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Minnesota architect and U prof Leonard Parker dies

Posted by: Jenna Ross Updated: July 26, 2011 - 11:13 AM

Leonard Parker, a Minnesota architect who taught at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, for decades, died July 25. Parker built many notable structures across the state, including the U's Mondale Hall and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

In a memo to faculty and staff, Thomas Fisher, dean and professor in the U's College of Design said this:

"Few people have had as big an impact on the School of Architecture as Leonard Parker. For decades, he ran a successful architectural practice and taught as an adjunct in the school, showing generations of students not only how to become skilled designers, but also how to work in ways that would help ensure their own success in the profession. Widely known for his wry sense of humor and his insightfulness about both people and buildings, Leonard will be very much missed by his colleagues, clients, and former students."

Here's a fun one -- an excerpt from a 1986 Star Tribune article by architecture critic Linda Mack:

Still, Parker is the architectural point man. He brings impressive credentials. After receiving architecture degrees from the University of Minnesota and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he worked in the office of Eero Saarinen, one of the Modern movement's masters. President of a firm that has won more than 50 design awards, he is a long-standing professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota.

Architectural style, however, is more important than architectural credentials for those who will drive or walk past the convention center every day. Already, people are asking what it will look like. Parker is not providing answers. Fully steeped in the tradition of Modern architecture, in which form follows function, he won't address the look of a building until its functional relationships are clearly worked out and its plan determined.

But Parker is hardly an unknown entity. Imagine buildings of red brick and glass, with strong forms skillfully massed and sparely detailed, and you will have a notion of his style. From the "U" Law School, his best-known work, to the Gelco Corp. headquarters in Eden Prairie, a suburban corporate complex of unusual sensitivity, his work fits firmly into the Modern tradition at its best. These are superbly planned buildings whose exterior forms straightforwardly express their interior functions.

Far from flamboyant, Parker's work avoids both technological high jinks and paste-on ornaments. The Minnesota Public Radio headquarters in St. Paul was a high-tech triumph functionally, but it did not fall into the easy trap of looking like a fuse box. Although Parker's work is restrained, it is not weak. The Gelco headquarters speaks strongly with only glass and poured concrete, simply massed.

His work is sensitive to site and context. The Law School and the Humphrey Institute are large buildings, as the convention center will be. Stepped forms, the curve of an exterior wall around an auditorium, the proportion of an entry, the well-placed window give them human scale.

Throughout his career, Parker has carried the architecture of a building to the logical conclusion of its function - no more, no less. He has grown more open to the humanizing value of ornament for its own sake, and has begun to detail buildings with a lighter hand; witness the recent Humphrey Institute compared with the earlier "U" law school. Master of the Modern aesthetic, he needs to integrate the values of historic styles with those on which he cut his architectural teeth.

Some public officials have expressed concern that Parker will give the city a dull-looking convention center. He certainly will not design anything that will be dated before it is completed, nor will he design a convention center that looks pretty but is confusing for people to use. Odds are that he will give the city a solid and workable convention center that is well-detailed, sensitive to its location and conscious of its place in the city.

Fellow architect David Bennett said it best in a letter he sent to City Council Member Steve Cramer during the selection process: "Parker probably can produce a designer dress of a building if he is pressed. But given the opportunity, he can provide something more valuable and enduring: a solid and profound public building, founded on solid principles of good design, beautiful instead of flashy, crafted instead of just crafty."

 

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