Lileks: Modernism's fatal flaw

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 5, 2013 - 4:52 PM

As a topic that affects the lives of people in the metro area, Nicollet Avenue’s redesign is somewhere behind “Target introduces new carts that actually drive straight.”

Not to dump on the project; it’s overdue and looks good. On the other hand, those carts are awesome, and more people will use them than Nicollet Mall.

Which brings us to Peavey Plaza, the barren pit by Orchestra Hall. Preservationists fought for its recognition as a Modernist classic, and the city’s agreed to rehab it instead of tearing out its Carter-era concrete and laying down sod.

The plazas flanking the Hennepin Government Center are good examples of what people really want. One side has a bleak expanse of brick initially chosen for its slipperiness; in the winter a good wind would take your feet right from beneath you, so you entered the government center as a humbled, bloodied supplicant.

On the other side: grass and trees. People love it. The architects must be angry: We didn’t just build a monument to the bleakness of the human condition so you could sit in the shade and eat your lunch!

That said, Peavey is an interesting space, when it’s full of water. Problem: It’s never full of water. The new plans call for a half-inch of water, and if the fountain makes actual fountain sounds — the splashing plosh of water hurled in the air, not dribbling down copper tubes like the Modernist version — then it’ll be a welcome addition.

But it’s a missed opportunity. The plan for Nicollet includes something called “the Crystal Staircase,” letting people pass from the skyway level to the ground, and, one presumes, vice versa. Better: strategic placement of Giant Slides, like the one at the fair. People who wanted to go from the skyways to the street — or, in urbanist terms, achieve a meaningful floor-reorientation experience — would be handed a burlap bag, and down they’d go. It would be fun, and fun is what draws people to places.

In that spirit, a suggestion for Peavey: a wave pool.

If the thought of people bobbing in the water seems disrespectful to a Modernist icon, you’ve just found the fatal flaw in Modernism. People don’t like it much — because they suspect the feeling is mutual.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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