Minnesota promotes itself as the Bold North, yet our urban landscape is anything but bold.
We have some of the most dramatic seasonal shifts in the country. Summers can be steam baths and winter windchills can fall to 50-below. But you’d never know that from looking at our buildings, our parking lots, bus and transit stops, even high-design arts and civic projects.
All too often, our public spaces and civic landmarks are designed for perfect weather. They photograph beautifully in the warmer months, but are planned with little regard for seasonal changes in color, temperature and wind.
Consider the Minneapolis Central Library. While picturesque in summer, its front-door bosque of leafless locust trees look stark and bleak in winter. In addition, the entry on the Nicollet Mall bakes in the summer sun and is whipped by wind in the winter.
The library is far from the only example. In fact, you can find winter-unfriendly spaces throughout the Twin Cities: exposed entrances; open, treeless parking lots; big-box stores with no windows; and the ubiquitous beige of houses and commercial buildings.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are time-tested designs that make the best of winter. Just ask architect David Salmela. The Duluth-based third-generation Finnish-American combines older design techniques with modern materials when he’s building in a northern climate.
Here are some of his suggestions for making winter streetscapes a celebration of all the senses.
1. Take nature into consideration
“The biggest lesson from Nordic architecture is to break a building into parts,” said Salmela, one of Minnesota’s most celebrated architects. “By making several small buildings over time, you can have more windows and sunlight,” he said.
Such buildings can be oriented to the arc of the winter sun and grouped for shelter from winter winds.
He describes how Finnish towns and cities are wrapped around interior courtyards and have protected passageways that are accessible from the street. In the Twin Cities, we can’t change the orientation of our downtown streets, but we can create sheltered outdoor rooms that block gusting winds. Simple wind-blocking walls or glass panels can also optimize solar gain. Ideally, sheltered microclimates can be located on the north side of city streets where they catch the low winter sun.
2. Plant for winter interest
Plenty of northern gardeners embrace this concept. Instead of planting only flowers that bloom in the height of summer, use trees, shrubs and grasses that keep their shape, have interesting branching patterns, retain their berries or keep their color. The redesigned Nicollet Mall is a good example. Field Operations, landscape architects from Philadelphia, introduced indigenous plants, such as Eastern red cedars and red twig dogwoods, rarely seen downtown, as well as ornamental grasses and a variety of berry-retaining viburnums.
3. Add light for our long nights
In far-north climates where it gets dark by midafternoon in winter, fire and light are an ancient lure. Salmela describes the welcoming quality of glowing storefront windows and displays along Nordic streets. Warm, glowing colors in signs, spot lighting and illuminated public art can also highlight architectural detail and create variety block to block.
4. Introduce fragrances and atmosphere
Think of moments when you discover the smells of wood smoke while on a neighborhood walk or visiting a city park. They wake us up and change our mood. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire have such a memorable effect that they merited opening words in a song. From food trucks to street vendors, we can bring these winter scents to cities.
5. Embrace color
We need to stop being afraid of color and stop defaulting to beige. Color — from bold yellows and reds to subtle ochers and oranges — can add life to our all-too-dull landscape. On the southern edge of Minneapolis’ Gold Medal Park, Salmela designed the headquarters for Izzy’s Ice Cream. Created as a counterpoint to the solid blue of the nearby Guthrie Theater, Izzy’s is a mostly white, low-slung building punctuated with bold patches of red and blue that visually sparkle — especially in winter, when we need it most.
Frank Edgerton Martin is a consulting writer for architecture and design firms and a historic landscape preservation planner.