On a recent afternoon, downtowners relaxed on the steps of Peavey Plaza -- a design element inspired by the riverside ghats of India. (Photo by Richard Sennott, Star Tribune)


Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak wanted assurances that a renovated Peavey Plaza would bring national acclaim to Minneapolis. City Council members just wanted to know that maintaining it wouldn't be a tax burden.

Economic reality kept intruding into visionary dreams Tuesday as four teams of high-powered landscape architects vied for the contract to renovate the iconic plaza at the south end of Nicollet Mall adjacent to Orchestra Hall. The day-long public review session at the Minneapolis Convention Center started with a meet-and-greet coffee session, followed by hour-long presentations by each of the finalists: Damon Farber Associates, Oslund and Associates, Close Landscape Architecture, Coen & Partners. All four firms are based in the Twin Cities but have lined up national collaborators in everything from cost management to "place making" and cold-weather plumbing.

Despite close questioning, the architects declined to specify changes they would propose for the plaza or features they would keep. Those issues will be decided later in response to plaza users, city officials and budget constraints.

The winning team is expected to be chosen Friday by the Minneapolis City Council. The state of Minnesota has provided $2 million in bonding money, but private funds will have to be raised for the rest of the project. The city describes it as a $5 million to $6 million renovation, but landscape and orchestra professionals agree that a major redo of the site will cost more.

Restoration vs. renovation

M. Paul Friedberg, who produced the plaza's original award-winning design in 1975, was on hand to field questions about restoration vs. renovation. He has agreed to work with Damon Farber or Oslund Associates should either of those firms be picked by the selection committee, composed of city officials and representatives of the Minnesota Orchestral Association.

Dapper in skinny jeans and stylish sport coat, the 79-year-old New Yorker made clear that he was not much interested in attempting to rejuvenate Peavey with a landscape botox treatment. He's equally wary about a wholesale makeover, however.

"Lots of my friends are artists who work for something called 'posterity' and want their work to exist for history," Friedberg said in a coffee-hour interview. "I work for the moment and the populace, so when the population changes and ideas change, the place should too. It's an usable ecumenical facility. What bothers me more about change is not change itself but those who implement change. We get designers who interfere with elements that are beneficial but are changed without understanding the fundamental underpinnings.

"I look at it and say, 'Is it really what I think it should be?' " he said of public spaces in general. "Before you change anything you give a lot of thought to what it means. The basic [design] tenets stay the same."


The Peavey Plaza renovation will proceed in parallel with the planned remodeling of Orchestra Hall, shown in an architect's rendering.


Returning several times to the demographics of Minneapolis, Friedberg observed that when he first visited the city in the 1970s downtown was dominantly "WASP white." Now it is a much more ethnically and culturally diverse community. A deep-dish urbanite who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan about a block-and-a-half from Central Park, he loves the multiplicity of cities and their endlessly fluid mix of people.

"The last 35 years in this city have seen an incredible influx of people from other countries and cultures,' Friedberg said of Minneapolis. "The downtown is one of the few places in the city that are shared by everyone. This [Peavey] plaza is part of the city's design heritage and its renovation is an opportunity to facilitate that sharing because it's an American place, not a European place."

Modernist innovations

Many of the ideas he tried out in Peavey were innovations in 1975, and their civic impact was untested on the American scene. European cities have been building public plazas centered by fountains for centuries, but such features were less common in the United States, especially in the Midwest. His articulation of the space in a geometric, modernist idiom was especially fresh. Peavey's sunken plaza and pool, its terraces, fountains and water cascades, weren't unprecedented in the history of landscape architecture, but his adaptation of them to a small, urban site in Minnesota was. The terraces, especially, have unorthodox roots in the ghats of India, the vast flights of steps and terraces descending to that country's rivers.

The sunken pool that is the plaza's most distinctive feature happened somewhat by chance. Construction of Orchestra Hall was already underway when Friedberg first saw the site. What became the pool "was already excavated because [Orchestra Hall architect] Hugh Hardy wanted to expose the lower level of his building," Friedberg said. "They did offer to fill it up, but I said 'We'll work with it.' I thought it was beneficial because it sequestered activity away from Nicollet Mall, it's a natural amphitheater, and it gives you steps. Lots of the ideas come from India, the ghats, the work horses of the cities."

He subsequently employed some of the same design elements -- terraces, pool adaptable for ice skating -- in the 1987 plaza he designed for the awards ceremonies at the Calgary Olympics in Canada "because they work so well," he said.

"When I first did it, design was much more intuitive," he said of Peavey and his other early landscape work. "Now it's much more intellectual and we want to display what the city is all about. You have to resepct the city and its people."

Plaza's great bones are foundation for renewal

Landscape historian Charles Birnbaum, a consultant to the Oslund team, said that modernist landscapes like Peavey Plaza have often suffered "quiet deaths becasue they're not maintained like traditional landscapes such as Minneapolis' Grand Rounds," the green spaces linking the city's lakes that are governed by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Peavey Plaza, instead, is owned by the city of Minneapolis.

Although Peavey has been neglected, its architectural "bone structure" remains and it is still a vital, albeit tired, part of the urban fabric.

"What's fascinating to me is that even though the Peavey landscape is tarnished or diminished, people are melancholy about it; they're not angry at the place," Birnbaum said. "You only have to squint to remember what it is. We're saying: Why is this broken? What are the edge issues? How can it be fixed?"