General 1-21-2004

The Column: What’s Happening at Sixth and Second?

Andrew Knighton’s column continues his thoughts on glass architecture, finding in the old First National Bank building in downtown Minneapolis one incarnation of the form.

Andrew Knighton

“The thrills are authentic, not make-believe; the steel is real, not papier-mache, and the biggest theater in the world couldn’t accommodate a crane hoisting a package of girders 16 stories up.” — John K. Sherman, Minneapolis Tribune (July 20, 1958


Almost fifty years after Paul Scheerbart ‘s fantasy projections, onlookers apparently still needed to be convinced that the promise of glass architecture was more than a mere chimera. Though it was written in the teens, Scheerbart’s fanciful novel was set at mid-century, and sure enough, by that time glass construction was refashioning the look of the burgeoning metropolis. Largely forgotten, however, were Scheerbart’s beloved organic forms and vibrant colors; those ideals were eclipsed in America by the International modernism of the United Nations Secretariat (1948), Lever House (1952), and the Seagram’s Building (1958). Such monoliths inaugurated the era of curtain-wall construction — the sheathing of the structure in an exterior skin of glass — and they immediately attracted a slew of imitators that have made the once-elegant glass box today pretty much synonymous with the cut-rate cubicle world of corporate culture. But while those innumerable impersonators have suffered under our prejudicial tendency to fetishize the curtain wall’s architectural originators (Mies, Skidmore-Owings-Merrill), it is nevertheless their work that has most closely realized Paul Scheerbart’s dreams.

Minneapolis’ own flirtation with the 1950s curtain-wall phenomenon was certainly nothing compared to the capitulation of Manhattan — midtown’s renewal was memorably pilloried by Peter Blake as the “slaughter on Sixth Avenue” — but it nevertheless produced a couple of remarkable structures in the glass-skin vein. The six-story Lutheran Brotherhood Building (1956) is lamentably lost forever, razed in the mid-90s by the all-too-common confluence of bad taste, greed, and impoverished imagination. But still standing, at Second Street and Sixth Avenue, is the building that was once called the First National Bank Building (and today goes by One Financial Plaza), designed by local firm of Thorshov and Cerny in conjuction with Chicago’s Holabird and Root.

To understand the force of the First National Bank Building, it is necessary to stand near its base — the view from Fifth Avenue, where a set of concrete risers borders the ground floor plaza, is perhaps the most striking. With your head craned back, you can bypass its undistinguished lower floors, allowing the silver sheen and the perspective points of the building’s 28 stories to propel your gaze heavenward. We confront here a building truly made for titans, a fact which is surprisingly easy to forget as soon as one leaves the site, for First National is visible from almost nowhere else in the city; its younger, larger, and lesser siblings have gradually suffocated it, hiding it away like the architectural secret it is. From here and there, say from the Third Avenue bridge or the front of the Star Tribune building, you can catch a glimpse of its uppermost floors valiantly trying to compete. But it is only in close quarters that one can begin to understand what the sublimity of First National meant to Minneapolis in the late 1950s.

Awestruck media reports from the time unbashfully credit First National with introducing Minneapolis to post-war modernity; its 383-foot edifice not only promised to recast the skyline in blunt right angles, but also announced nothing less than an ultimate unification of all arts. As the building went up, John K. Sherman effused in the Tribune:

That construction job is the best free show in town, vying with Al Sheehan’s Aqua Follies, the Music Under the Stars concerts at the Metropolitan Stadium and the rose gardens at Lake Harriet….What’s happening at Sixth and Second cannot be duplicated on any stage….There is something heroic in the sheer physical task of putting a skyscraper together…those girders climbing to the sky are epic poetry.

First National was unprecedented in Minneapolis in terms of both scope and style. The press accounts elaborate endlessly on both aspects of the very real fantasy being constructed at the city’s heart. A special pull-out supplement to the Sunday Tribune in May 1960 (entitled “This is First National,” and trumpeting the inevitable slogan “Tomorrow’s Bank, Today”) celebrated the building’s completion, inventorying the “acres of draperies” furnished by Sears, the 242 feet of tellers’ counters ringing three sides of the lobby, even the building’s wiring (estimated at over one million feet). At the same time, this behemoth retained its notes of distinction: a “smartly modern” employees’ lounge, ever-present soft music, a “distinctive décor” composed of custom carpets, armless leather chairs, “tropical plantings, modern art and homelike furnishings.”

It is as difficult today to relate to such wonderment as it is to imagine President Eisenhower approvingly visiting the construction site in 1958. By way of contrast, consider the forced populist cheer of a 1980 promotional brochure attempting to galvanize interest in the renovation of the building’s formerly grand lobby (which, after First Bank’s departure ten years ago, would be rerenovated, with the aim, it seems, of eviscerating any remaining utopianism). “Remodeling our lobby has everyone at First Bank Minneapolis very excited. Even the tellers are getting into the act. They will be wearing overalls and hard hats during the four-month construction period.” John Sherman was on the right track when he endorsed the “heroic” character of skyscraper construction, but we can be pretty certain that those First Bank employees, bristling at the imposition of such a flimsy charade, were feeling something quite distant from the dignity of labor.

In a way, however, this is the story of the curtain wall, for we have come to regard it as the dehumanized architectural complement to the anonymity and homogeneity of the contemporary city. If First Bank’s employees could be so removed from authentic feeling as to rent their emotional identities to such boosterism, they were merely reduplicating the external superfice and the evacuated interior upon which the curtain wall structure had always been premised. Like First National, which boasted a floor plan infinitely divisible into five-foot units, flexible enough to satisfy the fluid needs of corporate tenants (a cubicle here, a cubicle there, presto!), the curtain wall structure was always necessarily designed to harness and generate the flux of capital, its interior space indifferently fillable by content produced elsewhere. Just as notable in this regard is the exterior curtain wall itself. Such reflective sheathing frustrates our human gaze, foisting it back onto us as if to mock the act of looking (Fredric Jameson once likened the glass skin to those reflective sunglasses that inoculate the wearer from any penetration by an other).

But according to glass-skin theorist Reinhold Martin, “it is not ourselves that we see reflected in the curtain wall” — it is something much larger than that. To Martin, the curtain wall is an architectural limit point. It is not a structure, but rather a surface, a scrim onto which is projected something other than the identity of the building itself: the world beyond it. In this respect, he suggests, it is kin to that other transformative technology of the 1950s — television.

The comparison is provocative. It asks us to think of these structures not as self-contained architectural works, but as relays in a larger system that exceeds any one architect, worker, or individual. This is why it is somewhat unfair to celebrate the masterworks of Mies and Bunshaft while ignoring First National Bank and its “imitative” ilk. To stand thoughtfully at the base of First National is to invite a new way of looking at the world in which we live, to imagine that, in fact, there is only one curtain wall surface, an infinite global mesh of glass and steel netted into its greatest densities in downtowns and suburban corporate complexes. Seen from outer space, it might resemble a gleaming glass-and-steel topographical map, marking the contours of the new postmodern landscape. From there, it looks a little like Paul Scheerbart’s world made of glass.