Great buildings often have great back-stories, and we here at Architecture Minnesota love to tell those tales. But we rarely focus on the personal encounters that people have with these buildings, or great yarns that owe everything to their architectural setting. I began to realize this as we slowly assembled “Architects’ Dozen” (page 45), a lengthy feature in which high-profile architects and architecture writers offer reflections on their favorite Minnesota buildings. Bill Pedersen, FAIA, of Kohn Pedersen Fox, for example, recalls the quiet hours he spent as a young man in a humble Ralph Rapson–designed church in St. Paul. Rapson himself, who passed away in March (page 28), chose to write about a beloved water tower near his home. The contributors surprised us with some of their choices, but they sure had good stories to tell.
My own favorite architectural zone in Minnesota is far less surprising: Minneapolis’ Mill District. I love the distant view of the riverfront structures from St. Anthony Main, the middle view from the Stone Arch Bridge, and the feeling of standing inside the Mill City Museum’s Ruin Courtyard or at the base of the iconic grain elevator next door. The historic tableau is made all the more rich by the recent additions of the Humboldt Mill Condominiums and the Guthrie Theater, modern buildings whose massing and materials are perfectly tuned to their context.
I also have a lot of good memories of time spent in that environment, most involving bike rides with friends on summer nights or great shows at the Guthrie. One particular Guthrie performance—a spontaneous offbeat comedy, you might call it—from a few years ago stands out both for the amount of laughter it sparked and for the deeper appreciation of theater it instilled. The story goes like this: An old friend and I were walking out of the Metrodome after a Twins game, and it came out that she had yet to step inside the big blue building. On the impromptu tour that followed, we waded through the well-dressed theatergoers milling about the fourth-level lobby during an intermission and made our way out to the end of the “endless bridge.” Then I wanted to see if my compatriot had the guts to jump on the vertigo-inducing glass floor of the cantilevered ninth-floor observation deck.
She didn’t, it turned out, but she did have the gumption to wander into the empty-but-lit black-box theater on that floor and re-create her last stage performance. Kindergarten Circus, I learned, was a high-flying affair that involved her and her classmates making their way across a tightrope (actually, a very low balance beam). The few items necessary for the rudimentary circus were available just offstage, as was an imagination-fueling assortment of stage furnishings, props, and costume pieces. There, in the wings, we channeled our inner thespians for a laughter-filled half-hour. If more friends had been there with us, we could have put on quite a production.
Well, not really. That would have landed our cast and crew in the back of squad cars, and for good reason. But I do wish more friends had been there to experience the creative spirit of the Guthrie in that wholly unanticipated way, to glimpse the small but wondrous world behind the curtains. At least my fellow actor and I can tell them the tale.
Stories add meaning to architecture, and, conversely, architecture adds meaning to stories. In the coming issues, we’ll aim to widen the scope of our storytelling. In the meantime, enjoy the first fruits.