General 5-7-2007

“Design and Its Publics” on Friday: Neither High, Nor Wide, Nor Deep

Camille LeFevre attended the conference "Design and Its Publics" hosted by the Design Institute at the University of Minnesota. Given the event's star power, she was underwhelmed.


The Friday session of “Design and Its Publics,” a symposium on April 27-28 organized by Janet Abrams, who directs the Design Institute at the University of Minnesota, and Steven Ostrow, chair of University’s art history department, featured hot-shot critics and historians (most of them European) evaluating Minneapolis’ recent spate of cultural institutions designed by starchitects.

The session kicked off with the usual feel-good recitation of how fabulous Minneapolis is, now that our fancy cultural projects have brought us accolades from Newsweek to Food & Wine for being modern and hip.

What followed was faint praise at best. That’s fine. Each of these new buildings—Guthrie, MIA, Walker, Minneapolis Public Library—has programmatic, aesthetic, and/or contextual problems. But did the conference organizers, and the panelists, think we’re so besotted with the new city-celebrity status delivered by our stararchitecture that we’ve forgotten the obvious? That these star architects (Jean Nouvel, Herzog & de Meuron, Cesar Pelli, Michael Graves) aren’t giving us their best architecture; that international architects introduce new ideas and innovative material uses to our “sheltered” architects here; and that when these stararchitects are given high-profile projects our local star modernists (Julie Snow, James Dayton, Ralph Rapson, Vincent James, HGA) lose out?

Appears so. Because all of this “discourse”—along with the faint praise—was delivered within a variety of slightly condescending contexts. Sigh. Did we really need Olivier Touraine, of Touraine Richmond Architects, to mumble through some sort of explanation of how the Twin Cities are different from each other (St. Paul representing government, Minneapolis representing culture)? Duh, and it’s a little more complicated than that.

Did we really need Maarten Delbeke, of Ghent University and Leiden University, to remind us that our most significant vernacular architecture is colossal grain elevators and sprawling shopping malls? Yes, yes, we know that Nouvel’s inspiration for his Guthrie Theater design came from the adjacent grain towers, conveyor belts and the Mississippi River. Nouvel’s contextual approach to the design of the Guthrie has been explored in magazine and newspaper articles for years. However, I’d never considered Herzog and de Meuron’s addition to the Walker Art Center as shopping-mall-like.

Jean-Louis Cohen, of New York University, mumbled at the most inopportune times, say when he was throwing out some rhetoric that had people next to me buzzing, “Did he say such and so, or so and such?” Something about how these new buildings are “cultural objects transformed into urban collectibles,” and we’re only missing a Calatrava; about cities “privileging postcards over the everyday”; that nonetheless such “monuments” convey that social change is happening; and most intriguing, something about the eroticism or narcissism (no one could agree which it was) of the Guthrie’s architecture. Cohen’s real zinger? That these building display the legacy of American manufacturing, our “biggest accomplishment.” Who knew?!

Suzanne Stephens, deputy editor of Architectural Record, provided us with a little history lesson. Minneapolis isn’t following the Bilbao model of “design it and tourists will come”: We invented it!! Way back in the middle of the last century, when Ralph Rapson arrived from Cranbook and designed the now-demolished Guthrie Theater (featured in architecture textbooks around the world), Edward Larabee Barnes designed the Walker, Hardy Holtzman Pfeiffer designed Orchestra Hall and then WCCO, Gunnar Birkerts designed the Federal Reserve Building, Kenzo Tange designed an addition to the MIA, and Phillip Johnson and John Burgee designed the IDS, “a smashing success at the time.”

The IDS, in fact, was the only one of those buildings Stephens liked, either during that first wave of “import architecture” or the second wave Minneapolis has experienced in the last few years. No matter. Ole Bouman (Netherlands Architecture Institute) sketched out an intriguing model for the intersection of mass production and genius, then offered a Big If: “Do Minneapolis’ new cultural institutions provide people with not only a program, but something to admire and enjoy? If so, you’ve achieved a miracle.” The jury’s still out on many of the new buildings, but no doubt being the good Minnesotans we are, we’ll be nice about them all eventually.

Margaret Crawford, of Harvard Graduate School of Design, ventured into Richard Florida and Ann Markusen territory with her discussion of culture + creativity = economic advantage. She then wondered aloud about how architecture can trickle down into the lives of ordinary people–using not a single example from Minneapolis. The implication being, I think, that our celebrity architecture is either incapable of or unwilling to undertake such feats. Frances Anderton, who hosts a radio-architecture program in Los Angeles, played clips from her interviews with regular people (like Jodie Foster) about their perspectives on architecture.

Anyway. As someone who attends symposia in hopes of being challenged, enlightened and engaged, I can only wonder what all of this was about. Minneapolis’ stararchitecture, it’s safe to say, has engaged many of its publics—the architectural and popular media, the citizens of Minneapolis and St. Paul (if not the Upper Midwest), the panelists of this symposium. But if the role of critics, as was mentioned early in the program, is to make buildings known to people, these panelist-critics underestimated their public: a design-savvy audience intimately attuned to its changing built environment, with higher expectations for discourse than “Design and Its Publics” delivered.