One of the more impressive new buildings in Minneapolis may be among the smallest and most unobtrusive: the new entrance to the Walker Art Center.

Designed by Joan Soranno, John Cook and their colleagues at HGA Architects, the Vineland Place addition, like all great design, looks effortless. However, the architects and their client, Walker Executive Director Olga Viso, and builder M.A. Mortenson Co. had to overcome several challenges to achieve this stunning result.

First, they had to make the entrance prominent enough for people to recognize it, without upstaging the main building or becoming a “third charm on the charm bracelet,” as former Walker Design Director Andrew Blauvelt put it.

Soranno and company accomplished this by “making the 5,000-square-foot addition horizontal, in contrast to the building’s verticality,” she said.

The dark, metal exterior that seems to grow out of the hillside and the projecting canopy that displays the Walker name in prominent letters all work to make the addition visually recede, while making it perfectly clear where to enter.

The new structure also solves several of the issues created by the Herzog & de Meuron addition to the Walker in 2005.

When the Ralph Rapson-designed Guthrie Theater came down, along with the former two-story lobby, the entrance from the parking garage was circuitous and the visitors easily missed the sideways-facing entry doors when approaching from Hennepin Avenue. The demolition of the Guthrie also left a brick patch on the Walker that looked like a scar.

The HGA addition has transformed the entire entry experience.

Entering from the parking garage, visitors now see a glowing wall, with the Walker logo appearing to float in front of it. A blue wall on one side of a stair from the garage and large sliding glass doors on the other side funnel visitors into a light-filled passageway, which offers a view of the Walker Sculpture Garden and Claes Oldenburg’s iconic “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture in the distance.

To make this new entrance work, the architects had to move a major mechanical room, a significant expense well worth the money and effort. Now, the garage entry has an energy, vibrancy and clarity that draw you in, as all good art should.

The approach from Vineland Place brings another unexpected surprise.

The architects wanted to make the entry vestibule highly visible, so they created a yellow tube “that plays off the dark metal and plum-colored brick,” said Soranno. What Cook calls the “high-gloss Ferrari yellow” adds a visual surprise when you enter the vestibule.

“Because the vestibule is low, I thought it would feel compressed,” said Viso. “But the high-gloss paint makes it look double-height.”

The vestibule creates a mirror image of itself, like a walk-in Donald Judd sculpture.

Once inside the Walker lobby, you see the space open up in all directions.

“You can stand in the lobby and see everything,” said Viso.

That’s a substantial change from the dark and somewhat cramped former lobby that was built as part of the Herzog addition.

Now, you can see from the garage to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. You also can see across the lobby from a light-filled restaurant to the new, all-white reception desk that seems to float above the floor.

Look up and you see the ceilings angle toward some strategically placed skylights. Look across the new lounge area and out an expansive wall of glass to Vineland Place.

A small version of the Walker Shop stands in the location of the former stepped seating that made the old lobby so hard to navigate.

“We had to deal with columns from the old building in awkward places,” said Soranno, “and so we made them parts of walls, as useful elements in the space.”

It’s all part of the elegant sleight-of-hand that makes this lobby an equal to the art it leads to.

The nearly five-acre landscape behind the Walker, designed by Petra Blaisse of Inside Outside with HGA, carries on the scattered elements of the adjacent Herzog & de Meuron addition.

An accessible path zigzags up the hill to the terrace above the new entry, past James Turrell’s “Sky Pesher,” and through three rectangular stands of deciduous and coniferous trees splayed around a new hill, providing views out over the Sculpture Garden and the skyline beyond.

With its new lobby and new landscape, the Walker Art Center has given this community the very best the design world has to offer, all for us to use and enjoy.

 

Thomas Fisher is a professor in the School of Architecture and director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota.