Lileks: Another voice for preserving our past - the good and bad

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 12, 2012 - 8:03 PM
hide

The Kmart blocking a once-thriving Nicollet Avenue should be kept as a reminder of what not to do.

Photo: Tom Sweeney, Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

As a rule, I'd rather preserve than destroy, especially since Minneapolis has leveled so much of its history that it's a miracle the Foshay wasn't knocked down and replaced with a four-story indoor shopping mall. But it'll generate more taxes! And maybe have a Chili's! Right.

Perhaps you recall the Conservatory -- a marble warren of upscale shops so confusing to navigate that when they knocked it down they found 42 skeletons with Banana Republic bags. In order to erect that mausoleum, they took down a row of buildings that looked old and ordinary, but were a perfect example of the diverse streetscape that gave downtown character and historical perspective. Ah, well: There's plenty more where that came from.

When the next block of senior citizens was razed for something else, same shrug: Time marches on. After a while, the downtown is new and shiny, but the history's gone. Pictures of downtown today compared to 50 years ago make you wonder if our sister city was Dresden.

Not everything can be saved. Not everything should be saved. But we should value items that don't seem historical in the usual brick-and-stone-and-columns genre. Sometimes there's a gem of modernism we don't recognize because it looks, well, modern, and that stuff can't be historic. But it is. And so I must announce a new preservation campaign, complete with Facebook page.

We must save the Nicollet Avenue Kmart.

Head fake! You thought I was going to throw myself in front of the efforts to demolish Peavey Plaza outside Orchestra Hall. Its supporters note that it's a unique example of modernism, and that's so. But the Nicollet Kmart is also modernism in its fullest flower -- the architecture itself is nothing special, but the ideas behind it were so misguided, and so typical of its times, that it has to be kept around as an example of what not to do again. Ever. Anywhere.

Back then, developers and planners had simple answers for complex problems. So you have a busy, vibrant commercial street in the heart of the city? We can solve that. Destroy the buildings that line the street, create a vast asphalt desert that broils you alive in July and feels like the steppes of Kamchatka in December, place the store far from the street, and make the pedestrian feel as comfortable as a squirrel in a bumper-car attraction. But since the project was designed as an equal-opportunity festival of inconvenience, they plopped it in the middle of Nicollet, blocked the street, routed traffic around it. Genius. Should have put huge trash cans in the middle of the store's exits, too.

The mayor wants Nicollet reopened; bravo. But there's another preservation fight over another modern landmark, Peavey Plaza. It's the big, barren non-lake by Orchestra Hall.

It was one of the things I loved when I came here. But that had less to do with the design than the overall ingredients: open space and splashing water. The tall metal tubes that bleed water aren't exactly inspirational fountains, but abstractions of a fountain: gushing sprays, yawn. That's so traditional. Yes, that's why the Trevi Fountain in Rome is deserted every day. Boring.

The waterfalls are nice, and add sound and cooling spray, when they're working. But it's concrete. Modernism at its best combines simplicity, strength and an indefinable quality of graceful precision. Modernism at its worst is blunt and brutal and scrapes your skin raw when you rub up against it. Rough surfaces and asymmetrical shapes were hallmarks of the worst of '70s architecture, and you suspect that the main reason people liked Peavey Plaza was the water and trees that softened all those right angles.

Historical? Yes. In the sense that the Berlin Wall was historical, too.

Proposed redesigns for Peavey look nice, but let's not kid ourselves: Whatever they do to Peavey, it will look tired in 30 years, too, and there will be calls to get rid of it, freshen it up. But no one will ever call for the Institute of Arts to be slathered in concrete, or the Basilica and State Capitol stripped of their ornaments, or the classical Mall of the University razed and replaced with shiny glass squares, or the IDS tarted up with classical details. When they get it right, you know it.

Doesn't mean that sterling examples can't ever be changed. They could open up Nicollet Avenue and run it right through the Kmart store. Put some speed bumps in housewares so drivers slow down a little, and a traffic circle in menswear.

Hey, it's a compromise. And better than a Kmart on Peavey Plaza.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close