The director of the Walker Art Center talks about the center’s plans for a more artfully integrated campus

Interview by Joel Hoekstra

When Olga Viso arrived at the Walker Art Center in 2008, the globally renowned contemporary art center and museum was still drawing attention in the architecture world for its 130,000-square-foot expansion designed by the Swiss design duo Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. The 2005 addition, an angular metal-clad structure that creates a bold contrast with the 1971 brown-brick facility designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, moved the art center’s primary entrance to busy Hennepin Avenue, one of Minneapolis’ main thoroughfares. “It was designed to squarely place the building in the urban fabric,” says Viso.

But times change. A new campus renovation announced this past spring will better connect the Walker with the adjacent Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, reinvigorating a longstanding city and art center partnership. (Under the 26-year-old agreement with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, 12 acres of city parkland are home to works by celebrated artists including Ellsworth Kelly, Jenny Holzer, and Claes Oldenburg from the Walker’s collection.) The Walker’s plans to rebuild its Vineland Place entry and re-landscape the former site of the Guthrie Theater also coincide with a two-year refresh and infrastructure rebuild of the park-board-owned sculpture park. The new entrance pavilion will open in fall 2016, and the garden will reopen to the public in summer 2017, completing the full 19-acre campus renovation.

Viso recently sat down with Architecture MN to discuss the upcoming changes.

What prompted the Walker’s decision to reorient toward the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden?

The 2005 expansion doubled the size of the Walker with a new performing arts theater, restaurant, art storage, and public, educational, and administrative space. But when I arrived in 2008 the outdoor landscaping—especially the space where the Guthrie Theater had been—remained unfinished. As other projects were completed, including the restoration of the Barnes facade, we turned our focus to the outdoors. It became clear that we needed to consider the larger campus in which the Walker sits, and that includes the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

How did you choose a designer for the Walker’s outdoor space?

Initially, I didn’t know whether we needed to hire a landscape architect, an architect, or an artist. There were so many different kinds of design problems to solve across the entire campus. I knew I wanted different design perspectives to help us address some of the broader visitor circulation issues. In the end, we invited several different thinkers to respond to the building and landscape.

The initial group of consulting designers included Petra Blaisse from the Amsterdam-based firm Inside/Outside, who designs landscapes and interiors; architect David Adjaye, who is designing the new Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC; and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has contributed to significant architecture projects. By bringing in these varied thinkers, a lot of really smart ideas surfaced. We ultimately hired Petra Blaisse to design the landscape on the Walker’s side of the campus and architects Joan Soranno and John Cook of HGA to design the Walker’s new entrance pavilion.

How will the Walker’s outdoor space change?

The community loves to use what we call “the open field”—whether it’s sledding down the hill in winter or flying kites in the summer. People use the space to practice yoga, to read, to picnic, or just to sit and meditate. The openness of the space is a very attractive aspect of the site. The new plan will maximize that.

Petra Blaisse’s design offers groves of trees syncopated along the Walker hillside to provide definition as well as pockets of shade and visual interest. But we’ll still have the ability to host 10,000 people for concert events like Rock the Garden. There’s flexibility built into the design. That was really important: How do we create a space that can accommodate temporary installations, film screenings, performances, sculptures, and other programming? How do we create a space that will allow us to host an event for a hundred people or 10,000 people?

Will the Hennepin Avenue entry go green too?

Yes. The entry will remain open, but the addition of trees, plants, and other landscaping elements will change the experience. It will feel very different as you walk through the glass-walled corridor that connects the museum shop and theater space to the galleries—it’ll be more green, with a porous connection between inside and outside. We’ll also be taking out the granite pavers that surround the Barnes building. They weren’t part of the architect’s original design—they were added in the 1980s. If you look at the original designs, green berms went up to the edge of the bricks.

How will the design connect with the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden changes?

There are two landscape architects: Petra Blaisse is working on the Walker’s portion, and the Minneapolis landscape firm oslund.and.assoc is working on the sculpture garden side. There has been a lot of great dialogue and creative exchange between the design teams because of our desire to integrate these sites more fully. Petra’s design, in many ways, plays off the Herzog & de Meuron addition—the building is echoed in the angled groves on the field. In contrast, the formal geometries of the Barnes’ architecture are mirrored in the rectangular spaces of the Sculpture Garden.

There’s also an addition to the building. An entry pavilion?

Yes. One of the challenges of the site is that there’s a mechanical core where the Walker once adjoined the Guthrie. Moving this would be expensive. So we’ve got this kind of carbuncle in the middle of the Walker site to work around.

We hired Joan Soranno and John Cook to design the new 5,000-square-foot, mostly glass pavilion—in part because John had worked on previous Walker additions and had an understanding of the complications that came with the site. Those two did a masterful job.

How will the pavilion function?

It will be a very social space. There will be a café that faces the Sculpture Garden and a wall for large-scale mural projects. It will feature iconic rotating artwork. You’ll be able to see it, even at night. There will also be skylights that pierce the ceiling, and a bronze facade with the word Walker cut out of it. We’ll be adding windows, too, in areas of the cinema lobby that are currently blocked by the outside steps. The whole space will feel very porous, with views in every direction that connect you to the field and the garden.

It will become a visitor welcome and orientation space—a space to amply serve the Walker’s robust cinema audiences but also a space to welcome school groups and tour groups. It gives us a much more dynamic and flexible entrance.