The Minneapolis architecture firm founded in 1981 by Tom Meyer, Jeff Scherer and Garth Rockcastle (MSR Design) has racked up nearly 200 major design awards, including three national American Institute of Architects (AIA) awards and two National Trust for Historic Preservation awards. Scherer retired from the firm in 2016, and now the remaining two partners will depart the company as it prepares to leave its longtime offices perched above St. Anthony Falls in the Mill City Museum. We talked with Meyer and Rockcastle about design, the future and the intersection of both in the Twin Cities.
Q: The firm has withstood some pretty grim economic times over the decades, but MSR has been a survivor. Why?
A: Meyer: The three founders always shared a passionate belief in the importance of architecture. That energy fueled us and our staff and built a reputation that gave us a leg up when the economy was slow. We three also had distinct individual building type niches we pursued, covering a lot of ground. And from the start we enthusiastically embraced the design and economic potential of adaptive reuse, interior architecture and renovation. These type of projects continue even when big new buildings lag in a slow economy.
Q: Which project(s) are you most proud of?
A: Meyer: Mill City Museum in Minneapolis in an abandoned flour mill; Urban Outfitters corporate headquarters in abandoned buildings in the historic Philadelphia Navy Yard and the McAllen [Texas] Public Library in a vacant Walmart. We have many buildings like the Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center at the Minnesota Arboretum that have been recognized for their sustainability.
Rockcastle: The Open Book literary arts center; the Regis Art Center at the University of Minnesota; Westphal College of Media Arts and Design at Drexel University in Philadelphia and 801 Washington Lofts in Minneapolis. What they have in common is my deep and abiding interest in what we might think of as exploring the different ways buildings and interior daylight can serve healthy, creative culture.
Q: It’s been said the IDS Center put the Twin Cities on the national architecture map. Are there other buildings built since that have done the same?
A: Meyer: After 50 years, the IDS tower and courtyard is still the architectural center of downtown. I think the big things that put the Twin Cities on the map are urban design successes. I love seeing the central riverfront and the Stone Arch Bridge with the Mill City Museum during breaks on nationally televised Minnesota sports events.
Rockcastle: I would have to cite the Weisman Art Museum by Frank Gehry with local architectural support from Jeff [Scherer] and others at MSR; the Guthrie Theater by Jean Nouvel; the Vikings stadium by HKS Architects and Tom Meyer’s Mill City Museum. I do wish among them were more by local architects, but most high-profile building still goes to out-of-town architects. Hopefully this will change with the next generation of design leaders.
Q: How do you feel about the way design has changed in the Twin Cities? You think today’s buildings are too meek?
A: Meyer: “Ordinary” buildings, particularly urban housing, are the building blocks of a city and these are generally good-quality design and have created good new neighborhoods. Many are certainly not “meek.” As a general criticism I would say their designs rely too much on multiple colors and materials which are not likely to age well. The state of sustainable and regenerative design progress is way too slow. Buildings now perform better because codes require it, but clients and their architects are way too timid and short-sighted in their approach to climate change. Doing a little better is no longer enough. We need a major acceleration in innovation and performance.
Rockcastle: I actually think there is great promise in the emerging talent pool and regional cultural outlook in what former UMN College of Design Dean Tom Fisher cites as the promise of thinking about the region’s potential to promote its status as the most vital U.S. region of what I believed he coined the “New North,” a calling forth of the development of cultural pride that could/should emanate from the region.
Q: New or old, MSR or not, which buildings are your favorites?
A: Meyer: Old favorites for me endure: Butler Square, MIA’s 1970s Tange addition, the Barnes addition to Walker, the restored State Capitol and our many lovely churches.
Rockcastle: See answer above about which buildings put the Twin Cities on the national design map.
Q: Looking forward, what’s on your architectural to-do-list?
A: Meyer: I want to do what I can to support architectural education. It is young architects who will soon have major design responsibilities to bring the built environment and the natural environment into a mutually life-supportive relationship.
Rockcastle: The largest and most important single project that I recently got started with, initially from our MD [Maryland] office, in downtown Philadelphia, is the adaptive (and radical) regeneration of the Independence Seaport Museum. It is currently housed in the only remaining, and former, central pavilion from the Bicentennial Exposition there in 1976.