General 2-16-2004

Architecture Review: Ice Palace as Civic Experiment and as Architecture: Some Takes

Over the past month, views on the political and artistic merits and lack of same of the St. Paul Ice Palace have flown in local media. Here are several takes on the thing, seen as civic project and as architecture, from local writers.

St. Paul Winter Carnival Ice Palace

[An excerpt from Jim Walsh’s piece in City Pages]

. . . these days [my kids] know full well my feelings about the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s Ice Palace. A nice place to visit. With a blowtorch.

I haven’t taken them, and I don’t plan on it, because it’s one of those really fun things that has been sold to me as such, and, because I still happen to have a few critical synapses firing, I get knee-jerk cranky at the whiff of such hype. Moreover, there is a deeper anger embedded in those letters to the editor bitching about the irony of an ice palace that’s been built across the street from a homeless shelter: At a time when things feel so slippery, when politicians’ lies vie for airtime with commercials for the new season of American Idol, when the international debate is about rebuilding a country that this country tore down, we here in Minnesota build a castle that will soon be a big puddle.

Unlike other things people work hard to build, the Ice Palace is too easy and too easily disposed of, like so many other distractions that get hyped-and-gone these days, so I look at it from afar and say, Why bother? It might be easier if I could lighten up, get with the festivities, exult in the magic of it all, or even goof on the absurd lengths to which we’ll go to entertain ourselves during January in Minnesota. And the fact is, I still might put on the robot suit and take the kids to see all the pretty lights and the 27,000 blocks of ice, and they’ll probably think it’s cool. Or not.

The Saturday before the palace opened, I took them to Lake Harriet, where we happened to run into a kite festival. There were no colored strobe lights, but the sun was out. There was no cover charge, but there was complimentary cocoa. There was no webcam or live remotes or bumper-to-bumper traffic, and no nothing-attracts-a-crowd-like-a-crowd crowd, but if you walked out into the middle of the lake, you could hear the tinkle of tinny banjos and mandolins wafting out from the bandstand PA. . . .

[Michael Fallon’s response to Walsh’s piece]

In some ways it’s easy to be a critic in this culture. All you have to do is be willing to raise your voice after someone else’s hard work and give a fast thumbs up or down–and that’s it. You don’t have to face any fall-out for your assessment, really, other than maybe an occasional nasty letter to the editor—because, hell, there’s so much noise already who cares really about one more opinion. As long as an editor thinks your stuff is okay, then you’re good to go. And the fact is, many editors love their critics most when they’re stirring up a little controversy. Or so are the conclusions I come to after having read Jim Walsh’s nasty slash-and-burn assessment of St. Paul’s Ice Palace in City Pages.

I don’t mean to suggest that all critics are as reckless as Walsh. A good critic will tend to discuss what he or she knows best (Walsh is a longtime music critic), feeling insecure in other fields. Perhaps it is insecurity, then, that explains Walsh’s tone, as he writes, “they [his kids] know full well my feelings about the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s Ice Palace. A nice place to visit. With a blowtorch.”

From the start, I thought about writing an assessment of the Ice Palace, but backed off when I realized how much coverage it was already getting. Like Walsh, I tend to want to cover those living artists and events that won’t otherwise get coverage—it not only makes good sense to the local arts community, but it also tends to yield more vibrant writing. But from this point is where mine and Walsh’s paths diverge.

Despite my repugnance over the hoopla, I reserved judgment until I could actually examine the structure. In the meantime, I gave the hype some consideration. There’s not a lot to recommend St. Paul to the rest of the world, and never really has been. In 1885, for instance, a New York Times reporter called St. Paul the “Siberia of America,” and questioned whether it was fit for human habitation. As a result, the Chamber of Commerce founded the Saint Paul Winter Carnival to prove that, indeed, people did live and thrive here—even in the dead of winter. In other words, the event was started as an advertisement.

During the endless daily run-down on the Ice Palace’s progress in January, I sometimes wandered by the site and was taken by the sheer intensity of the effort. When crews began working round the clock to finish off the thing, I wished them well. Whenever I tired of hearing about it, I turned off the TV or radio, and did something else–giving it no more thought.

Once the palace was finished, I visited twice: once on the Saturday that officials say broke all attendance records—which of course sucked because it was hard to even move around. The second time I visited on weekday night when it was much more calm. And in the end, I came out liking the thing despite my misgivings. After all, seeing what amounts to more than 5,000 tons of frozen water milled from a local lake and turned into a back-lit architectural structure is an amazing experience. Sure, there wasn’t not a lot of nuance to the Ice Palace—it’s frozen water lit up; nuance is not part of the plan—but it was a monument to ingenuity, to wish-fulfillment, to hope, and to sheer communal effort. And it glowed with color and light, turning the otherwise staid Midwestern downtown of St. Paul into something Frank Gehry might admire.

Even if the thing were ugly, there’s something to celebrate about a communal ritual of this sort—a celebration of the spirit of humanity that somehow survives and makes beauty in the midst of this frozen season. This is akin to conceptual public art like Andy Goldworthy’s ice and snow structures, though on a vaster, less personal scale. The Ice Palace amounted to a purely frivolous and temporary act of public beauty that symbolizes our will to overcome. It’s all the more poignant as our culture increasingly diminishes the value of beautiful public acts—thanks to homeland security and especially thanks to recent governmental erosions of a century-long tradition of fine arts support in this state.

In a way, it’s interesting, and telling, how Walsh took umbrage at the coverage, saying “because I still happen to have a few critical synapses firing, I get knee-jerk cranky at the whiff of such hype.” (Does anyone else see the inherent contradiction in this statement?) There are a lot of names for what Walsh presents himself as here—misanthrope, scrooge, stick-in-the-mud, snob, party-pooper, cynic, curmudgeon, the guy in the clock tower. But a critic who dismisses public opinion simply because it is the opinion of the masses and thus couldn’t live up to his own high standards of living is simply insufferable. Walsh doesn’t even say why he dislikes the palace—in fact, he can’t, because he’s not seen it. He merely writes that what he does on his Saturday afternoon has to be better than what thousands of his fellows are doing.

Sure, the Ice Palace hype is annoying, but so what? Not everything that is mainstream and popular is bad. Just a few weeks ago Walsh filled an entire column with ruminations on his personal favorite conglomeration of overhyped millionaires, the Timberwolves (—apparently the one exception to his high standards.

I get what Walsh is saying about the private ritual thing. Going to the lake with the kids and making up stories about Ollie the Octopus sounds like great fun. It’s poignant, and I don’t want to take that away from Walsh (with a blow-torch or anything else). But as the Psalmist says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Sometimes it’s good to be alone. Other times it’s good to be with the crowd. So Walsh would rather sit in a dark and too-smoky lounge listening to overamped local bands. Bully for him. It’s not my thing, but it doesn’t mean I want to wreck his fun. So I hope he can be kept from blow-torching mine.

A postmortem on the Palace in the Pioneer Press, titled “Palace functional, not fantastical,” from architecture critic Larry Millett (it ran Feb. 14):

There seems to have been a lot of griping about the soon-to-be-demolished St. Paul Winter Carnival ice palace. Letters to the editor in this newspaper offered complaints about everything from long admission lines to the lack of any “real” rooms inside the palace to the quality of the “attractions” inside.

Of course, plenty of people came away happy from their encounter with the palace, but there’s no denying that an undercurrent of disappointment rumbled beneath the canned music and the disco-style light show.

At first glance, these complaints are puzzling. The palace itself was well-designed, with lots of intriguing touches in the handling of its walls and outer works, and it certainly was impressive in size. It was also beautifully sited in the heart of downtown. And while the weather certainly could have been a tad warmer, it was in fact perfect for the palace itself, which endured none of the unsightly melting that marred the 1992 palace at Harriet Island.

So why all the unhappiness in some quarters? The answer, I believe, stems from one simple fact: This year’s palace was the first of the modern era to be conceived not as a work of art but as a functioning work of architecture. And that, it may well be, was a mistake.

This may sound like an odd thing to say, especially since public access was heralded as a distinguishing feature of the palace. I readily admit that I was among the misguided souls who did some of that heralding. I did so because I thought this year’s palace might convey something of the feel of the gigantic St. Paul ice castles of the 1880s, which were built with high-walled courtyards, rooms and other architectural spaces.

But I was probably expecting too much, as I think were a good many palace visitors. It is simply not possible, in this liability-driven age, to build things the way they were built more than a century ago.

All of which, I think, helps explain some of the dissatisfaction with this year’s palace, which may simply have been too functional for its own good. It was built to serve the masses — not to mention its corporate sponsors — much in the manner of any other holiday attraction. Bring in the folks, give them a show, sell them something they probably don’t need and then send them on their way.

Yet ice palaces are best experienced, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, as “winter dreams.” It is precisely their lack of any function, their mirage-like presence, their utter remoteness from the dull everyday world of deep winter in Minnesota, that makes them so appealing.

This year, however, we all became Dorothys, allowed at last to peek behind the curtain of Oz, and it is no wonder that some of us didn’t like what we saw.

Instead of enchantment, we discovered all manner of prosaic stuff — tents full of people hawking souvenirs and sweat shirts, an unremarkable ice rink, video screens and a big stage made not of ice but of wood and steel. And like Dorothy, we learned that reality can never match the splendors of illusion.

In this respect, it is useful to think back to the 1986 Centennial Palace at Phalen Park, which I still believe is the greatest of St. Paul’s modern ice castles. Everything about the 1986 palace — its impossibly thin, gravity-defying towers, its setting in the frozen wastes of the park, its construction by a sometimes contentious group of volunteers who had to relearn the lost art of building in ice — was slightly surreal.

Yet it all worked. People came by the hundreds of thousands (maybe even millions — nobody really knows), creating absurd traffic jams at ridiculous hours of the night in the midst of brutally cold weather. For many people that year, the palace was indeed a fragile dream, at once beautiful and inaccessible.

This year’s ice palace, by contrast, had a certain corporate swagger to it. It was built efficiently, on time and on budget, and it was as carefully crafted as a theme ride at Disney World. There’s nothing wrong with this, and all of those involved in the project deserve praise for a job well done, but something indefinably magic seems to have been lost in the process.

This will make for an interesting dilemma if and when St. Paul builds another ice palace. Should it once again be a functioning tourist attraction, as it was in the 1880s and — though on a far less spectacular scale — this year? Or should it be more in the realm of pure fantasy like the 1986 palace?

Given the economic realities of building in ice, I suspect that the 2004 palace will in fact serve as a model for those to come. But it might be better in the long run, as Dorothy discovered, to go with the dream.

[Glenn Gordon’s take on Larry Millett’s description of the aesthetics of the Ice Palace:]

After reading Larry Millett’s post-mortem on the Ice Palace in the Pioneer Press of Feb. 14, I think he’s been way too kind to an edifice whose chief virtue, thankfully, is that it will soon melt away, and not hang around in stone and steel like the headquarters of yet another insurance company. I was drawn downtown to visit the Ice Palace like everybody else, but found the whole thing so depressing I left after ten minutes.

Compared to past Ice Palaces, this one was unbelievably banal and completely lacking in grandeur and romance. It was all too cheerfully debased with tech: Jumbotrons and performance stages, golf-classic “hospitality tents” and shamelessly commercial interventions everywhere you turned. If you happened to be a poor person standing at street level without the five bucks to get in, you could hardly see into the wondrous, uplifting fantasy the Palace was supposed to be.

The grounds were cut off from vision, a walled compound, inaccessible to the eye of a pedestrian. It was, in fact, an exclusionary gated community for people streaming in from other gated communities to behold. Once there, they were treated to a feast of cornball sentiments about “community” where in fact no community exists except that of the displaced, at the Dorothy Day Center across the street.

I agreed with Millett that “something indefinably magic seems to have been lost in the process,” except that it isn’t so indefinable: past Ice Palaces were relatively innocent of commercial calculation. They were gratuitous fantasies; they had turrets and chambers to strike awe in the beholder; and they weren’t plastered all over with the crap that makes civic occasions today all look like NASCAR events. There was nothing visionary in this work of ephemeral architecture; it failed as a dream and disappointed as a reality.