There are two plazas in Minneapolis that I consider standouts. Not because they’re well-known or destinations. They’re not, though they have their fans and visitors.
What’s unique about Gateway Plaza at the McNamara Alumni Center and the Honeywell Plaza is how they deftly weave themselves into the urban landscape. More than decoration, these plazas are natural attractions, offering open green space, sun and shade, secluded groves and water features.
They also offer something even more essential: a sense of sanctuary, while still maintaining a connection to the world around them. And that’s one of the qualities of great urban spaces.
Built on the site of the old Memorial Stadium, the McNamara Alumni Center is a privately financed project that opened in 2000 to house the University’s Alumni Association, the Board of Regents and offices for the university’s foundations.
New Mexico-based architect Antoine Predock designed this sculptural building to express the landscape of the North Shore, with copper- and granite-clad walls playing the role of shoreline cliffs.
The focal point of the building is a fissured granite structure that looks like a geode. Housing a dramatically angled event space and the Heritage Gallery Museum of University History, the structure’s granite walls stand out like the rocky promontory at Split Rock Lighthouse. Close up, Predock’s design can seem stark, heavy and intimidating.
Predock originally designed a landscape for the building — a prairie field with some trees. To soften the look of the building and better link it to the rest of the campus, faculty and students from the University’s Department of Landscape Architecture amended Predock’s landscape design.
What they did was simple: They added a rich array of trees lining a curving central path.
In the warmer months, the canopy of aspens, maples and oaks creates a shaded escape from campus, with its crowds, noise and glaring sun. You can go there for lunch, to read, to have coffee with a friend, or even take a nap on the grass. On Wednesdays in the summer, the plaza hosts the University of Minnesota Farmers Market. Concerts are planned for the limestone stage designed by Predock.
Gateway Plaza doesn’t make a strong architectural statement. It didn’t win any design awards. It’s not even easy to photograph. But with its curving clay paths lined by benches and tables with umbrellas, it’s just a very comfortable place to hang out.
Exactly what a plaza should be.
In 1978, the celebrated New York landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg designed the 4-acre Honeywell Plaza at 28th Street and 4th Avenue S.
Friedberg had just completed the better-known Peavey Plaza for Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis when Honeywell asked him to design a plaza as part of its headquarters expansion.
In a 2001 interview, Friedberg recalled how he persuaded Honeywell to think of the plaza as more than an architectural foreground, to consider the chance to create an open corporate campus in the city.
“They’ve brought you in for a specific purpose: to decorate. So you add to that,” he said. “You propose a park-like setting that’s friendly to the community.”
Like Peavey, Honeywell Plaza is sculpted on a grid with slender seating terraces set into angled slopes. There is a deep sense of calm and shifting shadows beneath its canopy of locusts, elms and basswoods. There are water fountains and cascades that flow into smaller streams or rills.
The plaza is framed to the east by the original red brick Honeywell headquarters. Designed by Clarence Johnston in the 1920s, this massive old building lends architectural character and a sense of age to the space. At its top, you can still read the company’s old name: Minneapolis Heat Regulator Co.
Honeywell Plaza opened in the late 1970s, at a time when cities were losing population and antiwar activism was at its peak. The company was under fire for making munitions. Despite the fact that protests were held at the plaza, it was open to the public then. And it’s open to the public now. In fact, it’s one of the few city corporate campuses that can make this claim.
Now owned and maintained by Wells Fargo, the plaza is used mostly by employees and neighbors. Its trees have matured, its fountains still run. It’s a true urban oasis.
Frank Edgerton Martin is a consulting writer for architecture and design firms and a historic landscape preservation planner.