Architect Nathan Johnson in the public space he loves most: the IDS Center Crystal Court

By Christopher Hudson
Photograph by Eric Mueller

“I’m one of those architects where I’m just kind of a fan, right? So when I’m walking somewhere I often take detours—long paths that take me through interesting buildings,” says Nathan Johnson, AIA, flashing a smile so warm I remember it as a laugh. “My kids are like, ‘Dad, why? This doesn’t seem like it’s on the way.’ And I’m like, ‘It is. And now that we’re here, let’s sit back and enjoy ourselves.’”

Johnson and I are doing just that in the IDS Crystal Court: sitting on a bench near the ceiling fountain. His talk of scenic architecture routes is an answer to my question about how often he passes through the Crystal Court—the beating pedestrian heart of downtown Minneapolis. He lives in the city’s Bryn Mawr neighborhood and works in Lowertown St. Paul, where he is a partner with the firm 4RM+ULA. So the space isn’t a daily experience for him. Yet it’s one of his favorite environments in the world.

To describe the Crystal Court as an atrium at the base of a downtown office tower is akin to characterizing the Cathedral of St. Paul as a church on a hillock; the building type and setting don’t do it justice. The magic of Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s Italian-piazza-like interior is in the way it orchestrates the multilevel arrival and circulation of 50,000 visitors every weekday. That and the dynamically faceted glass ceiling soaring overhead.

“The two things that bring architecture to life are people and light,” says Johnson. “The way people move through and animate this space—across the floor, up and down the escalators, around the skyway level—is almost theatrical in nature. It’s like you can see people performing in some way.

“And the sheer volume of light in this space,” he continues, lifting both hands in seeming disbelief. “Here we are at four o’clock in the afternoon in late October, and it’s amazing. I always think of light as one of the primary materials in a building. You have metal and glass, but it’s light that really drives the architecture.”

Johnson has deep roots in Minnesota. His maternal great-grandparents relocated to the Twin Cities during the Great Migration and worked on the Northern Pacific Railway. His maternal grandfather was employed at IBM in Rochester for many years. Johnson grew up in Minneapolis and graduated from St. Paul Academy. But it wasn’t until he entered the architecture program at Cornell University in New York—that is, left the state—that he began to understand the design significance of the IDS Center and its atrium.

I ask if any of the other 1973 buildings he studied in college looked quite like this. “Well, the geometry of this space was not of its time,” says Johnson. “There was a fair amount of Brutalist architecture in the early 1970s—I think that’s what you’re getting at—and those raw-concrete buildings were all about mass. The timeless Crystal Court is all about light.”

It’s also about bringing people together, and here is where Johnson’s admiration for the space comes into sharp focus. At 4RM+ULA, his projects include the Metro Transit Green Line stations and the soon-to-be-completed Rondo Commemorative Plaza, a green space highlighting the cultural history of the St. Paul neighborhood razed in the late 1960s to make way for Interstate 94. He’s also the 2018 president of AIA Minnesota—he’s the first African American architect to lead the organization—and a board member at nonprofits Forecast Public Art and Redeemer Center for Life. For Johnson, architecture and community are inseparable pursuits.

“This is a special place, because it draws a diversity of people in and invites them to linger. It’s an equitable space in that regard,” he says. “Yes, there are some very expensive offices on the top floors of IDS,” he adds. “But down here? Everyone gets to use this space. This is the city itself, and it’s beautiful.”