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.

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