Designer Traci Lesneski loves the light and the layers in Kenzo Tange’s MCAD and Mia buildings

By Amy Goetzman

When Architecture MN invited MSR Design principal Traci Lesneski, Assoc. AIA, to participate in our Inspiration series, she said it sounded like fun—and then added the selection of a space that inspires her to her lengthy to-do list. For Lesneski, spring 2019 seemed like an airports-of-the-world flipbook as she jetted to various speaking engagements and client meetings. Rush, rush, rush. Then she pressed pause. “I realized that I wanted to choose someplace quiet and contemplative,” she says. “The places that feed my soul tend to be art museums or in nature.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Lesneski settled on a pairing of related interiors on a leafy campus shared by two noted arts organizations: The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). Mia is a deep vault of humanity’s creative output, including the modern art that is Lesneski’s particular jam, and MCAD is a bustling incubator of artists working in a wide variety of media. The two share a tranquil pocket park and a skyway. Both also boast a modern, white-glazed-brick building by renowned Japanese architect KenzoTange. And both Tange structures feature a skylit, multilevel atrium that Lesneski loves to spend time in.

“Mia’s neoclassical building is so beloved and has such a stately presence,” says Lesneski of the 1915 Beaux Arts landmark to which the 1974 Tange addition attaches. “When plans for the expansion were announced, I imagine people were worried that Tange would screw it up.” It’s true; change is hard, and people are often resistant to the new thing. But Tange didn’t screw it up. His quiet masterpieces are the perfect complement to their older neighbor, and today they are recognized as timeless examples of midcentury simplicity.

In Mia’s soaring Tange wing, visitors can experience all the levels of the addition at once and take in a panoramic view of the downtown skyline to the north. The atrium views in MCAD’s Main Building aren’t quite so dramatic, but the circulation spaces offer numerous encounters with art on display—and art in progress. “Walking by and seeing someone else’s making process can be so inspiring,” says Lesneski. She applies this inspiration to her own work, which includes academic buildings for emerging artists and designers, and places for hands-on exploration in the arts.

She also appreciates the unique atmosphere that Tange’s light-filled, multilevel interiors create. “He shaped these volumes and then added a textural quality with a simple, beautiful glazed brick,” says Lesneski. “The layering of the atrium spaces in both buildings—and the transparent way those layers connect to each other—draws you in and invites exploration.”

One day at MCAD, Lesneski observed the passage of time as light moved and changed across a brick wall. “It’s so important to see how Tange used light and view,” she says. “Each window frames a sculpture or garden. Light tubes bring a sense of the sky into spaces. That infusion of light and nature has got to be felt on some level by the students and faculty.” Curious about whether this was true, she asked a few people in the building what they thought of it. Some of them, to her surprise, had never noticed it.

“I suppose it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day and not be conscious of your surroundings,” she says. “Or perhaps that is the building’s success—the fact that it doesn’t get in the way of what is most important for MCAD: the art, and the making of art.” So she chatted with several students about the design of the building, and they looked around with fresh eyes. And then they saw it. “Wow,” said one. “It is pretty great.”