My Dinner with Lutherans

Thoughts on Place Making after a visit to Minneapolis

A version of this was originally published in Places Magazine in the fall of 2007

September 2007


architects sans programme

Does it start with us or our clients? Minneapolis, like most American cities, doesn't evidence faith in its local architects. For major facilities, Minneapolis hires architects from the coasts or Europe. The Walker Art Center brought in Herzog & de Meuron (with Hammel, Green and Abrahamson as Architects of Record led by Project Architect, John Cook, AIA).


In more than one American city, a wealthy benefactor has funded a monument before the beneficiary organization knew it had a need for more building. This appears to be what happened here. It's a recipe for a mess. Even great architects like these benefit from a client that knows its needs. The tension between program and vision nourishes the architect's creativity. Without program, the architect's task is hollow. Architecture is not just sculpture. To be worthy it must also fulfill programmatic duties. A community rightly expects its leaders to carefully prioritize its needs and spend its resources accordingly. This Walker addition provides a theater, a sculpture garden and a parking garage. In the context of everything else happening in Minneapolis, it is hard to understand how these could be the priorities.


Since the client did not have heartfelt goals, the architects created their own tasks. In response to the completely opaque Edward Larrabee Barnes building of 1971, they sought transparency. Museums need opacity to protect their objects. What is accomplished by exposing a building's corridors to the out of doors? The metal skin at the Walker, in the end, is not transparent at all. Though it presents some arresting visual reflections of the sky and the sun, it also provides a home for birds and insects and seems vulnerable to damage from freeze thaw cycles.


The architects also developed an idea of a commons. Galleries would be discrete expressed masses with level floors while the commons would be interstice that could accommodate the topographical challenges of the site. In this case, someone spilled coffee on the Nolli map and the ink bled – the differentiation between figure and ground is never clear. It comes closest to success on the back of the building in the proposed new sculpture garden, but, unhappily, the building provides no access to that garden. In terms of massing, the Barnes tower stuffily ignores its ambiguously proportioned and trendily cantilevered counterpoint. John Cook acknowledged that the theater box had grown a bit more than he hoped.


The tragedy at the Walker is the demolition of the original Rapson Guthrie. How can Minneapolis, with over fifty theater companies, the home of Prince and Garrison Keillor, not find a use for an outdated architectural landmark? It's legitimate to hire non-resident architects when they know something we don't know. Minneapolis should import a few architects from Rome. They know how to remodel.


Nouvel and the Guthrie

In 1959, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, seeking to do non-commercial theater, put out a call for a new home. Seven Midwestern cities responded but it came down to "Minnie" or "Milly" (Milwaukee, Wisconsin). Minneapolis won and Ralph Rapson, FAIA, as architect and Tanya Moiseiwitsch as theater designer created a thrust theater at the Walker Art Center site that opened in 1963. A number of years ago, the Guthrie was struggling -- limited apparently by its lack of a proscenium stage and the aging nature of Rapson's building. Meanwhile, the Walker, too, was looking to expand. The powers that be decided to move the Guthrie. Inspired it seems by characteristically Midwestern frugality and respect for elders, the original Moiseiwitsch thrust stage has been recreated in the new building.


Sir Tyrone originally wanted to be on the Mississippi. Aware that the French (Joseph Nicollet, Father Hennepin and the "voyageurs") were here before the Lutherans, the Guthrie hired Jean Nouvel (associated with local architects Architectural Alliance, led by Tom DeAngelo, FAIA). The result is a magnificent building, a real presence in the city, and the performers and their directors seem very happy. This facility, along with the adjacent Mill City Museum of 2004 by local architect Tom Meyer, FAIA, of Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, does seem to promise a strengthening of the Mississippi River's role in Minneapolis life.


The problem here is not with the building, but rather with the gospel according to Joe Dowling (the exceptionally well-spoken, appropriately Irish, and apparently exceedingly competent artistic director of the Guthrie). Nouvel came to the site and told Dowling he would do the building if he could raise the stages fifty feet in the air so he could see the river. Dowling, a practical theater man, imagined the nightmare of lifting scenery and props that far and balked. Nouvel then lifted Dowling into the air in a cherry picker and according to the gospel, Joe saw the light. Never mind that Nouvel had recommended a similar move a year before in Pittsburgh at The Carnegie Science Center. Never mind that the important view in a theater is onstage. Never mind that the rehearsal rooms and costume shops where people work long hours are on or near the ground without the grand view.


As in the Bible (we are dining with Lutherans here, remember), there is an alternative gospel. A Minneapolis sky bridge is at the heart of this building. Most companies build their sets in a shop, take them apart, cart them to the stage, and reconstruct them. At the Guthrie the sky bridge allows the sets to be constructed just once and rolled into place on both main stages. Lifting the stages made it possible for the scene shop to be above the parking garage across the street a block back from the view. This saves the rest of the riverfront property for more appropriate uses.


The Guthrie is at the end of a line of old millworks (factories and silos) that have a certain scale, mass and geometry. The raised stages foster an urbane contextualism. The expressed form of the thrust theater mimics the silos and the mass of the new building fits right in. Nouvel could have chosen to punctuate the line. Instead his building seems to suggest another facility, someday, south of the Guthrie.


Shopping with Mary Tyler Moore

There is a sense that things move more slowly in the middle of the country and Minneapolis reflects this. Hardly anyone lives in the city center, yet. Light rail will probably change that (just when it becomes reasonable to live in the suburbs, everyone will move into town). Beginning 45 years ago, Minneapolis was the first city to skywalk itself to death, connecting buildings at the second floor with enclosed pedestrian bridges. That pretty much killed commerce (and life) on the street. Rebirth is under way as a result of pedestrian friendly streets, farmers' markets, professional sports and conventioneers. The street level shopping seems aimed at Mary Tyler Moore – Macys, Saks, Nieman Marcus, but not much else. It feels like an old-fashioned downtown where Dad works and Mom shops. Except now Mom works too.


When New York was building Woolworth and Chrysler and Chicago the Wrigley Building, Minnesota was building the Foshay Tower (designed in 1929 by Léon Eugène Arnal, chief designer for the architects Magney & Tusler), a particularly handsome masonry obelisk now dwarfed by its neighbors. People don't put their names on their own buildings much anymore. Nowadays the rich fund libraries and theaters and corporations put their names on ball fields. With the public realm ravaged by the anti-tax tsunami, it's surprising how often we demolish and rebuild hundred million dollar facilities.


In an apparent attempt to spur downtown domesticity (and catch up with the coasts), Minneapolis has just built a new headquarters library. Pelli Clarke Pelli were brought in from New Haven (and teamed with local architects Architectural Alliance, Tom Hysell, AIA, Project Architect). It is two very simple boxes connected by an atrium (think Johnson at IDS or more thoroughly Meier in The Hague). This is Pelli taking it easy.


The curve of the river occasionally reorients the street grid. The library site is at a boundary and the two boxes are on separate grids creating the forced perspective of the atrium. In a deep way, this is the river informing the architecture. The architects and the librarians are very proud of the transparency of the building (glass skins being one of the fashions of the moment), but in daylight, this skin is as opaque as stone. From a distance, this building looks like books on shelves, layer cake architecture with no expressed structure.


Inside, a forest of mushrooms holds up the painted concrete slabs. The greatest success of this building is the clarity of these slabs and the resolution of the consequently exposed utilities. With all the interior and exterior glass and reflective surfaces, the sad thing about this building is that Minneapolis probably traded librarians for window washers.



Thursday, September 28, 2007, the day we arrived, there were two headlines on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune


(no word by the way on how many visiting COD members applied for the job)



This one was about a cross burned in the front yard of the only black family in an Anoka neighborhood. Minneapolitans were up in arms threatening bake sales and gifts of money to the victims and eternal damnation to the miscreant who so rudely disturbed the peace. Unhappily, the next day (and thus the headline) it turned out the man had burned his own yard in hopes of collecting sympathy money from his neighbors. Architecture is that medium through which we tell our descendants who we were. If present trends continue, our architecture may become as fleeting as a cross burned in a yard.


Affording the American Dream

Dense Affordable Single Family Housing

Nowadays, there seems to be a garden apartment orthodoxy (in what might be called the new urbanist style) that separates architects from the consumers of affordable housing. Most affordable housing is just downright awful and not worthy of discussion. But some attempts to be better than that. Unfortunately, even in the best cases, developers and taste makers want trendy apartment buildings while most of the public prefers a single family dwelling. This results in solutions that favor developers over residents and architecture instead of community. In an apartment building, the developer keeps ownership and accrues wealth if the project is a success. With single family dwellings that wealth can and should be flowing to the residents. Architects tend to side with the developers for two reasons.
A. The developers are paying them.
B. A groovy apartment building is a more lucrative project and is much more likely to win accolades than is a group of inexpensive single family dwellings.

Our purpose here is to challenge that orthodoxy, to suggest that there are valuable choices being ignored that foster both community and architecture, and that benefit both the direct beneficiaries and the taxpayers who are subsidizing this housing.

We believe first of all in diversity. So, yes, there is a place for apartments and row housing. There are people who want and need to rent. But there is also a place for inexpensive single family dwellings. There are low income families and individuals who will make greater contributions to our communities if they are property owners. Single family dwellings can and should be a central element in the provision of affordable housing. In the USA at least, home ownership, at some point, becomes an essential part of full-fledged citizenship. That sense of ownership fosters the development of healthy communities.

There is a place for mass transit. But, outside of our largest central cities, automobile ownership and use is an essential aspect of living in North America, no matter the income level. Even in low income families, this often means 3-5 cars per residence. Because everybody has to work and everybody has to drive to work, everybody has a car (or a pick up truck). A significant portion of affordable housing must acknowledge this.

In the 1950’s single family housing (think Levittown) was being built in subdivisions with a density of approximately five units per acre. Today’s typical winding street subdivision generates a typical density of about 3 units per acre. In the north especially, these lower densities result in especially burdensome infrastructure costs. More deeply buried utility lines and greater snow plowing requirements are two of the infrastructure costs that increase dramatically as one moves north.

With some thought though, sustainable, affordable, practical fee simple single family housing can be built at approximately 10 dwelling units per acre. Streets should be very narrow, just wide enough for two sidewalks, two lanes of very slow traffic, two lanes of parking and lots of stickball. It happens that these streets are also just wide enough for fire and emergency vehicles and smaller scale snow removal equipment. Side loading trash trucks are also essential for these small streets to work in today’s world. In northern climates, when topography allows, these streets should run primarily north to south. That means the sun can warm the pavement even in the darkest days of winter. It also means the houses can be laid out to have outdoor spaces in the sun on both sides of the street. Lots are just wide enough for two parallel parking spaces on the street and a driveway. The higher density and smaller streets both support more pedestrian activity. The higher density also increases the likelihood that commercial services will be available within walking distance.

Fences and walls must clearly define the boundaries between automobile and human activity without unnecessarily isolating the street from the homes. The car is accommodated, but it is not allowed to take over. Where cars are allowed to take over, the properties are misused and property values and citizen self-respect falls. Fences and walls allow for precise boundaries. That makes it possible for comfortable human activity and automobile storage to coexist happily on a smaller piece of land.

Houses are built against two property lines, becoming walls for the neighbors’ outdoor spaces. Light can pass through glass block in these property line walls but they are otherwise strong fire, sound and visual barriers. Instead of having two useless five foot wide side yards and a small front yard and a small back yard, we provide one large yard. This yard is private and thoroughly integrated into the interior of the house. This yard is set up to take the maximum advantage of any available sun and to pass that sun into the interior of the house.

It is also important that the wealth created by affordable housing programs accrue to its residents instead of going to developers. This gives residents the incentive to maintain and improve their homes. It also turns them into tax payers instead of tax consumers. The government, federal, provincial, state or local, through its housing agency, should be the developer. There is no need for developer profit here. Homeownership should occur under a cooperative regime. Down payments can be minimal or non-existent. Capital gains that occur at resale should be shared by the individual and the cooperative. The cooperative’s share can then be used to create more affordable housing.

Affordable housing programs that do not foster home ownership and at least tolerate automobile ownership (unless mass transit is available and generally used by everyone) tend to segregate their residents from the rest of the community. Once we begin to create affordable housing that fosters good citizenship and results in increased property values, we will have a much easier time creating mixed housing developments – the ultimate goal if we are to have a healthy society. Affordable housing programs must be about bringing us together, not keeping us apart.
The recent article about the Anchorage Industrial Land Assessment (AILA) misrepresents the report and the availability of industrial land in Anchorage. This was one of the weakest attempts yet to revive the thankfully expiring Knik Arm Crossing project.

AILA predicts a need for 720 to 1080 acres of industrial land in Anchorage between 2010 and 2030. It acknowledges the existence of 801 acres of undeveloped industrial land and 662 acres of underutilized industrial land. This math says that we have between 383 and 743 acres of available industrial land in excess of our needs between 2010 and 2030. AILA’s own summary page (Table 1, page 3), projects an excess of land!

In addition, AILA specifically excludes the 2442 acres (see Anchorage 2020, Chapter 2, Table 2) owned by the Airport, Port and Railroad. Much of this land is vacant or underutilized. All of these owners are devoted to nurturing industrial development. Further, AILA suggests the possibility of military land expansion instead of the much more likely reduction.

AILA manages to suggest the possibility of a shortage by claiming the difficulty of developing 201 of these acres because they are in Eklutna, Chugiak and Eagle River and rejects another 401 acres because of soils limitations. But remember the recent article’s proposed solution. Which is more expensive? Land at Eklutna or land across Knik Arm? Land in the Anchorage bowl with a soils problem or land across Knik Arm? To its credit, AILA does not recommend the Knik Arm Crossing as a solution, but rather recommends the same redevelopment efforts supported here.

By ignoring Eagle River, Chugiak, Eklutna, the Airport, the Port, the Railroad, most underdeveloped land and any land with a soils limitation, AILA manages to suggest a worst case scenario shortage of 484 acres. According to Anchorage 2020, in 1998 there were 24099 developed acres of residential, commercial, and institutional land in the Anchorage bowl. Even if we ignore the better options listed in the previous sentence, converting just 2% of this land would accommodate all predicted industrial uses. The worst case scenario, created only by ignoring all of the options that would become viable should the market actually demand industrial land, amounts to 8 parcels the size of the Park Strip. For that we should construct a 2 billion dollar bridge?

We have just spent months listening to mayoral candidates talking about reducing the cost of government. Especially in Anchorage with frost, snow and darkness, the cost of government is directly related to any reduction in density. Water, sewer, electricity, police, fire, schools, everything the government does costs much more the more it is spread out. Between McHugh Creek and Eklutna, most of the infrastructure is already in place. We are already paying for it. I can’t imagine there are many taxpayers who want to start buying all those things for the properties at the other end of the proposed Knik Arm Crossing.

The City of San Francisco has an area of 232 square miles. Anchorage is 1,697 square miles.
San Francisco’s population is 744,230. Anchorage’s is 282,810. The density in San Francisco is 3,208 people per square mile. In Anchorage, it’s 167 people per square mile. Given the presence of the Presidio and Golden Gate Park, and given the typical topography in San Francisco, it is completely implausible to suggest that Anchorage is out of industrial land or any other kind of land. We need to concentrate on redeveloping and improving the land we have. This land already has most of the necessary infrastructure in place.

The AILA report was produced by a firm from Sacramento with funding from Anchorage Economic Development Corporation (AEDC) and MOA. One might ask why AEDC sent this work to California when there are a number of qualified Alaska firms. I am guessing the answer would be low bid. I think that proves my case. Industrial development across the Knik Arm will never be the low bidder without subsidies from you, me, our kids and our grandkids.