A gallery-like apartment takes midcentury simplicity to new artistic heights
By Joel Hoekstra
Don Draper or any of the other characters on Mad Men would feel right at home in the residential Towers in downtown Minneapolis. Built in 1965, the two tan-brick edifices were once beehives of Swinging Sixties activity, their 500 units occupied mostly by young couples and singles who wanted a modern high-rise lifestyle. The design, too, was something that broke with the past: The lobby featured floor-to-ceiling glass and oak-paneled walls; the curving paths in the plaza garden, designed by Sasaki, Walker & Associates, were illuminated with “mushroom” lights.
The Towers’ midcentury-modern design and history were a key element that attracted architects Kara Hill, AIA, and Loren Ahles, FAIA, to the complex a dozen years ago. The couple admired the building’s elegant construction (cast-in-place concrete) and expansive views of the Mississippi River (nearly a dozen bridges are visible from the upper floors). Seven years after they first moved into the building, Hill and Ahles purchased two adjoining units on a high floor of Tower B with the intention of renovating them into a single living space. “Nothing had been done since 1965,” Hill says of the 1,900-square-foot space. “There were seven different types of wallpaper. It had popcorn ceilings. I hate to say this, but it was hideous.”
The transformation began with demolition. North-facing windows allowed plenty of light into the space, but low ceilings and numerous walls kept the interiors shrouded in darkness. “Overall, the space was very broken up,” says Hill. Even before there was a plan, the couple removed most of the walls in the long, narrow layout. “We knew we wanted it open,” she adds. “We just didn’t know how open.”
With the space stripped almost bare (concrete pillars, mechanical risers, and essential plumbing remained in place), Hill began to imagine the possibilities. She settled on the idea of a simple, straight path that bisects the space lengthwise, with the most-used areas—the kitchen, the dining/living space, a study, and the master bedroom—all loosely connected and taking advantage of the exterior illumination and stunning views. Pressed against the spine of the building are a small kitchen pantry, two bathrooms, and laundry.
Simplicity also guided Hill’s choice of materials. The palette is mostly limited to stainless steel, white-oak paneling, and 2.5-inch-thick plaster walls—the latter two elements a nod to the Towers’ original design features. Lighting and doors are often hidden from view: In the kitchen, for example, Hill used a large crackled-glass panel to conceal the LED bulbs that illuminate the stainless-steel countertops; elsewhere, sliding oak panels function as privacy doors. A single inlaid aluminum channel running floor to ceiling serves as the handle in each door, allowing users to close off the bathroom or bedroom. Most walls are painted basic white.
Hundreds of books line the built-in shelves that Hill installed in the bedroom, but other walls are reserved for a rotating collection of artwork that Hill and her husband have collected on trips to Japan, South Africa, Thailand, and other locations around the globe. The pieces mesh nicely with the couple’s vintage furniture, including marble-topped tables and Le Corbusier chairs. “I mostly design public art spaces,” says Hill, who practices under the name Kara Hill Studio. “I’m not a residential architect. So this is more like living in an art gallery than a typical condo.”
But Hill is most happy with how the interior space interacts with the exterior views of the river. “It’s just such an amazing view—of the Hennepin Bridge, the locks and dam,” she says. “Day and night, you have this incredible panorama.”
MISSISSIPPI VIEW APARTMENT
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Architect: Kara Hill Studio
Designer: Kara Hill, AIA
Project architect: Loren Ahles, FAIA
Size: 1,900 square feet
Completion: May 2015
Photographer: Loren Ahles, FAIA
2015 AIA MINNESOTA HONOR AWARD JUROR COMMENTS
“The designer has created a platform in the sky for living—a continuous suite of rooms with only minimal separation between the spaces. It could only be the home of a true art lover—or an architect.”
“It’s almost a kind of architectural haiku in its beautiful presentation of artwork and furnishings and in its understanding of the views.”