A building that could still be loved

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH
  • Updated: May 16, 2011 - 8:52 AM
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Currie Park near Riverside Plaza.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Riverside Plaza doesn't need your love. It wasn't designed to be one of those cloyingly pretty buildings, like the glittering Wells Fargo Tower, which practically begs for affection. Riverside Plaza comes off cooler than that. This kind of architecture doesn't focus on beauty -- it builds on ideas.

An admirer of Riverside Plaza, then, is bothered by the remarks of friends, acquaintances and obnoxious online commenters who object to the controversial complex and its pricey face lift. One characterized its $132 million renovation as "a total waste." Another guy exclaimed: "For that money you can knock it over and start anew!"

Riverside Plaza is challenging, for sure. Its brutalist forms don't fit neatly with our notions of attractiveness. Nor does the complex have the techno sensibilities of other unusual buildings in the area -- for example, the recent Walker Art Center expansion by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, which resembles a Stormtrooper in profile.

Riverside Plaza is tall, stoic and stern -- like the blocky Soviet constructions scattered across Eastern Europe. Its only extravagance is a patchwork of colorful panels that have withered badly over the years.

As a historic landmark, though, the 1973 complex is worth protecting, even celebrating. Here's why.

The project's architect, the late Ralph Rapson, spent years riffing with his Bauhaus cohorts in Chicago, Boston and the University of Michigan. He had already designed modernist American embassies in Sweden and Denmark when he landed mid-century in Minneapolis, where the Scandinavian influence is pronounced.

Here, the architectural palette tends toward the neutral. Rapson's work reflected this, though he indulged many a cheerful flourish. A favorite example is the geometric screen he created for the glass-encased exterior of the 1963 Guthrie Theater.

As dean of the University of Minnesota architecture school for 30 years, Rapson helped cultivate a generation of regional draftsmen. The professor found time for volunteerism, civic life and a private design practice. From the minimalist dwellings of University Grove to the utilitarian Rarig Center, Rapson's creations reflected a modernist worldview and a concern for the people who inhabit buildings.

Humanist to the core, Rapson's approach synced nicely with the progressive ethos of Minneapolis during the 1960s and '70s. Rapson and his collaborators envisioned Cedar Square West, now known as Riverside Plaza, as a stylish dwelling for the city's sizable working class with a smattering of high-end units.

The complex didn't age well. Over the years, Minneapolitans denigrated the six-building complex with covertly racist nicknames -- Crack Stacks, Ghetto In the Sky. Thanks to a recent influx of East African immigrants, the complex eventually earned a more affectionate title: Little Mogadishu. Observers now note that Riverside Plaza has finally achieved something akin to Rapson's utopian vision -- it's a vibrant, convenient and even hopeful place to live.

Thing is, buildings require care -- even modern buildings. Like a rambler that hasn't been painted in 30 years, Riverside Plaza lost its luster as the colorful panels cracked and faded. Representing the worst of Midwestern modesties, the majority of panels were eventually covered in a pallid shade of pink.

The $132 million renovation will finally fix the building's problematic plumbing, heating and elevator systems. What's more, the funding provides for aesthetic upgrades like landscaping and sidewalk repairs.

The project was made possible, in large part, when the complex was added to the national register of historic places in 2010. It's a remarkable designation for a 38-year-old building.

Let's face it. Even when the panels are repainted and restored to their vibrant, original glory, the complex will never woo classicists. But maybe, just maybe, the restoration will help detractors see the complex for what it is. Not only is Riverside Plaza the most public of Rapson's surviving works, it's a towering testament to the cooperative spirit of Minneapolis, and that's reason to be proud.

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis writer.

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