The award-winning landscape architect on what you’ll see when the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden emerges from the snow

Interview by Joel Hoekstra

Last June, when the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden reopened after a three-year renovation, visitors discovered 18 new works on view, including Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock, a big blue rooster that quickly became an Instagram star. A little less hashtagged was the work of Tom Oslund, the landscape architect charged with making the sculpture garden more flexible and sustainable and easier to maintain—resulting in an even better showcase for public art. Perhaps that’s because landscapes, unlike most artworks, take time to mature. oslund.and.assoc. relishes the challenge of creating designs that change with each season, each year.

The Minneapolis native, whose other Twin Cities projects include Gold Medal Park, the General Mills campus, I-35W Remembrance Garden, Target Field Plaza, and the Minnesota History Center campus, says revitalizing the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden was not only an honor; it was also a way to give something back to a landscape that has always inspired him.

Before this project, had you done any work for the Walker?
I grew up in Minneapolis, and the Walker was one of the places that got me interested in design. When I was in high school, I remember the museum had an exhibit of maquettes by earthwork artists including Robert Smithson, Richard Long, and Nancy Holt. The drawings were amazing, and it was the first time that I went into a gallery and could smell the earth. I thought, “Wow, so this is considered art?!” It was pivotal.

Talk a little about your approach to landscapes.
In college, I started in architecture but then switched to landscape architecture and went on to the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, where I took a class called “Art and the Landscape.” The professor brought in Alan Sonfist, Nancy Holt, James Turrell, and other artists who work with landscape. We would sit and talk with them about their work, and how nature and the landscape have this amazingly powerful, ever-evolving kind of quality. Those talks were incredibly inspirational, because they weren’t just about landscape design as some nice shrubs that you put around a building to hide things and make it look nice.

What was the original design for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden?
The first iteration of the sculpture garden was done by Edward Larrabee Barnes in 1988, who had designed the 1971 Walker facility. [An extension by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates was added in 1992.] The original garden was basically his expression of an exterior gallery, which was cloistered. It was no different than what you might find in a Renaissance villa or a Moorish palace or something. It was neutral, like the white walls of a gallery, which was great for the art. You could select and change the art like you would curate a show in a gallery. We wanted something that was much more accessible—visually, physically, and culturally.

What needed to change?
It was built on a swampy site that didn’t drain very well. (The old armory that occupied the site was torn down because it was slowly sinking into the ground.) Because of the unstable soil conditions and high water table, the trees in the northern part of the garden didn’t do very well. The sculptures and other elements were moving around as a result. The conservatory cost an outrageous amount to heat during the fall, winter, and even spring. And the water that was being used for Spoonbridge and Cherry was not being recycled; it was being pumped and then pushed right down into the storm sewer. Last, not many people went past Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s sculpture. I think everybody thought Spoonbridge and Cherry was the end of the garden, and beyond that it was just park.

What was the biggest challenge of the project?
Reducing Vineland to two lanes was politically challenging. When the Walker expanded with the Herzog & de Meuron addition in 2005, an underground parking ramp was also put in. The ramp was funded partly by federal money, which meant that the roadway to the front door of the ramp had to meet certain standards, and that the city, the county, and the federal government all had to be involved in any changes. But I felt that until you narrowed the road, the sculpture garden would always feel too far away from the Walker. There was a disconnect. It took a lot of effort, but the changes to the road made all the difference in terms of creating a seamless connection between the Walker’s new entry and the sculpture garden.

What considerations are involved in designing around artwork?
You have to think about the path of the sun over the course of the day. You have to think about siting. You have to think about grade. For example, one of the rooms in the old garden was filled with marble benches by Jenny Holzer. There were words carved into each of them, so people read them and looked at them but didn’t usually sit on them. They felt too precious to sit on, right? We pulled those out, and after regrading, we placed them along the main allée. Their new location seems much more natural, like the benches you’d find along a path in a park.

You also promoted changes to the conservatory.
Everyone was struggling to figure out what to do with the conservatory. It was expensive to maintain. It had to be heated in winter and was hard to keep cool in summer. I said, “Let’s decommission it and make it a pavilion like every other park space in Minneapolis has. Lake Harriet has a pavilion. Minnehaha Park has a pavilion. Let’s make it a pavilion that can host temporary installations but can also be rented out to generate income.” To my mind, we needed to approach it like a minimalist painter would. Rather than add, we needed to think about reducing. I think it’s amazing how just removing the glass on the vertical surfaces and some of the foundation walls has transformed the expression of the building. People gather underneath it and are able to see through it to the garden beyond. It’s really cool.

What kind of changes will arrive this spring—or beyond?
We planted forsythia around the edge of the garden. It’s going to take three years before it really starts to take shape, but in five years I think it’s going to be pretty spectacular. Forsythia is one of the first plants in our region to bloom, and it bursts with these incredibly bright yellow flowers. I want that to be a rite of spring in Minneapolis. When people drive by it or walk through it, I want them to see these lines of bright yellow flowers and say, “We did it! We finally made it through winter!”