It is largely true that in architecture, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, there are no second acts. If a new building is made beautiful in the public eye, it stays beautiful. Likewise, if a building is made ugly and dysfunctional, the only real recourse is demolition or plantings of lush ivy.
The recent overhaul of Minneapolis’ perennially troubled Block E happily disproves Fitzgerald’s dictum. With roughly $50 million in reinvestment, the makeover falls somewhere way above a new paint job yet way below wholesale wrecking. Now complete and little resembling its former self, this architectural Cinderella story is at last ready for the spotlight.
Let’s start where the trouble began. In 2002, after the Minneapolis City Council placed a $40 million bet on the development of a family-oriented entertainment destination on Hennepin Avenue, they got what they bargained for.
The original tenant mix included a 15-screen movie theater, Applebee’s, Gameworks, Hard Rock Café, a bookstore and an ice cream stand. Dressed in postmodernist drag and targeting middle-class suburban appetites, this saccharine architectural confection was intended to replace a notoriously gritty section of Hennepin and make downtown respectable again.
It did. For a while. And then the new car smell wore off, and the fickle masses (respectable and otherwise) began to stay away in droves. Even a last-ditch effort signing on Hooters was not enough to turn the tide. Meanwhile, the ocular sting of corny windowless arches, historicist polystyrene detailing, and murderously unnavigable interiors served as a daily insult to a local design community that was passed over by both the developer and the City Council in favor of “experts” from Chicago.
Just as with Gaviidae Common in the 1990s and City Center in the 1980s, the city’s attempts to go head-to-head with the suburban shopping-center model was destined for failure. Urban cores, after all, are densely built places — and with density you need to pay for parking. It defies all reason to assume that suburban folks will willingly drive past clones of those same shops and restaurants swaddled in acres of free parking in order to contend with downtown traffic.
Re-dubbed “Mayo Clinic Square,” this critical parcel in the middle of downtown’s entertainment district has been primed not to compete with exurban lifestyle centers, but to build on qualities and assets found only in this uniquely urban place.
This is the project Block E should have been from the start. On the upper two floors, practice facilities for the Lynx and Timberwolves are a smart repurposing of the tall, wide spaces previously occupied by movie theaters. Additionally, the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center is a regional destination that also plants the Mayo brand in the state’s highest trafficked city for business travelers and conventioneers.
Ditching the “dollar-store Venetian” vocabulary of the building’s exterior, architects for the renovation — Minneapolis-based RSP — opted for materials and a formal arrangement that reflect 21st-century Minnesota. Fake stucco and arches are replaced by overlapping rectangles of metal panel, stone and perforated screens. The color palette is neutral and light, save where it is punctuated by large digital signs woven into the building’s deftly collaged veneer. Part of an inherited lease obligation, the signage not only generates revenue to help fund the renovation, but contributes to the visual energy of the Hennepin Theater District.
Two prominent corners at Hennepin that previously were chamfered at 45-degree angles are now neatly squared off above the second floor while keeping the main ground-floor entry. Setback building corners are often sold as “gifts” to the public space, but in practice they only weaken the power of buildings to frame the space of the street. Unlike the withering Block E design, the Mayo Clinic Square renovation meets the intersection with a firm handshake while strategically adding marquee space for primary tenants.
The interior transformation is a welcome reversal of the previously dark and twisted corridors decorated like a carnival truck rollover. A single hallway cuts a broad diagonal line through the block from Hennepin to 1st Avenue. Abundant exterior glass frames both entries, ensuring access to daylight and direct views to the outside. New interior finishes are dependent on light and natural materials that make the space both humane and modern. Within the two-story space between street and skyway level, tall tapered shards of custom-perforated veils overlap wood-veneered elevator banks. Other, less dramatic manipulations of geometry enliven the space: staggered glass and white wall tiles, overlapping and backlit ceiling planes, neatly incised floor and wall joints running at slightly splayed angles.
Even as these finessed details give the building a personality that distinguishes it from all the other corporate and commercial addresses downtown, it lacks that singular “wow” moment or feature that one associates with memorable architecture — no soaring atrium, no grand staircase, no spire on the skyline.
But is that so bad?
In urban design circles there is a lot of chatter about the need for well-made background buildings. Cities like London and Copenhagen and Barcelona are famously livable not because of the buildings that make it onto postcards, but because they are stuffed from end to end with highly serviceable, artfully crafted background architecture.
Back in 2002, Block E developers (and the mayor and City Council) aimed for a family-entertainment-styled showstopper, only to watch the whole mess flop a few years later. User-friendly, contemporary and playful, whatever folks may think of the revamped Mayo Clinic Square, its aesthetics are a done deal.
The project’s odds for success, however, hinge more on its mixed-use leasing strategy than any architectural derring-do. With the upper floors built out and leased, it’s filling the remaining lower two floors — now pegged for restaurants and retail at the street and Class A office tenants on skyway level — and downtown boosters are holding their breath.
Phillip Koski is a Minneapolis writer and architect.