Those of you who have followed the design and construction of the four new elite cultural facilities in Minneapolis know that each of these projects paired an internationally acclaimed design architect with a local architect-of-record. It’s an arrangement that can work very well. The “starchitect” brings welcome international attention to the project, generates excitement that aids the fundraising effort, and more often than not delivers a world-class design. The local firm, meanwhile, works with city officials and other oversight groups to ensure the project’s success, completes all construction documents, and administers construction, all while contributing design ideas of its own.

Judging by the finished product, the new Guthrie Theater (page 24) benefited greatly from the pairing of Ateliers Jean Nouvel in Paris with Minneapolis’ Architectural Alliance. Wanting to know the flavor of this transatlantic collaboration, I sat down one afternoon with two Alliance architects: the action-oriented and sharp-witted project manager Bob Zakaras, AIA, and the more philosophical Scott Sorenson, a project team member who spent the summer and early fall of 2001 in Paris as a liaison between the two offices.

Sorenson’s was a plum assignment, to be sure. The Nouvel office resides in an early-19th-century five-story courtyard building in the 11th Arrondissement, near the Bastille, with restaurants, a small-scale metal fabricator, and a model shop in and around the building. In fair weather, the doors and windows are always open. Sorenson’s role was to answer all questions related to building code and ways of working in the States, which was fairly new to the Nouvel team at the time. He also stayed in telephone contact with Zakaras and with the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and structural engineers, all of whom were stateside.

How to describe the Nouvel office culture? “It was French. Next question?” Zakaras jokes, before Sorenson can get a single word in. “You know, I may have missed a lot of it not speaking the language,” adds Sorenson, sparking more laughter. On his first day, Sorenson arrived at 9 A.M., only to find the building locked. The doors were open by 10, but the office didn’t come alive until an hour later. “They roll in around 11, break for a two-hour lunch in the early afternoon, and then work nonstop until 8 or 9 or sometimes much later,” says Sorenson. Another first-day eye-opener—no doubt a pleasant one—was meeting a project team member dressed for work in a black cocktail dress and black shoulder-length gloves. “I had left the Midwest far behind,” Sorenson laughs.

Nouvel himself was traveling a lot at the time, but he was always in close contact with his team. His project managers would send him drawings either electronically or via fax while he was on the road, so that he could review the work in his hotel room at night. When he returned to town, the team was always on call. “In the three months I was there, I probably saw Jean four times,” recalls Sorenson. “But that was because I didn’t spend Sunday nights at the office, Jean’s favorite time to review the work with his staff. He was usually there from 11 until 2 in the morning.”

Nouvel’s primary aims were ensuring that the massing of the building related to the nearby mill structures; creating a midnight-blue exterior with screen-printed theatrical images that emerge at night; using reflective surfaces to create an illusory interior environment; lifting the three stages and their lobbies high above grade level, to offer theatergoers better views of the river; and lengthening the “endless bridge” as far as it would structurally go. Nouvel was also insistent that certain elements that some considered extravagant—the three LED masts, for example—be retained. “When those masts were on the value-engineering chopping block,” says Zakaras, “I remember Jean saying, ‘You would pluck the feathers from a lady’s fine hat?’ Everyone was so taken aback by his response that the discussion was tabled and the masts are there today.”

On-site and at the Alliance office, Zakaras and his Nouvel counterpart, Bertram Beissel, who rented an apartment in Minneapolis, kept the project moving forward. Zakaras credits Beissel, a slender man in his mid-40s with tousled blond hair and a vaguely German accent, with following through to ensure that every detail supported Nouvel’s vision for the building. “Even after we had what we considered to be a fairly comprehensive set of construction documents, Bertram continued on with some 50 additional design studies for elements that hadn’t been fully developed. Things like hand- and guardrail details, benches, screen-printed images of actors on both the exterior of the building and interior walls and ceilings, and on and on.”

As you might guess, the five-year project generated some amusing anecdotes. As the proscenium theater neared completion, Zakaras asked Nouvel architect Michel Calzada, “’What are you going to do on the ceiling? What finish should these panels be?’ I thought he answered, ‘Carpet,’ and I said, ‘Man, I don’t think carpet is a good idea.’ And he said, ‘No, no, car paint.’ He wanted a metallic, high-gloss, perfectly smooth finish.” Zakaras and Sorenson also fondly recall being asked, “How wide is a three-foot-wide door?” Sounds like a setup for a good punch line, but of course the person who posed the question was simply after the measurement’s metric equivalent.

One can only imagine the highs and lows, the moments of exhilaration and laughter and stress, that punctuate a collaboration of this magnitude. But when I ask Zakaras whether he would choose to work with the Nouvel team again on a project of this size, he seems surprised by the question. “Well, yes. Just look at how well things turned out.”