Enormous, grave, civic-minded, intimidating: Those are just some of the things that make Hennepin County Government Center monumental.
Its design was born in the 1960s, when architecture was not overly concerned with grace or beauty, or the historical context of its surroundings. But because the design was so contentious (including the fact that the building straddled a street), it was debated for years. Government Center was finally completed in 1977.
It has a lot working against it. Projects from this era usually age poorly, and the citizens come to regret them. The building created a dark tunnel on S. 6th Street that ought to be foreboding. It has two civic plazas that could have ended up as empty spaces, occupied only by people scurrying across the blank expanse to get inside.
But there’s something about Government Center that works. The atrium, for all its narrowness and whulking slabs, is surprisingly light and spacious. Yes, the fountain in the plaza has demanded interminable renovations, but the openness of the plaza lets you behold City Hall in full view. And the green space on the other side of the building has become a welcome retreat.
If you don’t like the building, here’s a consolation: It could have been much, much worse.
John Warnecke, the building’s architect, was commissioned by local businessmen to draft a master plan for a “new downtown” that would have filled nearby blocks with enormous, grave and civic-minded towers and parking ramps, stretching from City Hall to Elliot Park.
They didn’t build the new downtown. And we’re lucky. We have Government Center. That one intimidating building is enough.