A renovation by James Dayton Design allows students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to expand their experimentation with digital media

By Joel Hoekstra

Every designer has heard it a million times: Form follows function. But what do you do when the form is a beloved modern landmark designed by a Pritzker Prize–winning architect and the function changes?

That was the critical question facing Minneapolis College of Art and Design officials a few years ago when the school took a close look at how its 20th-century campus could be adapted to meet its 21st-century needs. “It’s the classic story of a successful organization outgrowing its facility over the course of 30 to 40 years,” says architect James Dayton, AIA, who helped administrators develop a new campus master plan.

But the school’s primary challenge had nothing to do with increased enrollments; instead, the desire for new spaces was driven by the fact that digital technologies have significantly reshaped the visual arts in the past decade. “The problem was, MCAD had numerous traditional wet-media darkrooms, photo-enlargement carrels, film-processing rooms, and so on,” says Dayton. “Over time, the number of kids taking digital-media classes has grown, and the number of students interested in analog photography has dropped. So the school had this volume of space with nobody using it, and a tiny closet with 400 stressed new-media students in it.”

Dayton’s firm, Minneapolis-based James Dayton Design, was charged with reimagining 13,000 square feet on the third floor of MCAD’s Main Building for new media. Designed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange and completed in 1974, the Main Building is clad in glazed white brick and features a central atrium that delivers light to all four floors. Long admired by fans of modernist design, Tange’s structure has served as the instructional and administrative hub of the campus for more than 40 years. “Overall, the Main Building has been very flexible in its design,” says MCAD president Jay Coogan. But tweaks were needed to meet the demands of 21st-century art-making.

M/LAB, as the reworked space is known, is a state-of-the-art facility for experimenting with new (and old) media. It includes two enormous, double-height studios (one with a permanent cyclorama, another with a green screen), a recording studio (for recording live performances and mixing sound), and four fully wired, reconfigurable classrooms.

Dayton also designed the media room where students check out cameras, tripods, lights, and other gear, adding compact, sliding shelving to maximize storage space. Replacing a wall with a long checkout counter helped facilitate better interactions among students: “The idea was to make it a much more visible part of the program,” says Dayton.

“We’re a busy department. We circulate over 4,000 pieces of equipment—all of the media- and technology-related gear that students need to produce their classwork,” says MCAD Media Technology Services director Scott Bowman. “We went from a dark cinderblock office with a tiny checkout window to an open and inviting space where students and faculty feel welcome to hang out, ask questions, and get the technical support they need.”

Adapting Tange’s design was, Dayton admits, “more than a little intimidating.” But Dayton didn’t flinch when it came to making some bold additions. There’s now a translucent white-glass bridge that spans the atrium on the third level, connecting two sections of the building while still allowing light to filter through. Dayton also introduced a small black-box experimental gallery for installations that require a light- or sound-controlled environment. A cube paneled in black glass, the gallery overhangs the first-floor gallery and entrance, jutting out at a 15-degree angle from the building’s rigorous grid. “On the one hand, we had a goal of being neutral,” says Dayton. “On the other, it seemed like trying to blend in something dedicated to new media would be disrespectful.”

“The abundance of natural light in our building means we didn’t have many spaces for controlled projection,” says Bowman. “With the black box, we now have an exhibition space designed for a variety of installation needs, especially digital projection. The room is outfitted with a multitude of AV input and output options, surround-sound audio, zoned dimple lighting, and a ceiling with metal framing for mounting student installations.”

Coogan says the new spaces have garnered high praise from both students and faculty. He is pleased, too—especially with the black box. “As a sculptor, I loved the idea of a black-box intervention inside of this all-white building,” he says. “It’s like someone threw a pair of dice and one just happened to land there. We got lucky, as it were.”

Client: Minneapolis College of Art and Design
Architect: James Dayton Design
Size: 13,000 square feet
Completion: September 2014