Architecture Minnesota
The Magazine of AIA Minnesota

November - December 2007
Vol. 33 No. 6
Editor's Note

Simple Math?

chris

At times I’m tempted to think that good urban design boils down to a mathematical equation. When it comes to urban development and redevelopment, developers and city planners are like professors at the chalkboard, calculating the right mix and density of housing, offices, retail, entertainment, green space, transit, and infrastructure. Add inviting, walkable streetscapes and architectural design that complements and enlivens the surrounding urban fabric, and success seems virtually guaranteed, given the right market conditions. The Excelsior & Grand project in St. Louis Park, designed by Elness Swenson Graham Architects, is a sterling example of how well this mixed-use equation can work.

But on the question of what gives an urban place its vitality I’m also reminded of two neighboring, contrasting buildings in downtown Minneapolis—the rough-edged, no-frills First Avenue music club and the oft-criticized Block E. The First Avenue building—my favorite spot to be in the Twin Cities—opened in 1937 as the Northland Greyhound Bus Depot, was converted to its current use in 1970, and today shows only traces of its original Streamline Moderne design. Painted black inside and out, and perennially, resolutely unimproved, the club is no beauty, to be sure. But it’s utterly authentic.

Packed in tightly on the main floor or standing at the railing of the horseshoe mezzanine, you get a sense of the storied history of the place. Joe Cocker performed on opening night in April 1970 (when the club was named the Depot), and since then the egalitarian venue has hosted a Who’s Who of seminal bands, including local legends Prince, the Replacements, and Hüsker Dü. If you’re a longtime denizen, you’re also aware of your own First Avenue history each time you walk in the door. I remember my first Tapes ’n Tapes show, Pavement’s final appearance here, and a slew of other great late-night concerts. First time backstage (it’s a glorified closet). Getting to know new friends by screaming into their ears over loud music and having them scream into mine.

The summer 2001 Wilco show takes the cake, though. After the band played a long, crowd-pleasing set and two encores, the film screen in front of the stage was slowly lowered, signaling the end of the night. But the cheering only got louder. When the screen paused three-quarters of the way down—a once-in-a-decade occurrence—the capacity crowd went delirious. The screen lifted, the rafters shook, and the band huddled in the middle of the stage, trying to figure out which unrehearsed song to play.

The unique energy and time-tested appeal of a scuffed-up urban gem like First Avenue become all the more clear when you cross the street to Block E. That relatively new, large-scale development has the look of a generic theme-park fortress (three sides appear mostly impenetrable at street level) dropped into an urban core. The complex is also exceedingly difficult to navigate, which partly explains why the upstairs suburban-mall-style food court and cineplex are sparsely populated at night (the hotel and two of the restaurants, all with street-level access on First Avenue, are big draws). The bookstore tenant wants out of its lease.

Is there a simple formula for creating vibrant urban places? No, of course not. Only time and history and music can make a place like First Avenue nightclub. And the Block E formula, if there was one, is in desperate need of a design recalculation. But there are good urban design principles, and Minnesota architects are using them to weave together old gems and new destinations, as you’ll read about in this issue. If a richly textured urban fabric is what we’re after, then it’s time to hand the chalk to architects.

Christopher Hudson
Editor
Architecture Minnesota

hudson@aia-mn.org