In defense of Peavey Plaza

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November 8, 2010
By: Ralph Nelson
Ralph Nelson
On an early September Sunday morning, two dozen people of all colors, shapes and ages sat peacefully in Peavey Plaza next to Orchestra Hall. They sat on cascading steps and listened to the sound of fresh wind, shade trees and emerald water, drawn to a calm and pure place. The graceful steps held the texture of Minnesota sand and gravel, carved like bluffs by streams of water descending to a tranquil pool. Sunlight struck the copper orange fountains clad in running water, drawing in a borrowed landscape of stone, brick and towers of icy glass.

Peavey Plaza is a precious and mature work of modern design demonstrating timeless principles of elegance, simplicity and nature. It reveals the essence of a Minnesota landscape through unique and appropriate form, space and material. It was designed by assertively expressing the spirit of the place, over the persona of the author or the exercise of willful power. Peavey Plaza is that rare type of place in America where everything works in harmony with people and nature, not a generic catalog expression of commercial products and the “brand new” like most contemporary spaces.

In its current form, the plaza embodies an important moment in the history of design and the history of Minneapolis. Its robust qualities of age are both beautiful and irreplaceable testaments to sustainable design. It is a place of freedom and democracy by design, not by rule of law, community consensus or political will. To alter or disfigure the most salient characteristics of the plaza is to destroy a critical dimension of local, social and physical history. All too often in American society the fatal metaphor of progress has been to leave the past behind us, when the true nature of progress is to leave the past within us.

We, the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Chapter of DOCOMOMO US are steadfast in our belief that the preservation and renovation of Peavey Plaza must retain the integral physical, material and conceptual properties of the original design. Minneapolis landmark status should be granted to the plaza, commensurate with other recognized modern landmarks like Christ Church Lutheran and the Malcolm Willey House. As change occurs in the surrounding context, designers and historians with expertise in 20th century design must play a vital role in the public and political discourse over the future of this essential and important public space on Nicollet Mall.

Ralph Nelson serves on the board of directors for DOCOMOMO US MN, the Minnesota Chapter of the DOCOMOMO US, the national working party for the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the Modern Movement.