“Spoonbridge and Cherry” is now the apple of the Walker Art Center’s eye.

The iconic sculpture can be seen from the center’s new lobby, restaurant and rooftop pavilion. From most every part of its new entrance — and even the underground parking garage. That garage, once dark and disorienting, now leads visitors toward a wall of light, a sleek lobby and, visible through glass doors, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

“It’s kind of magic,” said Olga Viso, the Walker’s executive director. “That was one of the real revelations in the planning.”

With a new entrance, the Walker Art Center is doing an about-face. The $23.3 million project, which opens to the public Nov. 11, returns the building to its former address on Vineland Place and back toward the Sculpture Garden, more than a decade after a major expansion nosed it against busy Hennepin Avenue.

Clad in white, brick and bronze, the entrance is meant to knit the center with its landscape, attract visitors from the Sculpture Garden and — not so simply — make it easier to get around.

If the Walker were a home, friends previously were coming over and using the side or back door, said John Cook of HGA Architects. His partner, Joan Soranno, nodded. “So we created a front door,” she said.

The front door faces the Sculpture Garden, which at 28 years old, is undergoing its own transformation. That $10 million makeover, paid for by the State of Minnesota and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, adds walls, walkways and drainage improvements to the land, which is owned by the Minneapolis Park Board. The projects are part of a two-year effort aimed at unifying the 19-acre campus and making it a gateway to the downtown arts and entertainment district.

When it reopens in June, the garden will boast a long list of new sculptures surrounding the classic “Spoonbridge and Cherry” fountain, including a giant, bright blue rooster. From the garden, through glass walls, visitors will be able to see new works within the center’s new entrance — including a 50-foot-long piece by Minnesota artist Frank Big Bear.

“Our intent was to always make sure that even in these common spaces, art is first and foremost,” said Soranno, whose work includes the acclaimed Garden Mausoleum at Minneapolis’ Lakewood Cemetery. “Even from the outside looking in, you’ll be able to see that art. We didn’t want to lose sight of that.”

Sculptures will also pop up at the foot of the new entrance and along the hill to its side, leading people to a new side door and, hopefully, through the building. About a quarter of the Walker’s visitors stop by before or after visiting the Sculpture Garden, Viso said. “We’re really seeking to grow that.”

Viso and the Walker picked Minneapolis-based HGA partly because Cook knows the building and its quirks. He worked on a Frank Gehry exhibition in the 1980s and has helped with other projects, including the 2005 expansion that doubled the center’s size. After years of being “a voice in the design,” he said, it was an honor to lead this project.

“It would be very easy for someone of the Walker’s stature to pick up the phone [and hire] a very famous architect,” Cook said.

Design challenges

The Walker has done so before. Its 2005 expansion, led by the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron, connected its original, minimal brick box with a sloping five-story cube that emphasized the museum’s performing arts, adding a 385-seat theater, dining room and new galleries.

From the outside, the cube was supposed to light up like a “paper lantern,” articles at the time reported. Inside, a meandering concourse would create a “town square” that would buzz with activity. At first, the cube was praised: Newsweek and others declared it a tour de force.

But the concept behind the “brash” building was fundamentally flawed, said Tom Fisher, a University of Minnesota professor and director of the Minnesota Design Center. Fisher remembers Jacques Herzog taking a piece of paper and throwing it across the table, showing how its random landing could inspire the addition’s design.

“The problem with randomness is that people can get lost,” Fisher said.

The Walker’s entrances were awkward, he continued, including a circuitous tunnel from the parking garage that felt like “a rat maze” or service corridor. “I found the building really confusing to get around,” said Fisher, former dean of the U’s College of Design. “If architects get lost in a building, there’s a problem.”

Correcting those problems and creating a straight shot from the parking garage meant working around “a carbuncle,” as Viso calls it — a mechanical room full of equipment and fans. At one time, that room also powered the Guthrie Theater, which was located next to the Walker until it was razed in 2006 after the theater’s move to the downtown riverfront.

“People forget: When the Walker addition opened in 2005, the Guthrie was still attached,” Cook said, walking through the new lobby on a recent afternoon. The winding corridor to the parking garage “was a result of the Guthrie being there.” Losing the Guthrie also meant losing the two-story atrium that connected the two buildings.

Ferrari yellow vestibule

The new lobby doesn’t have that height. It’s meant to tuck under the hillside, creating a terrace where visitors can mingle. Skylights pierce the ceiling, adding “a sense of volume,” Soranno said. But the 10-foot ceilings feel taller because of the tunnels that lead to them. The front door is surrounded by a “deliberately low” vestibule, its inside painted a glossy, deep yellow.

The color and finish were inspired by TV shows on car customizing that the couple watch together at home, Cook said.

“You watch them,” Soranno corrected Cook with a laugh.

“She’s always been fascinated, ever since we’ve been doing architecture, with doing … a high-gloss finish, like a sports car,” Cook said.

When they decided on yellow, he told her: “Well, there’s only one yellow you can use — Ferrari yellow.”

To the right of the new entrance, walkways zigzag up the side of the newly sculpted hillside. But much of that field, where the Guthrie once stood, remains open.

When Viso began as the Walker’s director, it had been a year since the Guthrie was torn down. “There was still at that time … a sense of loss about the Guthrie,” Viso said. “So there was this over-compunction to want to fill the void,” creating a dense, highly landscaped area. The recession halted those plans, a pause she and the architects are now grateful for. Viso encouraged viewing the open space as a good thing, and events popped up, including an expanded Rock the Garden music festival and the Internet Cat Video Festival.

Cook compares the pause to one he advocates for homeowners. A family buying a house might immediately call an architect, he said, wanting to make changes. “One of the first things we say is, ‘Live in it for a year,’ ” he said. Watch how the light moves through the house. Learn what works and what doesn’t.

Fisher, who once named the Herzog addition his “least favorite 21st-century building in the Twin Cities,” said he believes the new entrance “solves the entry problem both from the garage as well as from the street.” It does so while keeping a low profile, integrating with the lawn.

It is, in short, the opposite of brash: “It’s very low-key,” Fisher said. “It does what it needs to do really well, but it doesn’t shout at you.”