For the Walker Art Center Expansion, the client – represented by Director Kathy Halbreich and Chief Curator Richard Flood – did not aim simply to increase the exhibition area, like so many other museums did in the nineties, but primarily to give the public more room, more room for urban living inspired by the variety and richness of contemporary art.
The Walker Art Center (WAC), as one of the most progressive poles for the transmission of contemporary art, is indeed a “center” and not just a “museum.” Its name is an agenda, which is why plans for expansion also include more leeway for electronic media and the performing arts. The intention of the museum and the trustees to enhance urban life at the WAC is especially meaningful and necessary because there is essentially no street life in Minneapolis, due not only to the city’s climate but also to the Skyway system of elevated pedestrian walkways.
Initial planning therefore targeted a repositioning of the WAC in relation to existing urban infrastructures. The demolition of the Guthrie Theater will make room for a larger Sculpture Garden, the main entrance will be moved around Vineland Place (back) to Hennepin Avenue, and a second tower will complement the existing tower by Edward Barnes, while also establishing a visual link with the downtown skyline as well as the church spires along Hennepin Avenue.
This second tower is essential not only as an urban landmark; it also expresses the increased importance of the performing arts in the WAC program. Inside the tower there will be a theater encased in a balcony-like, three-story zone for the audience, somewhat like a down-sized version of the Scala in Milan or the open-air Globe theater of Shakespeare’s day. This audience zone can also be used as an exhibition area for all kinds of art installations. Pictorial and performing arts can be interwoven here in entirely unexpected and innovative ways. The architecture thus fosters an intensification of the various activities with a view to the targeted urbanism of the new WAC. In contrast to the solid brick of the existing building, the walls are completely glazed, which will allow direct eye contact between the busy thoroughfare of Hennepin Avenue, the new interior of the WAC, and the new enlarged Sculpture Garden. This glazed street level running parallel to the slightly angled street will function like a “Town Square” open to everyone as a meeting point, a place to exchange information and news or to have a cup of coffee. People can also circulate here without going to an exhibition or attending an event. The new exhibitions spaces will be freely arranged within this glazed public area so that the “Town Square” will include cozier spaces, like side streets or alley ways.
This loose arrangement of galleries is a necessary modification of and addition to the rigid shape of the existing brick tower, which looks today like a pragmatic version of Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. Edward Barnes’ gallery concept along with his choice of materials, especially the terrazzo floors, have clearly stood the test of time and ensured remarkable curatorial freedom.
On looking at the new WAC from outside, one is immediately struck by the huge, irregular windows. They look accidental but are homologous forms, showing a kinship in value and structure, somewhat like the shapes of a silhouette cutting. The papery appearance of the façade – also resembling a silhouette – consists of panels, which can simply be folded up along the slanted edges of the openings. Fragile and papery cladding will also be used for the inside of the theater, with its stud-wall construction so typical of US-American buildings that it is the inevitable fate of every architect.
(Fabiana Cambiaso, Università La Sapienza)
Figures: © Herzog & de Meuron; © Cameron Wittig