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An Award Winner in the Woods

When I joined the project team for the Art & Nature Park nearly five years ago, the IMA’s journey of park development was well underway.  The process would eventually span a decade or more, culminating in the grand opening of 100 Acres in June 2010.  Now, the recent announcement of the Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion as a 2012 National AIA honor award winner has provided the final underscore for the initial launch of 100 Acres, as well as a new standard for the park as it moves into the future as a space in constant evolution.

Although the park as a whole was a wide ranging, multi-faceted project, the Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion always served as the nucleus for the entire endeavor, and in my mind the benchmark of success or failure for the park overall.  The constant challenge throughout the development of the park was to implement eight unique, autonomous commissioned artwork installations and a network of landscape and infrastructure improvements, yet weave them together into a coherent, holistic visitor experience.  It became apparent early in the process that the Visitors Pavilion was to be the center point, around which the rest of the park would live in context.  It was important that the park be a place for multi-faceted experiences, a place which celebrates the gray areas between man and nature, between art and architecture, between carefully programmed experiences and organic, meditative spaces.  The role of the Visitors Pavilion was at the same time clear and elusive: to serve as the flagship space where these gray areas could be called out.

The first set of development drawings I saw in 2007 showed the essence of the final product, but in a much different incarnation.  Marlon Blackwell Architects had been working hand-in-hand for years with landscape architect Ed Blake, artist Mary Miss, and the IMA project team to develop the comprehensive architectural plan for the park, and a structure known as the Interpretive Pavilion was the architectural workhorse of that plan.  It was to serve practical needs such as shelter, restrooms, and a hub for communications.  It was also to serve as the programming hub for the park, providing a home for educational initiatives, events, and temporary exhibitions.

The form of the building was already well developed, the genesis of which had been Marlon’s study of dried, fallen leaves on the property.  The structure incorporated folded planes and playful manipulation of light and shadow, and provided interior and exterior spaces which blurred the lines between the experience of being part of the structure and being part of the surrounding landscape.  This original incarnation was significantly larger than the final Pavilion, incorporating three separate pavilions, each serving a different purpose, tied together by an outdoor deck space and shade canopy.

This first iteration of the Pavilion design lived within an overall park scheme that was at a crossroads.  The years of early design development were transitioning into implementation, and the project team was re-evaluating the scope of the entire project from the ground up.  It was as if the park plans were in the form of a bloated manuscript, and we were now working through the editing process.  Budgetary constraints were considered, but even more important were the questions of scope in relation to the  philosophy and character of the project.  The park emerged with a new direction towards a lighter environmental touch and a more graceful balance between art, nature, and architecture.  As a result, the interpretive pavilion underwent an editing process of its own.  The structure became significantly smaller, finally consisting of one single interior pavilion that could serve multiple purposes and provide a more intimate visitor experience.  This streamlining of the practical requirements for the structure allowed Marlon the opportunity to design a building with the size, proportion, and delicate placement necessary to create the characteristic I find most impressive about the final product: a sense that it is in balance with its site, that it fits the scale and spirit of its surroundings.  Like the philosophy behind the structural engineering of the building, it is exactly what it needs to be, nothing more and nothing less.

The national AIA honor award is a reminder of the power and potential of that editing process.  As with any project, the design and construction process involved a constant stream of value-base decisions, weighing design intent, materiality, quality, and craftsmanship, against budgetary constraints, timeline, and feasibility.  In the end, the difference between a great building and a spectacular one came down to that stream of decisions.  In hindsight it’s easy to see why and how those decisions worked, to see how certain edits and changes resulted in a stronger, more focused final product, to see how the eliminated items were not missed, or to see how those that the team fought to retain are now the most beloved.

Those seemingly serendipitous results could not have been achieved without the diligent work of a tight-knit project team with a common vision and trust in one another as stewards of that vision.  The Hagerman Group, general contractors for the project, was involved early in the long development process of the park, working hand in hand with the IMA and the design team.  The longevity of those relationships and the trust established over the years formed the foundation for the day-to-day cooperation, complex problem solving, and care needed to create an AIA award worthy final product.

In the end, the value of architecture is in the experience of inhabiting it, and it is extremely gratifying to know that those jurors who experienced the pavilion for the first time, with fresh senses, were left with something powerful.  In the context of the other award winners past and present, I hope the building has the potential become an ambassador in Indianapolis for the power of great architecture.  I like to think that the AIA has awarded the Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion for its ability to leave visitors not with a mental image of the structure, but with a sensory memory of their experience, and hopefully the presentation of the award will bring an even wider audience to experience the space for themselves.

Filed under: Art and Nature Park

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