Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Tale of Two Architectures

I recently visited Minnesota at the invitation of Anderson Windows. The Anderson manufacturing and research facility (sixty-five acres under one roof!) is located in Bayport along the St. Croix river. Anderson was a gracious host and I learned a lot about their products. Afterwards I took a few extra days to reacquaint myself with nearby Minneapolis/St. Paul.  It has been over a decade since I've visited the Twin Cities. Changes to the metroplex were significant. Minneapolis and St. Paul may be twins, but they are not identical twins. The architecture of each city is very different and there are lessons to be learned from the differences.
Downtown Minneapolis posing as Houston.
New Minnesota Vikings stadium rising on the southern edge of downtown Minneapolis. 
Minneapolis seems like a combination of at least four cities:  Houston (enormous downtown buildings), Denver (a young and energetic demographic), Seattle (a sense of being on the creative edge), and Milwaukee (residential neighborhoods of wood frame construction).  In this melange Minneapolis has many attractions. An extensive network of designated trails, including a crosstown bike "freeway" with multiple lanes, makes it friendly to cyclists. It has the requisite number of professional sports teams for a major city. It is a center of commerce and industry with a highly qualified workforce. It has a coffee culture, live music, good restaurants. Its greatest asset is, perhaps, the string of lakes that grace the city with greenery, recreational opportunities, and natural beauty. However, if we are to judge the architectural bones of the city by its central business district, Minneapolis has some problems. Decades ago, the city began to mandate a skywalk system that links together all major downtown structures. The IDS center was an early example of this, creating a new sort of town square with shops, offices, and restaurants enclosed in a beautiful modern galleria (dubbed the Crystal Court). Architecturally it was a triumph and it still looks good today. (Phillip Johnson was lead architect in 1967.)  The skywalk system and IDS coincided with another major turn in the city: the creation of the Nicollet mall, converting the main downtown street into a pedestrian-friendly artery. This was part of a nationwide trend intending to attract people to urban centers in response to competing suburban development. This was executed with varying degrees of success in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Denver, Colorado, and even Las Vegas, Nevada on Freemont Street. In Minneapolis the effect was mixed. Businesses abandoned the streets as they moved up a level to the skywalks. Nicollet mall ended up as somewhat of a no-man's land. The whole downtown was turning inward, away from the streets and towards a network of bridges and hallways. The streets were left to street people, in the meanest sense of the phrase. To this day, there is a somewhat unsavory, almost menacing, air to downtown Minneapolis, despite the obvious success of the many climate controlled downtown gallerias that have since joined the IDS Crystal Court. Though these new climate-controlled urban spaces are lively, they are, intentionally or not, hardly inclusive. They repel non-shoppers and non-spenders by subtle design cues and are securely locked after 9 p.m. There are few alternatives, even for window shopping, on the streets. In a way, downtown has been turned into a gated community.
House designed by Purcell & Elmslie in Minneapolis.

The architecture of St. Paul is very different. Kinder and gentler, perhaps. The signs of a vibrant city are there: a renovated Union Station, a thriving farmers market, trendy restaurants, rail connections to the metroplex. At the same time St. Paul has managed to maintain a human scale to its downtown district.  Old buildings are preserved, even as shiny new ones fit between them. Brick facades, sidewalk cafes, and green space add texture. It possesses a friendliness that Minneapolis somehow lacks. It is not difficult to explore the streets of St. Paul. You do not feel you have to enter an air-conditioned mall to experience the city. St. Paul does have skywalks, for the same obvious reason as Minneapolis: the cold winter weather.  But in St. Paul they have not sucked the life out of the ground level. What is the difference?  Obviously, the scale of the two cities has something to do with it. St. Paul is a small town compared to its big brother. But there must be more to it than that. It must have something to do with the texture of the buildings. The architecture is simply softer in St. Paul. The materials, shapes, and scale are user-friendly.  Minneapolis has adopted an almost brutal architecture; facades tend to be featureless, the scale overwhelming. Not so in St. Paul. There are lessons to be learned here about the importance of human scale in architecture and urban planning.
St. Paul's refurbished Union Station.
Mickey's Diner, downtown St. Paul.
Street life in St. Paul.
Architectural texture in St. Paul. 
As a final word, it should be emphasized that two central business districts are being compared here. Outside of the downtown area, Minneapolis is every bit as pleasant as St. Paul, with inviting neighborhoods, parks, and entertainment. However, where the architectural rubber hits the road - downtown - St. Paul offers an easier ride.

All images MJK.

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