The story of Minnehaha Academy’s new hand-molded Danish brick

By Andy Sturdevant

You know this already, but it bears repeating, particularly in a column highlighting buildings designed for a high school: It’s important to read as much as you can. Novels, nonfiction books, magazines, newspapers, blogs, roadside historical markers, cereal boxes—anything you can get your hands on.

The reading list for Honors English students at Minnehaha Academy, a Christian private school on West River Parkway in South Minneapolis, encourages this type of active reading and retention as a foundation for learning: “It is not unreasonable to have brackets, underlinings, asterisks, exclamation marks, sketches, questions, notes, and more on each page,” the introduction reads. “Your books should show physical evidence that you intellectually interacted with them.” You never know when something you see, underline, or circle, and then mentally file away, will be useful to you later.

Case in point: Cuningham Group Architecture principal Chad Clow, AIA, was puzzling through a challenge he was facing while working on a project with Minnehaha Academy. The initial design Cuningham had proposed for the school was receiving some pushback, including from alumni. The proposed new buildings, which would replace the two destroyed in a tragic explosion in August 2017, made extensive use of unapologetically contemporary, light-colored concrete cladding. But so much of the alumni’s memories of being at Minnehaha Academy involved red brick. The two buildings that were destroyed were red brick. Was there a way to incorporate that material?

The solution came from an article Clow had read about a Danish brick manufacturer, Petersen Tegl, that had been making bricks by hand since 1791. Not just for heritage projects—though the bricks were made with molds in the most old-fashioned way possible—but also for innovative modern buildings that needed to connect the past and the present. Clow recalled how the article highlighted the Kolumba in Cologne, Germany, an art museum built on the ruins of a Gothic cathedral. Designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, the structure features charcoal-fired gray Petersen bricks that complement the stone ruins; in some sections, the brick is staggered to allow speckled light into the interior.

And so, from that mental file of pictures that all architects carry around in their brains, an image of the Kolumba popped up in Clow’s head. Brick! Used in a heritage site in a contemporary way! He Googled it, put some information together on Petersen Tegl and some images, and brought the idea to the Cuningham team and the school.

“How about this?” he suggested.

A few months later, Clow, Minnehaha Academy president Donna Harris, and a representative from Mortenson Construction were standing in a brickyard in rural Denmark.

It’s a long way from Minnesota to the Broager Peninsula, but Petersen Tegl insisted that the principals for the project travel to Denmark to see the process through. Petersen, in fact, requires all clients to visit in person, because trying to match online samples with the real thing, especially across two languages, can be maddening. The factory itself is not as mechanized as a brick factory you might visit in the U.S.; the workers are dressed in rain gear, molding individual bricks by hand using wooden molds. Clow was able to match the colors they wanted, and he and Harris saw the whole process, from the molding to the finished bricks being stacked on pallets that would make their way across the Atlantic to Minneapolis.

“It was a moving experience,” says Dr. Harris, recounting her trip to Denmark. “Walking through the factory, holding the clay in my hands that would make the bricks that would be in place for the next century.”

Being in Denmark also afforded the travelers opportunities to visit other sites, including Kannikegården, a cathedral priory in Ribe, Denmark’s oldest existing settlement. Designed by Danish firm Lundgaard & Tranberg Arkitekter, Kannikegården, much like the Kolumba, uses Petersen Cover bricks to connect the physical elements of the past to a 21st-century design. The structure encloses the preserved ruin walls of a medieval monastery, which are viewable from an interior ground-floor gangway with stairs. The priory uses the same type of red, hand-molded Petersen Cover brick shingles that now clad Minnehaha Academy’s new buildings.

At Minnehaha, the Cover bricks make a visual and emotional connection between the new structures and the school’s original 1912 and 1922 Georgian-style buildings destroyed by the explosion. The buildings that were lost featured bricks made in much the same way as the Petersen bricks. And yet the new buildings are contemporary in form and organic in their texture and coloring.

“It’s an age-old material,” Clow says of brick. “But the truth is, masonry and brick are more expensive now, because it’s harder to find the skilled labor they require. So, what happens is, you see projects using precast forms without mortar, just bricks laid in a bed of concrete in a perfect, machined way. It loses the personal connection [that brick fosters].”

Here Clow cites midcentury luminary Louis Kahn, whose famous credo, “Even a brick wants to be something,” invokes the almost visionary, individualistic stubbornness of the material. Kahn wrote that every person who sees a brick can imagine themselves as a mason putting that brick into place. In this way, brick can personalize a large building. Hand-molded brick only heightens the effect.

Clow adds that, at a mechanized factory, most Petersen bricks would be thrown out for quality control; individually, they’re just too idiosyncratic. But taken together, they create a far more interesting texture than do their machined counterparts. Harris gathered this, too: She notes that each of the 44,000 bricks is unique, in the same way that every student who passes through Minnehaha Academy is unique, with their own character traits and strengths.

Honoring the architectural history of a place while serving the needs of the present is always a delicate balancing act. Brick, in many ways, walks this line beautifully. In addition to its distinctive aesthetic qualities, the Danish product is durable and can be installed relatively quickly, even in winter. (Because each brick is held in place by two screws, not mortar, curing isn’t necessary, alleviating the need to build an enclosure to allow contractors to work through the winter. This greatly aided the Minnehaha construction schedule.)

“Even a common, ordinary brick . . . wants to be something more than it is,” wrote Kahn. “It wants to be something better than it is.” The process of education, over a lifetime, is like that, as well. It’s a cumulative process, one that pushes you to absorb, learn, and grow, and to draw on that collection of lessons over and over. You never know, after all, when a magazine article about an art museum in Germany made with Danish bricks will provide you with the crucial idea you need to design a school in Minneapolis that reflects the past while looking to the future.