The story of how the Walker unified a 19-acre arts campus with a seamlessly integrated new entry pavilion

By Christopher Hudson

“We want the visitor to remember paintings in space, sculpture against sky, and a sense of continuous flow,” said architect Edward Larrabee Barnes when the Walker Art Center opened on Vineland Place in 1971. “It is flow more than form that has concerned us. The sequence of spaces must be seductive. There must be a subtle sense of going somewhere, like a river” (Design Quarterly 81).

For more than 30 years, Walker visitors entered that minimalist stream at the doors of an atrium lobby that connected the museum to the original Guthrie Theater. From there, the current carried them past the ticketing desk and up an ascending series of nearly windowless white galleries, with wide steps and views from one to the next, until they reached Gallery 8 and its floor-to-ceiling view of the Minneapolis skyline.

But the river lost its natural access point in 2005 when the celebrated expansion by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron moved the Walker’s main entry from Vineland Place to the heavily trafficked Hennepin Avenue, and even more so in 2006 with the demolition of the Guthrie and the shared lobby. For more than a decade, one of Minnesota’s most revered arts destinations was left with no established, welcoming front door. On Vineland, across from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, it offered only a make-do side entrance and a wall built to hide a mechanical room exposed by the demolition.

“When the Guthrie came down, the Walker knew that the garden would be a future phase, and there were preliminary discussions with [landscape architect] Michel Desvigne about what it could be,” says HGA Architects and Engineers’ John Cook, FAIA, who led HGA’s work with Herzog & de Meuron on the expansion. “But I think the passion and excitement to do more was gone.”

A few years later, then director Olga Viso launched a master-planning effort to address not just the unfinished side of the museum but a range of design issues across the campus, including visitor circulation, infrastructural challenges, and a lack of integration between the art center, its landscape, and the adjacent sculpture garden. For ideas, Viso engaged architect David Adjaye, designer and landscape architect Petra Blaisse, and artist Ai Weiwei. At the same time, the Walker created Open Field—an interim plaza on Vineland designed by Minneapolis firm VJAA—and experimented with outdoor programming such as Rock the Garden and the Internet Cat Video Festival.

In the end, plans called for a new pavilion that would reestablish the Vineland entry and essentially complete the work of the 2005 expansion. The Walker turned to HGA’s Joan Soranno, FAIA, and John Cook for a design that would aspire more to flow than to form.

“They wanted something that could bridge the Walker’s two very distinct architectural languages,” says Soranno. “The other component we introduced was to integrate the entry with the landscape in a really big way—to make the architecture the thread between the inside, the new hillside garden, and the renewed sculpture garden.”

What the Walker got is a 5,500-square-foot addition whose foyer artfully merges with the 1971 cinema lounge to create a wide, free-flowing entry space. Though the extension burrows into the hillside, it teems with light from faceted skylights in its green roof and from a wall of glass that brings the sculpture garden and the downtown skyline inside. A new café/restaurant, an airy information desk, and fun, flexible seating outside the cinema keep the entry humming with activity from open to close. It all looks both freshly minted and as if it had always been there—thanks in large part to the design coordination between HGA and the Walker’s landscape architect, the Dutch firm Inside Outside.

“The aim was to create a more integrated campus overall,” says Siri Engberg, senior curator of visual arts. “By reorienting the entrance to Vineland and re-contouring the hill to optimize its sculptural capacity, we could create a more holistic experience for visitors moving from the sculpture garden to the hillside to the Walker entrance.

“We also wanted to replace the twisted, confusing corridor from the underground parking to the Vineland lobby with a more intuitive path,” she continues. “And the lobby that visitors arrived at needed to be a hub, a real point of orientation from which they could start their garden, museum, cinema, or theater experience.”

That cramped 2005 corridor had to twist to avoid the mechanical core buried in the hill. To create a straight, generously wide path from the garage to the new lobby, the Walker went to the significant expense of moving an air shaft, chiller pumps, and other equipment—in some cases by just a few feet. The technically demanding effort had a huge aesthetic payoff. Now museumgoers parking their cars are drawn to a wide, backlit glass entry wall with graphics designed by Walker design director Emmet Byrne. When they step through the sliding doors, they can see through to the lobby and out its glass doors to the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry.

In the entry space, flow has as much to do with how the architects fused the new and existing interiors as it does with easy circulation. To harmonize new and old, the HGA team, including Alex Terzich, AIA, and Michael Hara, Assoc. AIA, carried the Walker’s white terrazzo floors into the extension, and they lined one of the corridor walls with a brick reminiscent of the one that Barnes used on the exterior and Herzog & de Meuron used for floors and stairs in circulation spaces. The brick figured in another important move. “We wanted visitors at the ticketing desk to see both the terrazzo stairs to the Barnes galleries and the brick stairs to Herzog a little further up,” Cook explains. “So we brought that brick floor down and deeper into the lower-level space to create a kind of large entry mat to Herzog.”

HGA also smartly uncovered the original precast T’s in the ceiling of the Barnes side of the entry, restoring depth and beauty to that section of ceiling. The renovation also included the cutting out of a new aperture in the north wall to give the Barnes space the same floor-to-ceiling view of the sculpture garden as the foyer and restaurant. (The new glazing required the removal of a stepped terrace that Barnes had added to the exterior in the 1980s.)

“It may appear simple as an architectural statement,” Viso said of the addition soon after it opened. “But it’s much, much more than that. It’s a sophisticated design that harnesses landscape and architecture to create not only a new front door for the Walker but also a pedestal for the two buildings.”

While Soranno and Cook made great efforts to defer to the Barnes and Herzog & de Meuron buildings, they also established their own distinctive voice—starting with the bronze-on-the-outside, high-gloss-yellow-on-the-inside rectangular vestibule. “We often joke that we love any color as long as it’s white,” says Cook. “When we arrived at yellow, I said, ‘If we’re going to do this, there’s only one yellow we can do, and that’s Ferrari yellow—on continuous aluminum panels.’”

The “burst of color,” as Soranno puts it, creates a powerful, immersive threshold between the outdoor and indoor arts experience. The vestibule was also given a low ceiling height—just eight feet—to make the Barnes-established, 10-foot-high ceiling in the lobby feel loftier than it really is. That sensation of “compression and release,” says Soranno, for those entering the building is further heightened by the angled skylights, which help create the illusion of a higher ceiling.

Of course, the feeling of release is even more pronounced on the way out, when museumgoers step outside to experience “sculpture against sky.” There, they encounter a rolling verdant landscape that wraps the building with geometric groupings of trees. Inside Outside’s flexible design accommodates a scattering of readers and sketchers on a quiet afternoon just as well as it does 10,000 music lovers for Rock the Garden. The greenery peels up over the top of the new architecture to offer visitors a raised view of the activity across Vineland, while a zigzag path around the hillside provides both accessibility and a choreographed stroll.

The final touch on the new entry? Six large, capital letters on the bronze fascia above the glass curtain wall. With the addition of a sign, the transformation from unmarked side entrance to clear-as-day front door was complete. “You just say WALKER,” says Soranno. “It’s distinctive, it’s punchy, and it’s synonymous with film, theater, and art.”

“On the one hand, the extension feels like it’s always been there, in part because it echoes the original lobby,” says Engberg. “It’s also human-scaled: It doesn’t overpower the architecture around it, the hillside, or the larger landscape.

“But it was also important to think about an entrance that would pull people inside once they had that garden experience,” she continues. “With the wall of glass, we’re inviting people to look inside, where they’ll see the Target Project Space art wall and all of the activity in the cinema lobby and the restaurant. Especially at night, you see a lot of things going on at once, which is what the Walker is all about. We’re an art center, and we want our front door to be a beacon.”

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Client: Walker Art Center
Architect: HGA Architects and Engineers
Principal-in-charge: Dan Avchen, FAIA
Senior project architect: John Cook, FAIA
Design principal: Joan M. Soranno, FAIA
Landscape architect: Inside Outside
General contractor: M.A. Mortenson
Size: 5,500 gross square feet new, 15,160 remodeled
Completion: June 2017
Photographer: Paul Crosby

“A shout-out to the home team—the local architects who figured out the problem that the ‘starchitects’ could not, which is how to properly site the entrance. We imagine that this was a difficult commission, working with different traces of different architects, and we felt that this was an incredibly deft response.”
—Mimi Hoang, AIA

“The architects managed to solve some very complex issues for the art center without too much architecture. And that, I think, was the right response.”
—Wendell Burnette, FAIA