$40 million face-lift for the 35-year-old Orchestra Hall

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 19, 2009 - 11:43 PM

In a scaled-back project, a Toronto firm was hired to update the 1974 building's exterior and open up its cramped lobby.

Orchestra Hall in 1984

Photo: Art Hager, Star Tribune

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Think of it as a sonata, rather than a symphony -- smaller in scope, but still intended to make a significant impact.

The Minnesota Orchestra unveiled a $40 million project Friday to remodel its 35-year-old hall in downtown Minneapolis, a significant telescoping of a project envisioned two years ago as a $90 million endeavor. The orchestra has hired an architect who expects by December to sketch out a distinctly new look for an iconic building defined by 1970s sensibilities.

"The context of the city has changed," said Bruce Kuwabara, a principal in the Toronto firm of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects (KPMB). "This project is about the future."

When he and partner Marianne McKenna were introduced Friday at an Orchestra Hall news conference, their themes centered around "transparency" in the exterior, reinventing the lobby and "opening up the building to the city," in McKenna's words. Orchestra president Michael Henson said he foresees 18 months to two years of hard fundraising before construction can begin, with completion tentatively expected in January 2013. Design work will begin immediately.

KPMB was chosen from 100 architects. The orchestra wanted a firm with renovation expertise in the arts; KPMB has credits at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and Canada's National Ballet School as well as a University of Michigan drama center that bears a striking resemblance to the old Guthrie Theater.

Architecture critic Linda Mack, who served on an advisory committee for this project, once described Orchestra Hall as an example of "1970s let-it-all-hang-out brutalism." New York architect Hugh Hardy's design "was a product of its era," she said Friday. "It was avant-garde in its time and meant to be more accessible, but I don't think people embraced it. It's hard to find someone who says, 'I adore that lobby.'"

Indeed, a 1970s ethic played largely in the design. Down with crystal chandeliers and velvet. Up with stark functionality and accessibility. The building's reality, however, betrayed those goals. Kuwabara said people have told him that they find the building a series of mazes with many levels, catwalks and long lines of people.

"It's chopped up," he said.

The first thing he did in preparing for the project was to attend a concert and watch people. "Is there a place to sit in the lobby?" he said. "Maybe you need a drink rail to set down a glass? Great lobbies give you choices."

While the auditorium holds 2,450 people, the lobby comfortably accommodates about one-third that number. To expand the space, Kuwabara proposes making "gestures" toward Peavey Plaza and Nicollet Mall. The orchestra owns one-third of the plaza; the city owns the rest.

"Not necessarily encroachments," he said. "But could you build a second-floor balcony from new lobbies that overlook the park?"

Henson said the orchestra will use other venues when construction begins. In addition to the exterior and the lobby, he proposed two other priorities: to refurbish the inside of the auditorium with new seats and refreshed surfaces -- while preserving the excellent acoustics -- and to expand backstage and service facilities.

Does that mean restrooms?

"That's universal to many of the halls in the world," he said. "It's a flaw in design."

Reflection of tough times

The renovation was originally discussed in 2006 as a $125 million project, then announced at $90 million in May 2007. Henson said he did not want to dwell on the factors that drove down the price tag to $40 million. Obviously, there is the economy and the deleterious effect of last year's stock market swoon on endowments. As nearly all Twin Cities arts organizations have done, the orchestra cut its budget in March.

The organization has raised $14 million for this project and intends to ask the state for $14 million in bonding. The rest would be raised privately. Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a previous bonding request for $3 million to help plan the project, but Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, expressed optimism based on two points: that the project has been scaled back and that the state would see its $14 million as making a significant difference.

"It absolutely improves the chances," Dibble said. "It makes it a much lower threshold."

The orchestra is dipping into a philanthropic pool that recently helped buoy a $125 million Guthrie Theater, a $135 million Walker Art Center expansion, $50 million for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and about $25 million each for Children's Theatre Company and MacPhail Center for the Arts.

In terms of public money, the Guthrie secured $25 million in state bonding for its project, the Shubert Center for the Performing Arts project got $11 million from the state in 2006 and CTC received $5 million.

The orchestra is "trying to be fiscally responsible and very focused," said Henson, who became president in December 2006. Plagued by deficits for several years, it has balanced its budget the past two years. It's important, he said, not to let temporary conditions affect something that will be in place for 30 to 40 years: "We have tested every aspect of this project, and it's critical to get something of lasting significance."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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