but I guess not. In moving all of that out to a remote location, probably alongside the jail, they have addressed a problem that I first pointed out about two years ago in a blog article featuring the courthouse/prison complex in Chillicothe, Ohio: http://dirtamericana.blogspot.com/2010/04/repelling-criminals-and-just-about.html

As for the Muncie City Hall, I'm sure you are right on the date. After all, I used Wikipedia for the source--how could it be anything but wrong? I definitely looked older than 2005, but now I realize that could have just been the year that the picture was taken.

You've helped a great deal for when I make significant changes/corrections to this blog article in the neat future. Thanks.

John M said...

Your confusion is justified. The address of the 1980s/1990s justice center is 100 West Washington, while the 1960s building is 100 West Main. Google correctly list the address for Delaware County Court Administration as 100 West Washington, but incorrectly puts that label over the building south of Washington Street (Muncie, like Indy, uses even numbered addresses for the north side of the street).

I did some additional googling and a follow-up post yesterday, but I must have failed to post it properly. I was correct that City Hall opened in 1991, but the Justice Center, the construction of which was characterized by major structural and design problems as well as usual Delaware County infighting, didn't open until 1992.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks again for all the clarifications. I hope to be up again in Muncie sometime later this month and will update both the photos and the content of the blog.

michelle jent said...

I know Winchester has been renovating it's county building which is huge in the center of town. I do not know if still functions as a couthouse but I always enjoy seeing it's "originality " and grandness. Hartford City is similar as well.

As a Muncie native of my 42 years, I have seen the destruction of many iconic buildings, namely the rivoli. Enjoyed your story about "the pole " which is in front of a great downtown business.

Andrew Shears said...

I don't know your training, but as an academic geographer who grew up in Muncie, I enjoyed this post a great deal and I'm pretty happy I stumbled upon this blog. Keep up the good work!

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for your comments, Michelle and Andrew. Even though it's clear that Muncie's leadership have destroyed an inordinately high number of downtown buildings, it's reassuring to see early stages of a downtown resurgence. Hope springs eternal, and it's a testament to the commitment and ingenuity of Muncie's entrepreneurs to make something from the buildings that remain.