The new Downtown Guthrie design: echoes of the mills, or Legoland revisited?

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February 26, 2002 // UPDATED 1:14 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Bette Hammel
Bette Hammel

The insiders love the French architect's vision, though the rest of us seem to have as many questions as kudos

When the famous French architect's design for a new kind of Guthrie Theater complex was unveiled recently at the Milwaukee Depot, excited gasps erupted from a large crowd of patrons. Jean Nouvel's creation evoked mainly rapturous praise.

\"Thrilling!\" said former Star Tribune publisher John Cowles, a founder of the original Guthrie. \"It will do for this city what the first Guthrie did, attract all kinds of people to live and work here.\"

Minnetonka Republican State representative Ron Abrams, author of the bill to give $35 million in state money to the Guthrie, proclaimed, \"In 2005 when the theater opens, it will be one of the most significant architectural venues in the world, just as the Sydney opera house.\"

In the days following, however, I heard many more mixed opinions such as: \"Why didn't they use more glass?" "It's too industrial," "Isn't that yellow exterior too glaring for an artistic building?" "What about that bridge to nowhere?" "It's so boxy -- why didn't they spread it out more?" "Looks like a bunch of Legos.\"

Such comments are common these days when avant-garde architects are designing innovative structures throughout the world using the latest materials and techniques of the 21st century. Many are bound to attract controversy -- and also, tourists. The Guthrie's new design does both.

The building is composed of several linked forms. On the eastern half of its riverfront site, a rectangular section clad in yellow corrugated metal rises up nine stories -- almost matching the height of the adjacent Gold Medal Flour mill. On the top floor is a 250-seat experimental theater and lobby with an outdoor deck glowing in orangey glass.

A lower cube-like section houses the proscenium theater (traditional arched stage), seating 700 for contemporary plays. On the west side, a curving roof of perforated corrugated stainless steel hovers over a glassed-in lobby/restaurant space. Here is the Chicago Avenue main entrance to the 1100-seat thrust stage, now a Guthrie must. (The architects say the space is an \"improved\" version of architect Ralph Rapson's original design.) The two major theaters meet on the 5th floor with a common lobby.

Taking full advantage of great river views from this West River Parkway site, Nouvel created the most innovative part of the design -- a glassed-in pedestrian bridge that is cantilevered out over the street. It will also serve as an elongated extension of the 5th-floor skyway that links all three theaters.

For me, the most startling part of the design shown in the model was the yellow color of the metal faade. To explain the design decisions, I turned to the Nouvel firm's dependable Minneapolis associates, Loring Park-based Architectural Alliance. (When an architecture firm from another state or country is selected, the client usually chooses a local firm who can furnish local know-how and expertise.)

The Alliance's Tom DeAngelo, whose six-person team has now worked with Nouvel's group for the last six months, admitted the model color is a little bright. \"It started out gray, but I always felt the color should relate to the neighborhood. Nouvel wants it to be a color that fits the family, the neighboring historic buildings of yellowish colored brick. Knowing him, he will look at 500 samples,\" said DeAngelo.

Whatever is chosen, the color will be baked into corrugated heavy-rib metal. The architect also assured me there is plenty of glass, not only on the bridge, but especially on the ground floor lobby. Here a bistro-style restaurant facing a new Chicago Avenue plaza will allow views down to Mill Ruins Park.

Another common question is, \"why didn't they spread out the theater on that large site overlooking the river rather than going up?"

According to De Angelo, they studied both horizontal and vertical schemes, but ended up agreeing with Nouvel that going vertical would make the building feel more like part of the neighborhood, an extension of the existing mills. After walking the site with Joe Dowling, Nouvel realized they would also have to build up the site to allow ample views of the river.

Nouvel has no signature style (like Frank Gehry, who did the fanciful stainless-steel Weisman gallery just down the river) but is known primarily for designing buildings that are harmonious with the site and local surroundings. Once he saw the Guthrie site on the Mississippi, the historic milling district, the Stone Arch Bridge and other bridges, he was smitten with the possibilities, according to Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling.

Working together, the French and Minnesota architects have established a relationship between industrial and theatrical. Nouvel's design statement states: \"In this historic golden rectangle near the falls next to the old mills and the industrial quarter that established Minneapolis, two histories, two legends meet. That is why the architecture of the new Guthrie can be read as a far-off echo of silos and why the shared lobby advances like a bridge to contemplate the waterfalls; why industrial bridges take the place of skyways.\"

The Guthrie's interiors are very functional and meet the theater's present and future needs. The design combines three theaters in one building plus classrooms, production facilities and a 400-space parking ramp at the rear.

The main direction of this first, schematic phase came from Nouvel and his office team, but collaborated with Alliance architects via videoconferencing. Now, they begin the next phase, called design development. The Paris team has already arrived at the Alliance offices to work with the local team for the next four months refining the design and detailing many elements.

The Minneapolis architects have found the 57-year-old Nouvel strong-minded, though fun and easy to collaborate with. They say he has a way of providing the "Wow!" factor. In the case of the new Guthrie Theater arts complex, the \"Wow!" is the cantilevered bridge that will provide views of our famed St. Anthony Falls.