Since the waning of the City Beautiful movement in the 1900s, the construction of large, classical civic buildings has become a rarity. Postmodernism may have briefly rekindled interest in the classical language but it is unusual—if not somewhat astonishing—to see a full-fledged classical building as the centerpiece of a new civic square. But such is the Palladium, the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana, modeled on Palladio’s Villa Rotunda with detailing picked up from the Viennese Secessionists.
The 154,000 square foot Palladium will contain a grand 1,600-seat concert hall, and it is intended to be active most days of the year. For architect David M. Schwarz, the project’s prominence and its site suggested the opportunity to do something really grand. “It needed to be an object building, something with four sides,” he said. So Schwarz turned to one of the world’s most recognizable buildings for inspiration. “I never thought I’d get a chance to take a shot at reinterpreting the Villa Rotunda. For me, it’s a dream come true.”
Washington, D.C.-based David M. Schwarz Architects has a diverse portfolio of typologies and styles, but they have designed several large concert halls in various historical styles, including the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Tennessee and Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas. Still, the Carmel building stands out. “It’s among the most unusual projects I’ve ever worked on,” he said. “The goal was to create a cultural focus for a suburban community, a community that has much more sophisticated views than most suburban areas.” Historically, he added, most concert halls were located in dense urban centers, so the chance to do a building in the round is especially unusual.
With an exterior of Indiana limestone, the building anchors a newly created civic square. Two additional smaller theaters sit across from the Palladium. Residential buildings with ground floor retail and restaurants will line the perimeter of the square. “People will be able to walk to the center for a show or even bike up during the day for a matinee,” said Steven Libman, president of the center. Combining classical panache with contemporary savvy, the center also connects to the 17 mile Monon bike trail, linking Carmel directly to Indianapolis.
While other cities may opt to invest in avant-garde designs by renowned architects to make a civic statement, Schwarz and Libman agree that this historicist design resonates in Carmel. “Every community is different. This is a very traditional community,” Schwarz said. He also argues that classical buildings are often less expensive to build than cutting edge designs. “It’s often a matter of weighing the quality you can get for the money you can spend,” he said.
“When people see this building, built from Indiana limestone, it’s just a tremendous expression of civic pride,” Libman said. The Palladium, which will open to the public on January 22, and the larger square, which is under construction, presents a radical makeover for a downtown previously characterized more by parking lots than grand edifices.
There was less money to spend on the interior, so Schwarz used paint to decorate the hand-plastered walls with 18th-century Robert Adams-inflecetd motifs. “We used color to create a highly detailed and articulated space,” he said.
Libman and Schwarz credit Carmel’s mayor James Brainard with spearheading the entire project, as well as for driving its neo-traditional planning. “There are many major cities that have put the arts at the heart of their civic life, but this really sets Carmel apart as a smaller city,” Libman said.
Modernists will likely be less than impressed, but perhaps that’s beside the point. “The men who built this building, the construction workers, have been literally moved to tears during some of the rehearsals,” Libman said. “People just marvel at it.”